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“On a scale of 1 to 10, be an 11.”
Singer/songwriter Chase Rice has applied the words of his high school football coach, Bobby Poss, in a series of accomplishments that others merely contemplate – he’s been the starting linebacker for the University of North Carolina; a member of a NASCAR pit crew; a touring artist who sold out strings of venues across the country without a record company, a manager or a song on the radio; and a co-writer of a record-setting, many-times multi-platinum single, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” There are few Nashville artists who can match Rice for his drive, his relentless energy and his confidence. And even fewer who are positioned as well to succeed.
After moving to Music City in late 2010, Rice recorded an album, Dirt Road Communion, on his own Dack Janiel’s label and quickly beat the odds. He landed it on the Billboard Country Album chart, and launched one of his singles, “How She Rolls,” onto Hot Country Songs. In a world dominated by corporations, that’s no small feat for an artist working on his own.
“Cruise,” meanwhile, is a certified “11,” a song that literally re-wrote the country music history books, setting an all-time record by spending more weeks at #1 on the country singles chart than any other song. It generated a second life when a remix featuring rapper Nelly landed in the Top 5 on the pop chart. “Cruise” sold more than 5 million copies through mid-2013, though Rice – in diehard “11” fashion – refuses to rest on that accomplishment. Or to let it define him.
“It’s not normal what it’s done,” Rice says. “I understand that. But I want it to be a song of the past for me as a writer. ‘Cruise’ is a once-in-a-lifetime song for most writers. I am very appreciative of it, but I’m about a lot more than just one song.”
“Cruise” did, though, draw more attention to Rice’s own artistic career, which is already on a fast track. In conjunction with Dirt Road Communion, he hit the road on a heavy touring schedule, playing more than 150 dates annually, building a fan base and honing his skills. He sold out a dozen venues from Florida to Illinois, even while operating without a formal record company and without radio play.
His latest set of tracks, recorded with producer/engineers Chris Destefano, Scott Cooke, and Chad Carlson demonstrates how deep the foundation runs. Rice owns a sandy resonance and a Southern-bred masculine quality that bears some resemblance to country stalwart Tim McGraw. But he also has a penchant for edgy musical adventure. “Party Up” applies compact banjo riffs and jangly guitar to build a laidback anthem. “Look At My Truck” blends small-town images – a Bible, a shotgun and Goodyear tires – with an intricate acoustic guitar and a signature hip-hop influenced synth line. And “Ready Set Roll” manages to balance mainstream country with a quirky electronica that owes a debt to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
That non-traditional mix of sound and style is intentional for Rice, as he daringly dials his brand of country up to 11.
“I want to do something different,” Rice maintains. “I don’t want to go out there and sing the same old thing. Whether it’s the way I sing it, what I’m singing about or the production of it, I want it to be something fresh and new. If people like it, then great. If people don’t, then great. I’m gonna do what I want to do.”
That attitude has served Rice well since the start. He grew up on a farm in Asheville, North Carolina, listening to guys like Garth Brooks and Chris LeDoux, two of the acts who expanded country’s artistic boundaries in the 1990s. Initially, Rice was focused on football. He was ranked among the Top 25 prospects in the state when he played linebacker at A.C. Reynolds High School for coach Poss, who was worth listening to – Poss won five state championships during his coaching career.
Rice won a starting job at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and had the NFL draft in his sites when an on-field injury changed his career path. He severely tore a tendon in his left ankle during the opening game of the season in his junior year. Rice was able to return to the gridiron for his senior year, though not at the same performance level.
“I was never really the same player, but I came back and did everything I could to try and be the same player I was before,” he says. “That’s the only thing that really matters. Whether it works or doesn’t work, it’s all about putting everything you’ve got into it.”
That’s an attitude that was drilled into him not only by Coach Poss, but also by his father, Daniel Rice, who was battling melanoma at the same time Chase was recovering as a player. When Chase was strong enough to run out of the tunnel with his teammates for the final home of his junior year, radiation wasn’t going to keep him away – Daniel was there on the field, 200 miles from home, in a courageous show of pride for his son.
Daniel died six months later, but Chase carried on his father’s same relentless attitude after graduating – in true “11” form – with a double degree in management and communication. He took jobs in the NASCAR pit crews of Ryan Newman and Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson. They were, by most people’s standards, a great job. But Rice was invariably distracted. A Tar Heels teammate, offensive lineman Ben Lemming, had introduced him to the guitar during sophomore year, and Rice had become obsessed with the instrument.
“Music was always in my mind,” he explains. “I would get off work and want to go to the hotel and write. I wanted to get away on a weekend and go travel to Nashville and hang out. That should have been a sign, but I couldn’t bring myself to quit, because it was such a cool job.”
In late 2010, Rice did go to Nashville for a weekend. He stayed with a couple friends, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, who were renting a house and had a bedroom that wasn’t being used. Before the weekend was up, Rice had decided to move in with his buddies, who in short order became Florida Georgia Line.
Rice dove fully into songwriting, and it wasn’t long before he’d co-written “Cruise” for Florida Georgia Line. Meanwhile he co-wrote most of the 17 tracks on Dirt Road Communion and hit the road as an artist, building a following before he started putting a business team together on Music Row.
Rice sold almost 30,000 copies of the album – an impressive number for a self-starter playing in the clubs, and operating without airplay or a manager – and he plowed all of the earnings back into his career, growing his show. The solo act soon morphed into a four-piece band, and the transportation expanded from a small van to a formal Sprinter conversion van with bunkbeds and a trailer for equipment.
The music industry took notice. He started writing songs with other proven writers, including Rhett Akins (“Honey Bee,” “Boys ‘Round Here”), Ross Copperman (“Tip It On Back,” “Pirate Flag”) and Chris DeStefano (“Good Girl,” “Why Ya Wanna”). In 2012, Rice signed with the prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which books such acts as Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Randy Travis and Willie Nelson. And in 2013, he signed up with Bruce Kalmick and George Couri at Triple 8 Management, which represents Joe Nichols and the Eli Young Band, among others.
Kalmick was brutally honest in their first meeting – he heard some songs he liked on those two EPs, but he thought Rice could do better. Some two hours after the conversation started, Rice recognized he’d found someone he could trust. That became more clear when they forged a contract.
“The night I signed with them, Bruce said, ‘You just became one of the Top 10 most-important people in my life,’” Rice recalls. “Then he showed me No. 1. It was a picture of his kid. That was awesome to me. I grew up with my dad always around, and I’m big into family. Small stuff like that, besides music, showed me that we are on the same page.”
They were also on the same page about Rice’s career build. His approach – using sold-out concerts to aggressively establish a fan base before they signed with a label – is the same one that Brantley Gilbert, The Eli Young Band, Eric Church, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line used.
It’s allowed him time to develop on his own, to forge a party sound that borrows from some very divergent influences. His history is an odd brew – part Garth Brooks, part Eminem, part George Strait, part Wiz Khalifa. The end result is an unusual combination that’s true to his musical heritage – and to his competitive intensity.
“I say ‘Let’s get weird’ a whole lot with the music,” Rice says. “I want people to kind of shake their heads and say, ‘Did he really just say that?’ Or ‘Did I really just hear that right?’ I don’t want it to be the same old thing. Once you get to your limit, push it to the next.”
Be an 11.