Chase Bryant was almost ready to call off his music career at just 18 years old.
He’s now the country star behind the hits “Take It On Back” and “Little Bit Of You,” which hit the Top 5 just hours before he spoke with New Times last week, but at one point he was living on his own in Los Angeles, having taken the first record deal he’d been offered, and he was miserable.
“I was standing on stage with The Doobie Brothers and Cheap Trick in Sonoma [California] playing a show, and [I] realized that this is not what I want to do,” Bryant recalls. “‘I want to go to Nashville and I’m going to give this one more chance.’ And if that chance didn’t work, I’d keep giving it one more chance.”
Then a signee to now-defunct HOR Records, Bryant released music under his birth name, Chase Yaklin, upon moving to LA on his own at 16. There’s a bevy of studio photos, scatterbrained press releases, and an abandoned Twitter handle that serve as memories of a life in music past, the Lizzy Grant to his Lana Del Rey. A poignant reminder of Bryant’s early starry-eyed nature is a single tweet from November 2013 that simply says “a week from today i begin recording my debut record! cant wait!”
That record never came to fruition. All there is to show for that phase in Chase Bryant’s life is an EP from 2010 and a video that has a baby-faced version of the musician delivering a song that shows the underdeveloped features of a future country star — smooth vocals, diamond-in-the-rough songwriting, and a sound that belies his then-questionable fashion choices.
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Reinvention is no new feat in country music; it’s a part of the machine that makes an artist marketable. However, Chase Yaklin’s change to Chase Bryant has some pedigree: His maternal grandfather is Jimmy Bryant, who played keys for Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings. His uncles are Junior and Jeff Bryant of early ’90s country group Ricochet. With such a legacy in the last name, Bryant had a foot in the door the minute he decided to adopt it.
Bailing on California paid off; Bryant made his way back to Tennessee and the rest is history. Now, the 23-year-old is in the process of cutting his debut album, building off the past year’s success with his two singles. His upcoming record for Red Bow Records is a culmination of songs that span back to that time on the West Coast.
“I was in a relationship for three years with a girl from California, so there are those love songs on the record, and I’ve been in that state [of mind] where, as a single guy, writing those conversations between you and somebody new, or maybe having your heart broken. I’ve written from every state imaginable,” he says. “I’m just writing about life, about this whole ride I’ve been on.”
That ride started in Orange Grove, Texas, a town of 1,288 people that’s about 40 miles northwest of Corpus Christi. There have been country acts that claim small-town roots in their songs but Bryant is the real deal — there’s a certain unfakable sense of astonishment that rural kids carry when they are granted a taste of big-city success, and Bryant is no exception to this rule. His reinvention really took hold just three years ago, and it’s in that time frame that he’s experienced the majority of his success.
“I’m starting to slowly see things grow, and that’s kind of different for me,” Bryant says. “I’m a kid from a small town … who never thought in a million years that people would even know my name.”
That could sound like media-coached humility from anyone else, but there’s a ringing note of truth when those words come from Bryant. People are learning more than his name, however — he’s a player in country music’s current melting pot that’s got traditionally styled artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson sharing airtime with the pop radio-ready guys like Sam Hunt and Chris Lane. Bryant firmly sits in the latter category, his role in country’s sea change not unnoticed by his peers.
“What guys like Chase and Sam Hunt are doing right now is great,” says Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion, an act also playing Country Thunder this year. “It’s a shakeup in the format for sure.”
Bryant echoes that sentiment, though he references Sam Hunt’s breakout success as the turning point in country’s latest evolution. Citing the cyclical nature of music and the criticism that follows such changes, he makes a salient, yet polarizing, point about his peers.
“They’re just like the pioneers of country music. Waylon Jennings was not down-the-center country music of the time; that was rock ’n’ roll country,” he says. “When people go, ‘That can’t be country music,’ go back and do your research. Go back to the ’50s and start from there. Start back from guys like Roy Rodgers and then go into Jack Clement, go into guys like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard — people were doing things that weren’t country at that time.”
Striving for both relativity and angst in equal measure with his upcoming record, Bryant’s bottom line seems to revolve around putting out content that’s made to leave a legacy, a snapshot of the youthfulness he’s pulling from at the moment. It’s not all about first-week radio markets and single spins — Bryant judges “making it” by a different measure.
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“I feel like success for me is when my record is sitting in somebody’s car, along with a bunch of other great records, and they pull that record out one day to listen to it,” he says. “It’s seeing faces you don’t know, that you haven’t played those songs for personally, to see if there’s something worth putting out.”
He’s also a guitar slinger, evidenced by the nuanced phrasing of his runs on both of his radio singles, even picking up on a Doyle Bramhall II reference during our talk and launching into a conversation about owning one of Bramhall’s guitars. Notes like this help to bolster the Keith Urban comparisons Bryant’s been getting as of late. There’s a markedly similar thread between the two in both stylistic and musical terms, each building pop structures laced with downright good guitar playing, and it’s felt like a while since someone like this has come along in country music. With the current state of country in a bit of an amalgamation phase, Bryant’s making his own lane. His timing couldn’t be better.
“Country music isn’t about wearing a cowboy hat; it’s about telling the truth,” he says. “Even guys like George Strait, hit after hit after hit after hit, you either kind of settle and try to be somebody else or you’re a pioneer and you try to carve a way. The only thing that I try to do is make records that describe who Chase Bryant is.”
Correction, 1 p.m., 4-6-2016: This story originally said Chase Bryant's grandfather was a guitar player. He was, in fact, a keyboardist.