By Lorrie Hollabaugh
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
First, it happened at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, where Young had cut his previous two albums, along with his most recent, A.M., with producer and close friend James Stroud.
Second, to make sure he could spend more time with each attendee, he increased the number of his get-togethers around the nation while scaling back attendance at each. This year, 100 fans — about one-fifth the number from 2012 — enjoyed especially personal interactions with their favorite artist.
“We decided to do something different at Ocean Way this year,” Young explained. “With this one, we went smaller. It’s not your usual get up, talk, sing and take photos — we’re doing all that stuff, but it’s also being able to talk to everyone a little about how I make my records. And we brought in different industry people to talk to them, kind of like a behind-the-scenes view of the business. We just wanted to make it special.”
“I’ve known Chris since he was a kid,” Stroud reflected. “His mother worked with me as an accountant, and she’d always talk about her son and how he wanted to be in the music business. The next thing I found out, he was working as an intern at my wife’s publishing company. I got to know him there and watched him evolve musically, even though he was just a very young kid. The one thing that stood out to me then was that he studied the history of Country Music. And then he applied all that history in a way that he could make it his own artistry. But his will and work ethic are amazing as to what he brings to the table.”
Having an early friendship with Stroud creates a comfort level for Young whenever they work together. It also gave them perspective on how they would grow his brand with each consecutive album. For his latest, A.M., they decided the time had come to add a little aggression to what they’d created previously. This led them to make several changes, including a greater emphasis on uptempo arrangements, beginning with the single, “Aw Naw.”
“We’ve always had one or two tempo songs, but I always felt like those were the songs that never got mentioned as single possibilities,” Young said. “This time I wanted to make a concerted effort to record them. I think the tempo is what shows the biggest difference from the last record (NEON). That’s evidenced not only with this record being geared more toward my live show, but also showing the difference in my songwriting, especially with that first single (written by Young with Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley). I’ve had a lot of singles that have had chart success, but none was an outright tempo (song), so that was important.”
What else was critical in gearing the music more toward his live show on A.M.? “Having the right musicians helps,” Young said. “And having a good idea going in of what you want to achieve sonically on a record helps as well. If you spend all this time with everyone sitting around, trying to find, say, the right guitar sound, and you run through four or five things, then I think the energy deflates for everybody. It’s more important to have an idea of what you want to do production-wise with a tempo before you go in, because you don’t want to lose that initial excitement.”
Young and Stroud also pulled in more outside songs this time. “A lot of the songs I wrote ended up on the album when we got started, more so than any of my previous records,” Young said. “So I didn’t feel like we were searching as much. We actually cut more outside songs for this record than any other record I’ve done. We just found songs that complemented what we already had. It takes a lot of pressure off when you know, ‘Hey, I have four songs that we love already.’ Most of the songs I wrote were with Ashley Gorley, Chris DeStefano and Rhett Akins. I always make fun of Rhett about ‘I Brake for Brunettes’ (Akins and Sandy Ramos). My mom loved that song!”
There was one other, if less likely, element in defining the sound and feel of A.M.: the ‘70s powerhouse group, the Eagles.
“Chris has a great sense of pitch,” Stroud said. “He has an amazing knack for phrasing. But I think the thing that really sells him is the range he has and the way he emotes that vocal. If you listen to his music, one of the things we wanted to do was to make sure that he could out-sing everybody and show off his range and his vocal acrobatic delivery. He does that especially on this new album. Chris and I have talked about how we love the Eagles and how when you hear an Eagles record and you see them live, it’s the record. So we wanted to make this record in a way that when you see Chris, you get to hear the record. We didn’t overplay or overdo the record instrumentally.
“It’s basically a band in the studio that he can replicate onstage,” the producer summed up. “And he pulls it off so well. That’s where his brilliance is as an artist: He soaks it all up like a sponge, interprets it and translates it — and it’s all Chris.”