"With ‘Raised On Country,' what we were trying to write was an anthem about the music I grew up on," says Young. "And obviously, when you start talking about how you grow up and what shapes you outside of your town and the music you listened to, it's definitely your friends. And I think that was kind of the seed in ‘Famous Friends.'"
His songwriter friends — Barlowe and Crowder, Young's co-producer — had to start without him as Young handled concert-day artist chores at the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla. They were hoping to write something uptempo that day, and Crowder fired up a backbeat on his laptop. Barlowe started noodling on guitar and popped out a cascading flurry of notes that formed an energetic instrumental riff. He had that "Famous Friends" title, too, though he wasn't sure what to do with it.
"For whatever reason," says Crowder, "I just heard the flip, you know; ‘I got some famous friends/You've probably never heard of.' Like, they're famous in my hometown."
When Young was ready to write, he heard the riff, the title and the flip, and he took it one step further, suggesting they populate the lyrics with real people straight from his own life.
"It's true to his story, and that's what makes it even cooler," says Barlowe.
Young unleashed a litany of folks from Murfreesboro, Tenn., hailing them by their first name and some important trait, including Johnny, the life of the party; Jason, the local sheriff; and Megan, an award-winning teacher. These not-so-famous friends may not have Young's star power, but their character and quality of life are potentially significant.
"This Megan is really making an impact on some kids' lives," says Barlowe. "It's this uptempo, feel-good song, but when you pick it apart and look at the lines, what it's saying, I think that's cool, too."
And even though they're Young's friends, Barlowe and Crowder felt a connection to them.
"We all have these people in our life, and they're all kind of the same characters," notes Crowder. "That's what makes the song so relatable. It's like Chris has his real-life people in his brain, but so do I, and probably so do you when you listen. That's what's cool about that idea is we all kind of have famous friends you've probably never heard of."
Not that there aren't some quirks in it. The first character — Brandon, a record-setting high-school quarterback — was a bit frustrated that his role in the song is unrecognized even by some of the Murfreesboro locals.
"He was like, ‘Why are you going to put my real name in there?' " says Young. "He just goes by Bubba."
Additionally, the reference to Randy, a preacher, assigns a real person the wrong occupation. In truth, it's a nod to Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman.
"I didn't even know that," says Barlowe.
"That's hilarious," adds Crowder.
Once the song was written, they pulled together a demo with Young singing the lead, while Barlowe and Crowder worked out supporting gang vocals. Barlowe played a battery of guitars. He spruced up the signature riff, crafting a second unison part one octave lower to give it more heft. And he threw in a solo, balancing the forceful words in the "Famous Friends" chorus with a more fuzzy tone.
"I think we captured some magic on this song," says Barlowe. "I luckily had a slide with me that weekend [for] my Gibson."
That demo became the foundation for the eventual master recording, though not everything survived the process. In May, Crowder hired drummer Miles McPherson to inject a more powerful, and more authentic, percussion track, replacing the demo's original programming.
Young also redid his lead vocal and added another voice into the mix. Kane Brown was the opening act the weekend they wrote the song, and it didn't take long for Young to target him, an actual famous friend, as an ideal collaborator. Brown did his part remotely, voicing it so that the duet sounds like buddies. Instead of a creating a tight effect — where such bands as Queen or The Beach Boys might try to make the harmonies come across as one massive voice — Brown loosely shades Young, making it sound like two guys singing along with the car radio or at a bar.
"I was hoping we would blend as well as we do," says Young. "It was perfect."
Brown declined the opportunity to name his own not-so-famous friends in the second verse, but he did tweak a geographical lyric in the chorus. The original version had Young touting Rutherford County in each instance, but Young thought Brown should personalize his chorus. His home county, Hamilton, had the same number of syllables as Rutherford County, so it was an easy adjustment. Then they decided their joint third chorus should salute Davidson County, another three-syllable region that includes Nashville.
"That's our country music community, and Music Row and the literal famous friends side of it," says Crowder.
RCA Nashville issued "Famous Friends" to AM/FM country stations via PlayMPE on Dec. 7, a time that suited the release schedules for both duet partners. It debuted at No. 45 on the Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 12, and rises to No. 34 in its sixth week on the list.
"When you get two artists involved in something, it's a little bit different," says Young. "It's also something that was a lot of fun, and I think that's one of the reasons why people have jumped on it so early. I think people are happy with the positive message."