"Ew, that's not real country music..." said every country music hater ever. Seriously, if you are the person that calls Luke Bryan or Morgan Wallen or Blake Shelton "fake country," then you obviously are not an actual country music fan.
Rather than dip into the controversial and useless debate over what is consider country music, I will say this: it is all country music. Just like everything else in our world, the country genre of music has developed over time- and some people do not like that. While the banjos and tambourines of classic country artists such as Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson will always mark the iconic origins, rock and pop influences have added a whole new flavor to the genre, as well as the artists that have been influenced by them.
One such artist is Chase Rice, born in 1985 in North Carolina. Once a college linebacker and NASCAR pit crew member, Rice started his path to country stardom when he co-wrote the 2012 diamond-certified single "Cruise" with Florida Georgia Line.
Since then Rice has released 2 albums and 2 EPs and most recently single "Drinkin' Beer. Talkin' God. Amen" with Florida Georgia Line themselves. Besides his impressive discography though, Rice has been responsible for changing not just the sound of the country genre, but the structure of the entire music industry.
Ignite The Night may be Rice's third studio album, but it was his first major-label debut. Rice has spoken out about his journey to be signed by a major label; he faced rejection after rejection, being told he "wasn't a good enough singer" or "his songs weren't good enough." Rice did not believe any of this though, and released his first two albums Country As Me and Dirt Road Communion with his own small team. Record executives were kicking themselves after this, as Rice was slowly but surely building his own fanbase, something that is uncommon to do with a major label behind an artist, especially in the over-saturated country industry.
Ignite The Night was Rice's first album to have the full support of a label behind it, and it shows. While his original work was something special, it does not hold a candle to the Scotty McCreery, Chris DeStefano and Rhett Atkins produced work. Ignite The Night combines the electronic flexibility of pop music techniques with the genuine storytelling of country. This is the album you put on when you and your friends find yourselves driving on dirt roads just as the sun is setting on a cool summers night- it is the ultimate adrenaline album.
Singles like "Ready Set Roll" and "What's Your Name" are particular favorites of fans because of the strong, gritty tone and the feeling of anticipation they both immediately inspire. Maybe it fits with the cliché of "tractors, beer, and girls" but Rice's "Look at My Truck," "Carolina Can" and "Do It Like This" paint vivid pictures of a country-raised singer headed for stardom. When these songs come on, all you can see are friends throwing the biggest tailgate ragers ever. And "Jack Daniel's and Jesus"? That one is a major tearjerker about someone struggling with addiction turning to their faith. There are few things better than a country ballad about self-healing.
Lambs & Lions marked yet another metamorphosis for Rice- this one coming after two failed radio singles and a transition to a new record label. A collection of songs all about Rice's personal growth, Lambs & Lions was released after the artist signed with Broken Bow Records, home of country all-stars Jason Aldean and Dustin Lynch, and showcases what Rice felt his past representation was holding him back from.
While there are some trademark tales of fun country times, this album focused a lot more on relationships, faith, struggles and perseverance. The opening track "Lions" sheds any musical traditional and combines heavy-metal influences with a ghostly church choir, leaving listeners feeling ready to take on any adversity.
As the album progresses though, Rice relies more on natural storytelling than massive production, namely with #1 single "Eyes on You." "Eyes on You" is one of Rice's most recognizable songs, and showcases Rice's growing maturity in handling relationships. This song is the staple heartwarming and wholesome track nearly every girl will want played at her wedding. "Amen" serves as the heart of the album, reflecting on Rice's faith journey following the death of his father. It provides such a tender moment on the album, and hits very close to home for both Rice and his fans.
Lambs & Lions sits Rice comfortable on the line between "bro-country" and "country crooning," showing that it is indeed possible to bring the classic elements of the genre into the new age.
P.S.: My personal favorite is "25 Wexford St." Think "Galway Girl" by Ed Sheeran, but country.
Perhaps the most visual of his work, The Album, Part I Rice went into this album with an intent to reveal his inner self, rather than hit the charts. Ironically, it was songs off this album that shot him to fame. The album is stripped back compared to his other works, but the lyrical content blows Lambs & Lions and Ignite The Night out of the water. Rice is perfectly capable of finding the most unique ways to say the most simple and heartwarming things.
Everyone is familiar with the song "Lonely If You Are," and its romantic draw to every lonely single girl who listens to it. "Everywhere" leaves listeners with the haunting memories of ex-lovers, especially when Rice breaks his singing to speak directly to the audience. "Best Night Ever" is a concert go-to. "American Nights" draws back on his mud-slinging, shot-gunning, small town roots, although with a new maturity and sophistication.
What was really special about this release though was that it was done without warning- Rice had never given an official word or date about the album prior to its release. While that may not be uncommon now, for 2019 it was virtually unheard. This left fans with surprise and eagerness to hear what Rice called his "best work yet." The Album, Part I is also only an EP length, and Rice did not force a full length album but rather released a batch of songs as he finished them- emphasizing that he wanted to focus on the story, rather than the marketability.
As Rice's first pandemic release, The Album, Part II continues the theme of self-discovery and vivid storytelling. Only 4 tracks long, the artist's most recent installment gives each song the respect it deserves, and the time for it to be fully listened to. Rice wanted to give people something hold on to during the unpredictability of national lockdowns, saying how he "wants to continue releasing and playing music, because [he's] not afraid to do so."
While no song on The Album, Part II, has become a radio-hit like "Lonely If You Are" or "Eyes On You," this album reminds listeners to just simply appreciate the music, even if nothing else is quite as enjoyable as it once was. Honestly, looking at this album through the lenses of numbers and sales misses the point of it entirely.
All 4 songs were clearly crafted with live shows in mind, especially "Down Home Runs Deep" and "Belong," both inspiring tales of taking this time at home to find oneself again, to find joy in the simple things and remember the things (and people) hat truly make life good.
In just four major bodies of work, Rice has created a new "gray area" in the country music genre that sets a precedent for new artists. Rice has proven that he does not have to be restricted to banjos and old-timey sentiments in order to be considered "country," nor does he have to be labeled a "popstar" because he experiments with new musical technology. It is important to remember that Rice did all of this by himself; he hired his own team, he managed his own strategy, he makes his own decisions. While he may be represented by a big label, Rice's work is his alone- that is why he has been able to carve out this space in the genre. Rice appeals to a larger audience by bringing youth to his music, but maintains the must-have storytelling of country music. Rice is the one living the music- not some crusty, old record exec. with pockets deep with cash and stereotypes, but a football player and Homecoming King from North Carolina who believes in his own abilities.