When Chris Young steps onto the Grand Ole Opry stage on Oct. 17 and officially becomes a member, he’ll cement his place in country’s lineage in a supremely appropriate way.
His induction, of course, adds him to a list of Opry members past and present that includes Vince Gill — who delivered the invitation to join — Garth Brooks, Porter Wagoner, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, just for starters. Poetically, Young’s addition coincides with the day that one of his personal heroes, 1991 Opry inductee Alan Jackson, turns 59.
“If I listed five people that I grew up listening to [most], Alan would be one of them,” says Young.
The Opry induction is a capstone on a period that has ingrained Young’s position among those advancing country’s history, intentionally or not. He casually acknowledges three of his predecessors in the genre — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris — in “Blacked Out,” the final cut on his new album, Losing Sleep (Oct. 20, RCA Nashville). He recently re-signed at RCA, continuing his relationship with a label that spawned such acts as Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Eddy Arnold and Alabama before him.
But his visit to the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1 puts Young among the artists in a historic category he would have preferred to avoid. That night, a gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 at the concert with a modified weapon from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. Young, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen were among the acts who survived that horrific shootout, but it folds him into the club of country acts who’ve been involved in a long list of work-related tragedies. That includes plane crash victims Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Troy Gentry; concert-disaster survivors Sugarland; and murdered Opry comedian David “Stringbean” Akeman.
Young made a telling decision following Route 91 when he opted to play the Big Fresno Fair in Northern California on Oct. 4, just three days after the Las Vegas massacre. His team discussed cancelling what was bound to be an emotional date, but once they decided performing was not a sign of disrespect to the victims in Nevada, he took a deep breath and climbed right back up on the horse.
“That anxiety of getting onstage again [will] always be something that I feel,” he says. “Was I going to wait till the next week [to face it]? You know, I’m not going to stop playing shows, so I just decided that I was going to go play that, and that crowd was incredibly welcoming, and it was something that was very therapeutic to be back onstage again.”
The tragedy complicated the rollout of Losing Sleep. Questions about the shooting have consumed parts of the interviews he had originally scheduled to talk about the album, which finds him exploring numerous parts of his musical persona. The title track, currently at No. 19 on Country Airplay, is “probably as far left-leaning toward pop as I would go,” he says. “And then ‘Blacked Out’ is that really, really stripped-down, acoustic guitar-driven country thing, so as much as anything, this album was about breadth and being able to do everything that I felt like I could do as an artist and putting it in one package.”
Young started working on Losing Sleep in a fit of creativity as he completed the launch of his previous album, I’m Comin’ Over, in 2015. He wrote primarily with co-producer Corey Crowder and Josh Hoge — his co-writers on “I’m Comin’ Over” and the Cassadee Pope duet “Think of You” — and he amassed the tracks for the project over a period of time rather than cramming at the last minute. Thus, when he started talking about recording with Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman, it all unfolded with an unusual ease.
“I was on a plane with Randy Goodman, and he goes, ‘What have you been doing? Have you been working on anything new?’ ” recalls Young. “I played him five or six songs, and he goes, ‘These are all great. How many more of these do you have?’ I was getting close to what I would narrow down to make the bulk of a record. He was like, ‘Well, I guess you should go in and start cutting some music.’ ”
Young’s approach to re-signing with RCA was just as amicable — they had one meeting, batted around deal points and drew up the papers. He refers to it as his “home,” treating the relationship with some of the same values that he attributes to his impending Opry membership.
“The term that Brad [Paisley] used on Twitter to describe it, he said, ‘Welcome to the Opry family,’ and it does feel like that,” notes Young. “There is always a sense of meaning when you step on that stage. There is any time you step onstage anywhere to play as an artist, but especially there with the history.”
With eight No. 1 singles since 2009, Young is increasingly intertwined with country’s history. The Opry membership furthers that relationship, and his unfortunate connection to Route 91 puts his name in the annals in a different way. But it also renewed his commitment to his job, recognizing that music plays an important role, even after the artists and their fan base have been attacked.
“Music is something that can heal,” he says. “It’s something that does make people happy. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”