Chris Janson just released Real Friends, his third album for Warner Music Nashville, and his current single, “Good Vibes,” is currently sitting atop both the Mediabase and Billboard country radio charts. He recently played a sold-out, headlining show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and in January, he’ll embark on his headlining Real Friends Tour.
But his goal is simple: he just wants to make people feel good, and stay true to himself.
“With ‘Good Vibes,’ we wanted to make it a mission to put people in a better mood, so when they hear it, that’s hopefully what happens,” Janson says during an interview at the Warner Music Nashville office.
“It reminds me how blessed I am and how I can bless others. It’s just a great message, and walking it like you talk it is so important. We all go through ups and downs in our life, and it’s a reminder that it’s a privilege to just be doing life, you know? I’m blessed to be able to be doing music for a living, and to have the platform to speak to so many people. It sort of became the narrative of the whole record, to be honest.”
“Good Vibes” follows Janson’s critically-acclaimed, Gold-selling ballad “Drunk Girl,” his Gold-selling, No. 1 hit “Fix A Drink” and his breakthrough No. 1 hit, 2015’s “Buy Me A Boat,” which was certified 2x Platinum.
The new album is filled with songs that meet that purpose. “Beer Me” is country radio-ready fare, while the guitars and rhythm section fire a little harder on the chest-thumping ode to tight-knit, rural communities, “Country U.S.A.” A horn section sets the pace on the tribute to small-town love on “Mine Does.”
With Real Friends, Janson eschewed the typical Nashville recording process—write songs, make work tapes, give them to the label, narrow down the songs for the album, and go into one of Nashville’s top-line recording studios.
“I’m just not the kind of guy who enjoys going into a professional studio and doing it like everybody else does it. I don’t like that vibe,” he says. Instead, Janson recorded the album at his home studio, with wooden floors and surrounded by his hunting gear, fishing poles, and cigars. “It’s just my room in the house where I can just chill.”
Janson assembled a mix of musicians, artists and producers for the album, which he co-produced alongside Brock Berryhill, Zach Crowell, and Tommy Cecil. The album marks songwriter Cecil’s first album credit as a producer; he also co-wrote four tracks on the album.
“We didn’t overthink things with this,” Janson says. “We just wrote the songs, produced them right then and had a song done by that afternoon. The drummer we used had never played on a major record before. I just loved his drumming. He played on a demo and I was like, ‘This guy kills it so let’s just use him,’ and he played on the whole record.”
Janson’s labelmate and fellow Grand Ole Opry member Blake Shelton joins in on the album’s title track.
“I’m a huge believer that if you speak it, it can happen. And even if it doesn’t happen—which, sometimes, it doesn’t—at least you spoke it. Cris Lacy [Warner Music Nashville’s Exec. VP, A&R] at the label asked [Shelton’s producer] Scott Hendricks to ask Blake. Thankfully, he was like, ‘Hell, yeah, I’ll be glad to,’ and it was that simple.”
In “Say About Me,” Janson references a Kid Rock poster hanging on a teenager’s wall. Though the rapper/songwriter doesn’t sing on the album, Kid Rock owns the car Janson is sitting in for the cover shot of the Real Friends album.
“He lent me the car, which used to be Hank [Williams] Jr’s. Again, it epitomizes real friends. I mean, he’s a real friend of mine and he’s a great human. Everybody came together collectively that just made this whole album happen. The whole record was just that casual.”
Much like his two previous major label albums, Janson draws from his life as an artist, a husband, and a father to four kids, centering many of the songs on the values he tries to live his life by—providing the best life for his family (“Done”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Hawaii On Me”). Janson’s wife Kelly Lynn contributes to the writing of “Hawaii On Me,” a track that was written well before Janson was signed with Warner Music Nashville in 2015.
“She told me the story of a father who was dying and his last wishes were to go to Hawaii and celebrate on his behalf, like they did every year before. So I took the idea and ran with it. It was super emotional for me, because I’m a dad and I love my kids so much and my family comes first, no matter what.”
Janson had previously pitched the song to Tim McGraw and says McGraw recorded a version of it, though it didn’t make that album. “Cris has always just loved that song and always had it kind of on the back burner so she brought it to me again, and it felt right to record it now.”
While Janson has often publicly shared his story of years spent struggling to survive in Nashville, simultaneously trying to provide for his family while pursuing that often elusive dream of stardom, as well as his more free-wheeling days like those he immortalized on his early single “Better I Don’t,” his new album finds him appreciating the success he’s found as a bona fide hitmaker with an electrifying stage show.
When you start out from the bottom, son/You scream when you’re on top, he sings on “Say About Me” (the album ends with a remixed version featuring Offset).
“When I first wrote it, I was like, ‘Damn, that might come off a little cocky.’ But really it’s about dreaming big and winning big. I sing about sleeping in my car. I know what living in a trailer park feels like, and I’m cool with that. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. That’s a great way of life. My point is, I know both sides of the game. I know what it’s like to be on top of the mountain and at the bottom of it, and what it’s like to not even have a shot at getting to the mountain. So, I’m real thankful for where I’ve come from and where I am, and I don’t want to stop now.”
While country music is rife with songs that detail the aspirations and hardships of everyday people, it is less often that the genre’s songs celebrate—much less offer frank details about—the good life once some money rolls in.
To be sure, on songs like “Waitin’ On Five” and “Normal People,” Janson make it clear he’s still the same music-loving entertainer that was singing in bars for tips. But in songs like “Check” and “Say About Me,” he’s equally comfortable dropping in details like Bentleys and 350s, and 40-acre lots.
“There’s tons of that in rap and hip hop, right? But for some reason, they don’t talk about it as much in country—and this is coming from a proud country music singer—I live it, breathe it and love it. But I get annoyed with that. It’s like, ‘Man, isn’t it awesome to dream big and win big?’ Everybody knows Luke Bryan is rich, and that’s cool, because he’s the most down-to-earth, nicest guy. It’s about being thankful, being humble. He’s very much that guy, and I want to try to build my career like that.
“I said when I was nine years old, I wanted to own as much land as Ted Turner, and I plan to do that someday. Having cool cars and cool jewelry and cool property, or whatever it may be in life, whatever people aspire to, those are some of the things I aspired to as a poor kid. So when you get it, you should celebrate it. As long as you’re doing it with a humble heart, it can be really inspiring to people. Because, hey, when I see Keith Urban doing good and whipping up in a cool car—because he’s known for having cool cars—it inspires me to keep working hard.”
Janson’s also found along the way that some aspirations aren’t what he thought they would be—like that Bentley he sings about in “Say About Me.”
“I always thought, ‘Man, if I could just get that car,’ and then I got that car. It felt validating for five minutes, and then I was on to the next thing. I didn’t even keep it a year. I sold it, because I didn’t know anything about it. I realized I’m just not a Bentley driver guy. I bought such a nice car, that I was afraid to drive it. So it just sat there. That’s the funny part.
“I just dream big and win big for the right reasons now, honestly. I appreciate the cool stuff and the flamboyancy you can have in life with success, but I try to keep focused on the right things. I just try to keep things basic.”
That’s not to say Janson doesn’t have some more career ambitions he’s ready to chase down.
“George Strait is my bucket list—I want a George Strait cut. And a Kenny Chesney cut. Those are big—I’m still working on those,” he says with a laugh.
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