CHASE RICE BIO 2013
“On a scale of 1 to 10, be an 11.”
Singer/songwriter Chase Rice has applied the words of his high school football coach, Bobby Poss, in a series of accomplishments that others merely contemplate – he’s been the starting linebacker for the University of North Carolina; a member of a NASCAR pit crew; a touring artist who sold out strings of venues across the country without a record company, a manager or a song on the radio; and a co-writer of a record-setting, many-times multi-platinum single, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” There are few Nashville artists who can match Rice for his drive, his relentless energy and his confidence. And even fewer who are positioned as well to succeed.
After moving to Music City in late 2010, Rice recorded an album, Dirt Road Communion, on his own Dack Janiel’s label and quickly beat the odds. He landed it on the Billboard Country Album chart, and launched one of his singles, “How She Rolls,” onto Hot Country Songs. In a world dominated by corporations, that’s no small feat for an artist working on his own.
“Cruise,” meanwhile, is a certified “11,” a song that literally re-wrote the country music history books, setting an all-time record by spending more weeks at #1 on the country singles chart than any other song. It generated a second life when a remix featuring rapper Nelly landed in the Top 5 on the pop chart. “Cruise” sold more than 5 million copies through mid-2013, though Rice – in diehard “11” fashion – refuses to rest on that accomplishment. Or to let it define him.
“It’s not normal what it’s done,” Rice says. “I understand that. But I want it to be a song of the past for me as a writer. ‘Cruise’ is a once-in-a-lifetime song for most writers. I am very appreciative of it, but I’m about a lot more than just one song.”
“Cruise” did, though, draw more attention to Rice’s own artistic career, which is already on a fast track. In conjunction with Dirt Road Communion, he hit the road on a heavy touring schedule, playing more than 150 dates annually, building a fan base and honing his skills. He sold out a dozen venues from Florida to Illinois, even while operating without a formal record company and without radio play.
His latest set of tracks, recorded with producer/engineers Chris Destefano, Scott Cooke, and Chad Carlson demonstrates how deep the foundation runs. Rice owns a sandy resonance and a Southern-bred masculine quality that bears some resemblance to country stalwart Tim McGraw. But he also has a penchant for edgy musical adventure. “Party Up” applies compact banjo riffs and jangly guitar to build a laidback anthem. “Look At My Truck” blends small-town images – a Bible, a shotgun and Goodyear tires – with an intricate acoustic guitar and a signature hip-hop influenced synth line. And “Ready Set Roll” manages to balance mainstream country with a quirky electronica that owes a debt to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
That non-traditional mix of sound and style is intentional for Rice, as he daringly dials his brand of country to 11.
Southeastern is not a record Jason has made before, and not simply because the glorious storm and drama of his band, the 400 Unit, is absent. They will tour together; it’s not a break-up record, not an album of dissolving, but, rather, songs of discovery. And not at all afraid, not even amid the tears.
Which is to say that he has grown up.
That it has been a dozen years since he showed up at a party and left in the Drive-By Truckers’ van with two travel days to learn their songs. And then taught them some of his songs in the bargain.
Jason Isbell’s solo career has seemed equally effortless, from Sirens of the Ditch (2007) to Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2009), through Here We Rest (2011) and last year’s Live From Alabama. Loud records, unrepentantly southern, resplendent with careful songwriting. Songs which inspire and intimidate other musicians, and critics. “
A heart on the run / keeps a hand on the gun / can’t trust anyone,” Jason sings just now, his words brushing gently atop an acoustic guitar figure “Cover Me Up,” the song with which he has chosen to open Southeastern. Such tenderness. An act of contrition, an affirmation of need, his voice straining not to break: “Girl leave your boots by the bed / We ain’t leaving this room / Till someone needs medical help / Or the magnolias bloom.”
He sighs into the phone, considering what he’s done, and why. “I’m really purposefully ignorant of any sort of sales consideration, or radio considerations, or anything like that,” Jason says. “Before I’d felt like, this song needs to be this length, or this song needs to be mastered in this way, or this song needs to have drums on it, or this song needs a bigger hook. I just completely did away with all those considerations for this record. And made it as if I were really just making it for me, and for people like me who listen to entire albums.”
Raw, open, and reflective. Sobriety can be like that. Jason’s made it past his first year, which is rather more than a promise and will always be far from a guarantee.
Treatment programs teach that one should let go, easier said than done. Perhaps that’s why
Isbell was willing to trust his songs to David Cobb. Cobb has produced Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson and the Secret Sisters, but it was a Squidbillies’ session with George Jones which finally brought his work to Jason’s attention. “The song that he did with George Jones was a minute and a half, two minutes long,” Jason says, But the production of it was perfect because he nailed every single era of George’s career, and that really impressed me. A lot.”
Jason Isbell chooses his words carefully and speaks them softly, only the gentle lilt of south Alabama left for shading. “A lot of my favorite songwriters and recording artists are afraid,” he says. “Afraid to turn anything over to a producer, so they continue to make the same record over and over and over and over. More often than not, really. It’s really frustrating for me.”
There had been other plans for the album, as there always are, and for the first time Jason had the songs done well before production commenced. In the inevitable way of things, it all came together in a rush. They finished recording at midnight on a Thursday. Friday he and Amanda Shires went to their rehearsal dinner, got married Saturday, and had to wait until they returned from their honeymoon to approve the mastered album.
It is Amanda’s voice and violin joining with Jason on “Traveling Alone,” as evocative a song of a loneliness as anyone’s written since “Running On Empty.” A promise.
The songs are invested with Jason’s particular, personal truths, but they’re not about him. Or, rather, the emotional truths are probably about the songwriter, but not the stories he’s telling. “Live Oak” opens with an a cappella verse: “There’s a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / I wonder if she sees him / And confuses him with me?” It is the kind of question a man asks as he readies to marry a woman who met him and knew him and loved him before sobriety stuck (and a question a singer might well ask his audience under the same circumstances), though the story is about a roving criminal in either the 18th or 20th centuries.
It is not, to be clear, an acoustic album. “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8” have more than the requisite amount of guitar squawl to propel them. But it is the quite, contemplative songs that lure you in out of the rain, and those songs especially that draw one into the arc of the entire album. To the elegance of “Songs That She Sings in the Shower”: “With a stake / Held to my eye / I had to summon the confidence needed/To hear her good-bye.”
“I’ve done my part,” Jason says, his dry chuckle trailing off. “I make things and other people try to sell those things. I try not to mix the two together. I think that’s just a better way to make more quality things.”
He is, of course, right.