At 35, Chase Rice has weathered more highs and lows than many people. On his 15-track project The Album, out Friday, the country singer/songwriter is more focused than ever on drawing inspiration from his own experiences. The release marks the conclusion of his three-part The Album series, combining songs from two previous EPs with four new tracks.
“Writing a song that is true to me is much more important now than just writing a hit,” Rice tells Billboard. “I want it to be a story of my life.”
When Rice attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he was a star linebacker seemingly primed for an NFL career. Then, a pair of tragedies when Rice was just 22 shifted his trajectory — first, an ankle injury sidelined those professional ambitions, and in 2008, his father died.
“I grew up with the thought process of ‘Say yes to everything that comes your way.’ And honestly, when my dad died, that’s when a lot of it started happening,” says Rice, who notes that he just read Matthew McConaughey’s book Greenlights, which reinforces the “yes” theme that has guided his life. “My mindset was, ‘I want to live a life that I can look back on and not have any regrets.’”
The “greenlights” in Rice’s life have spurred an eclectic career, beginning with joining the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew and working on Jimmie Johnson’s Sprint Cup Series car. Then came a runner-up finish on Survivor: Nicaragua, and a monumental turn as a co-writer on Florida Georgia Line’s breakthrough 2012 hit, “Cruise,” which enjoyed a 24-week run at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., Rice was a childhood friend of FGL’s Brian Kelley. Rice picked up guitar at UNC and began writing his first song as a tribute to his father. Kelley helped him finish it. By the time NASCAR came calling, Rice was already crafting his first independent album.
“It was a great opportunity,” Rice says of NASCAR. “But I was miserable because I just wanted to write songs. I had $100,000 from making second place on Survivor, and I thought, ‘Wow, I have money for the first time in my life — and a way out.’”
Rice visited Kelley, who had moved to Nashville and was living with Tyler Hubbard and writing songs for what would become their first project as Florida Georgia Line. “Another guy who was living with them had moved out. About 15 beers and one night hanging at Tin Roof later, I moved in,” Chase says. “So it’s all these things lining up. That’s greenlights.”
Bro country anthem “Cruise” helped Rice ink his first major label deal with Sony’s Columbia Nashville and his own Dack Janiels label. Though in 2014 and 2015, he earned a Country Albums chart-topping set with Ignite the Night, and scored the top five Country Airplay hits with that album’s singles “Ready Set Roll” and “Gonna Wanna Tonight,” his material didn’t represent Rice’s true self.
“It was me just trying to do something that would work,” he says, adding, “That would be the downside — being stuck in this bro-country sound — but to my defense, it was all I knew how to do. When ‘Cruise’ hit, I hadn’t been writing for that long. I stopped writing what was happening to me and started writing what was popular. But I don’t blame myself for that: I was a 25-year-old kid that had that much success with something that was working. I am still battling people’s perception of who I am, and that’s because I didn’t make it clear who I was.”
Rice set out to dispel those misconceptions. First, he switched labels, joining Broken Bow Records, home to artists including Jason Aldean. “I had creative support at Sony,” he says. “Then when the new regime came in, I didn’t have that. At Broken Bow, I felt that excitement again from [BMG Nashville president] Jon Loba and everyone on the team. They let me do what I do.”
With his 2017 album Lambs & Lions, Rice became less concerned with what worked for country radio, and more with creating music reflective of his ongoing artistic evolution. But his new sound still found favor at radio, with the album’s “Eyes on You” delivering Rice his first No. 1 as an artist on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
The journey continues on his new album, expanding on the seven-song The Album,Part I EP released in January 2020 (which included the hit “Lonely If You Are”), and The Album, Part II, which released last May.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the project’s release plan (“There was supposed to be a fourth part,” Rice reveals), it also allowed him to reunite collaboratively with Kelley and Hubbard for the first time in a decade. The result is Rice’s current Top 20 hit “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen,” featuring FGL.
Much like his first album, Rice wrote the majority of The Album’s 15 songs. But this time — on both the tracks he wrote and those he found — the emotional excavation runs much deeper. It’s in the timely message of unity on “Belong,” the detailing of diverse small-town stories in “American Nights,” and “You,” Rice’s intense recounting of the impassioned highs of a former relationship.He’s also heeding his own guidance, which he once gave to a then-aspiring Luke Combs, who opened shows for Rice early on before exploding into superstardom.
“Luke played me some songs and said, ‘This is too pop-sounding for what I want to do, but people are telling me to record them,’” Rice recalls. “I told him, ‘Do what you want to do and don’t listen to anyone else. Write about what happens to you.’ It’s funny I told him that way back, because I’m finally listening to my own advice.”
With that mindset, he’s already deep into his next album, which will include a duet with folk-pop singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat. After a pandemic-induced year away from the road, Rice — who spent much of the shutdown golfing and fishing, according to his Instagram posts — is also eager to return to performing this summer, with a slate of festival and fair dates ahead of his opening slot on Kane Brown’s Blessed & Free Tour in 2022.
Rice was criticized last June after performing at the height of the pandemic before 1,000 fans at an outdoor show, with little social distancing and mask wearing. “I understand that there’s a lot of varying opinions, a lot of different opinions on COVID-19, how it works with live music crowds and what all that looks like,” the country singer responded in an Instagram video. “You guys are everything to me, so your safety is a huge priority.”
He was again rebuked in November when he promoted the release of “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” by tweeting “Just lost my taste and smell. Weird,” referring to common COVID-19 symptoms. “Also, dropping a single at midnight.” He later clarified that he did not have COVID-19 and was joking.
Asked how COVID-19 protocols might impact returning to the road, Rice says he has not mandated any rules for his crew, but will adhere to any local or venue requirements. “I’m not going to require my guys to wear masks. I just feel like if we are going to get back to work we need to drop what’s been going on and get back to work… My guys are grownups. If they want to get vaccinated, hell yeah, do it. If they don’t, then hell yeah, don’t do it…. Everybody make their own call and let’s get back to playing I don’t want to half-ass it. I want it to be full on and as far as the shows go, it’s up to the venues and the states that we are playing,” he says.
“In 2022, Kane’s running the show so I’ll respect any rules he has, of course,” Rice continues. “As long as it all leads to us being onstage playing for a lot of people, I don’t really care what we have to do. Let’s do it and put this in the past so we can all–not just me, but the band, the fans, the crew–everybody getting back to screaming songs at the top of their lungs with 50,000 people around.”