When Chris Lane made his Grand Ole Opry debut on Feb. 20, the goal was pretty simple: make it through the performance and don’t say anything stupid.
“The walk from the side of the stage to that circle was hands down probably the most nerve-wracking moment I’ve ever had,” recalls Lane, leaning forward in his chair at the end of a conference table at the Big Loud offices on Nashville’s Music Row.
One of the songs Lane performed that night — “Fix,” currently No. 2 on Country Airplay — is notably pushing the boundaries of the country format, employing a danceable backbeat underneath a pop-flavored melody, R&B guitar chording and a falsetto hook. It’s not a song that George Strait or Alan Jackson would have done in the 1990s.
That said, when traditional country artist Bill Anderson introduced Lane that night at the Grand Ole Opry House, the moment was somehow appropriate. Anderson had made a similar, brief foray into R&B with a disco-flavored single, “I Can’t Wait Any Longer,” in 1978. The title was Anderson’s first top five song in two-and-half years — and also proved to be his last as an artist — but that song also gives credence to the notion of country as a fluid genre with a fair amount of room to explore and establish a unique place in the market.
Lane certainly carved out a place of his own with “Fix.” When the Big Loud management division lobbed Lane’s first single, “Broken Windshield View,” to radio in June 2014, the title sounded like a Southern rock-tinged Tim McGraw recording. It didn’t go anywhere — McGraw already owns that turf — but Lane stumbled on the falsetto sound in an off-the-cuff moment in the recording studio with producer Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen). Moi heard Lane singing an Usher song and recognized that high range as a lane that no one was currently occupying in country. Paired with a framework that leans toward rhythmic pop, it instantly solved Lane’s biggest hurdle as an artist, providing him with an identity.
“I didn’t want to go straight down the center,” says Lane. “That’s the easy thing, I feel like. So I was super happy the day that we discovered we should go for this falsetto thing.”
“Fix” became the best choice to introduce that sound, and Lane now arrives at a key career moment in a best-case scenario. His debut album, Girl Problems, is due Aug. 5 with a single lodged in the top layer of the chart.
It is, for plenty of reasons, an improbable occurrence. In addition to the falsetto — something Lane believes “wouldn’t have worked” just a few years ago — “Fix” is making its mark barely a year after Lane’s label, Big Loud Records, debuted. The company was announced in the summer of 2015 with Clay Hunnicutt leaving iHeartMedia to become the Big Loud president. The label — founded by Moi, songwriter Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying,” “21 Summer”) and Big Loud partners Seth England and Kevin “Chief” Zaruk — certainly defied the odds. Country has typically been dominated by the major labels, a fact that made Lane — already signed to the management wing — a tad skittish when he was offered a chance to be Big Loud’s flagship artist.
“They gave me the option of whether I wanted to be pitched to other record labels,” concedes Lane. “But I asked artist friends of mine, ‘Hey, what would you do if you were in my shoes at this point?’ And they were like, ‘Man, you can have the whole focus of a record label, or go somewhere where you’re going to be fighting for a spot with other artists. You’re crazy if you don’t do this.’”
For his part, Lane has mostly taken the right steps in his career, though he wasn’t necessarily aware of that during his rise. He started performing in North Carolina, doing a landscaping job for his father’s company as a day job and booking his own shows on the side.
“I stayed sick 90% of the time because I couldn’t get no sleep,” Lane recalls. “Obviously I grew a major passion for it, and I couldn’t get enough of it. But at the same time, I had built up such a following that I could play almost every night of the week, minutes from my house and make really good money doing it, so it got to the point I eventually was able to tell my dad, ‘Sorry, I can’t work for you no longer.’”
As the concert gigs became regional and grew to five nights a week, he shifted his emphasis from doing only cover songs to writing his own material. And as the audiences expanded, he also caught the attention of Nashville executives, eventually signing with England at Big Loud for management.
“I didn’t see it coming,” insists Lane. “I mean, I was just having fun and became very passionate about music, but I’m just a small-town guy from Kernersville, N.C. I didn’t even know the first step into trying to make it in the music industry.”
He was likewise naive — fortunately, it turns out — about boy bands. Lane’s live shows have included covers of music by such ultra-pop acts from the late 1990s as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and ’N Sync. Lane was in his mid-teens at the time those artists were at their peak, and Moi has since told him that in 1999, most 15-year-old males would have frowned upon such music. Lane somehow escaped that judgment.
“Every one of my guy friends I played baseball with were Backstreet Boys fans as well,” he remembers, “so it’s not something I felt like I needed to hide.”
Thus, after stumbling on the falsetto direction, he has been able to embrace the boy-band sounds he grew up with, stocking Girl Problems with a synth-flecked melodic ballad, “Let Me Love You”; tight harmonies and syncopation in “Who’s It Gonna Be”; EDM-flavored programming on “All the Time”; and sensitive-guy lyrical themes in “Maybe” and “Her Own Kind of Beautiful.”
Lane may not have had a plan when he started his journey, but he’s certainly grown to understand branding and satisfying the customer during the eight years since he started. Thus, the reception of “Fix” had a huge influence on the direction of Girl Problems.
“I wanted to keep a very similar feel, you know — songs that were groovy in a way and songs that would make me want to dance onstage, and make people want to show up and just let go and have fun,” he says. “Not every song is an uptempo song, but the majority of the record is, and that’s how I want my live shows to be: energy, energy, energy.”
He has experienced plenty of that in the months since he ambled nervously out to the mic at the Grand Ole Opry. As “Fix” has made its way up the chart, the audience started singing the song with him in increasing numbers. Having exclusively played cover songs in his early years, Lane understands the significance.
“It’s easy to get people to sing along to cover songs,” he says, “but when it’s your song, it’s the coolest. At this point, now that it’s top five, I literally can hold the microphone out and everybody knows every word. I look forward to that part every single night.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.