“I will never forget getting a phone call from my agent, and every one of our tour dates getting the rug pulled out. Scary as hell, one of the scariest moments of my life,” Chris Janson tells Billboard, recalling the day in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced artists away from touring. “People look at me as a man of faith, and I am, but I lost faith for a minute. I was scared.”
Live performance has been a key pillar in Janson’s career, ever since he moved to Nashville and quickly landed a gig at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Soon, his frenetic performance style — even then, Janson was known for prowling the stage, wailing on harmonica and jumping off speakers — caught the attention of Music Row. So did his songs: prior to breaking through with his top 5 Billboard Country Airplay hit “Buy Me a Boat” and signing with Warner Music Nashville in 2015, Janson had written hits for Tim McGraw (“Truck Yeah”) and LOCASH (“I Love This Life”).
To date, Grand Ole Opry member Janson has earned two Billboard Country Airplay No. 1s with “Done” and “Good Vibes,” as well as notching additional top 10 hits including “Fix a Drink” and the poignant ballad “Drunk Girl.” But it was that time of career uncertainty two years ago that ultimately served as the catalyst for Janson’s studio album, All In, out Friday (Apr. 29) via Warner Music Nashville.
He had already scheduled a trip to Florida with his wife Kelly Lynn and their children for spring break. But with touring halted, Janson says, “We basically just moved in for a year.” He estimates half of the new album was written over Zoom and FaceTime, and calls it “the best album-making process I’ve had. It was efficient and I was able to write with so many people.”
Janson’s previous album was titled Real Friends, and he continues with that theme by calling in a musical buddies Eric Church and Travis Tritt to collaborate on the new set.
Janson met Church during an All-Star tribute to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons at the Grand Ole Opry House last year, and they soon became fishing buddies. That connection between the two singer-songwriters led Church to send Janson a rough demo of a song Church had written, a swampy murder mystery titled “You, Me & the River.”
“I was coming in from Whitefish, Montana, and Kelly and I had just landed about 3:30 in the morning,” he recalls. “My phone dinged and it was this voice memo from Eric. He said, ‘Hey, this is a little bit dark, but I wanted to see what you think.’ I listened to the work tape and I was like, ‘Holy crap,’ and texted him, ‘I love this. Why don’t we do a duet?’
“I thought he would say no,” Janson continues, “but he immediately texted back, ‘I’m in.’ I looked at Kelly and was like, ‘I guess I’m doing a duet with Eric Church now.’ I was like, ‘Am I really on that level where he respects me enough to send me a song?’ Holy Schnikes.”
Church joined Janson in the recording studio to lay down the track together, and they recently filmed a music video for the song. “It’s kind of Ozark-ish,” Janson says of the clip. “We’re both acting in the video, and it’s shot so wonderfully, it’s not even like a music video, it’s more like a movie.”
Church also co-wrote another track on the album, the gently rolling “Flag on the Wall,” which details the lives of people who “really hunt to eat,” chop wood for heat in the winter, and do whatever it takes to pay the bills. It also nods to those of all political persuasions coming together over whatever unites them, whether it’s football, back porches, religion or the American flag.
“I was in Colorado, and Eric sent me a half-finished work tape with a bit of a lyric. I loved it, and asked if he wanted me to finish it with him. We weren’t in the same room to write it, we were on the phone but we got it done, just back and forth, sending lyrics,” Janson says.
It was Janson who reached out to ‘90s country hitmaker Tritt to record “Things You Can’t Live Without,” which features one of Janson’s signature free-wheeling harmonica solos. “It’s rowdy, four-on-the-floor,” he says. “I remember Travis said, ‘I feel like this is something I could have cut in the mid-‘90s and had a big hit on.’ What a compliment,” adds Janson, who wrote the song with Deric Ruttan, Chris Stevens and ‘90s country hitmaker and hit songwriter David Lee Murphy.
Both “Cold Beer Truth” and “The Reel Bass Pro,” name-check another of Janson’s friends, Bass Pro Shops founder/CEO Johnny Morris, who appears in the video for “Cold Beer Truth” along with racing legend Richard Childress. NASCAR gets another shout-out in “My American World,” which Janson wrote with his wife and Shane Profitt. The track offers a list of things Janson holds affection for — from rednecks and “chilled-out hippies” to the American flag, fishing and racing, as evidenced by the line, “I love NASCAR/I’d like to give it a whirl.”
“I’ve never done it, but I want to,” says Janson, who also featured friend and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress in his video for “Cold Beer Truth.” “I grew up in middle America and No. 3 [the late racing legend Dale Earnhardt] was part of your raising. Then becoming friends with Richard, and there’s just this natural synergy between NASCAR and country music. I’ve been telling Richard for years that I don’t just want to do one of those ride-along things, but I want to actually get behind the wheel and drive one. I’d love to, even if I have to buy my own racetrack,” he adds with a laugh. “Well, probably not that, for legality reasons, but I want to drive one.”
Meanwhile, a pair of songs on the album address mortality, a long-standing topic within the country genre. Janson and Brandon Kinney wrote “Bye Mom” shortly after Kinney’s mother passed away in 2020, while Janson and Casey Beathard wrote “Here and Gone” after the passing of Beathard’s son Clayton, who died in a stabbing in a Nashville bar in 2019 after he and some friends confronted a man who was harassing a woman.
“We wrote it as a tribute to his son, and just let the emotions roll on it,” Janson recalls. “Even though these songs have nothing to do with my personal story, there is so much healing in them.”
With 16 songs on this project, Janson also had ample space to experiment, and he incorporates his love for ‘80s and ‘90s country. In addition to the Tritt collab, “You Never Did” is laced with twin fiddles in a nod to the Texas dancehall-steeped music of George Strait and Bob Wills, while “Love Don’t Sleep” pays tribute to the music of Alabama and Ronnie Milsap.
“I was listening to a lot of mid-‘80s Strait, a lot of Haggard and Bob Wills,” Janson says. “But then there’s also the Milsap vibe. I didn’t grow up listening to Ronnie Milsap as much as I learned to love it years later. I loved the sound of ‘Smoky Mountain Rain,’ so with ‘Love Don’t Sleep,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to make this my disco song for the record. I want to put those vibes all over it, synthesizer, and piano.”
Now, having returned to the road and recently wrapped the first leg of his Halfway to Crazy Tour, it’s those throwback country sounds that Janson seems most excited to share with fans.
“Let us not forget what kind of music paved the way for people like me to do my job and make the music I want to make. I want to honor that music. Plus, people love it! That’s why they are tailgating to it before they walk into a concert. I want to make sure they get some of that in this modern-day, Chris Janson music.”