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Chris Young at the dawn of 'A.M.'

Now on album No. 4, the country singer and 'Nashville Star' winner reflects on his steady rise

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

Finding a niche in country music can be a challenge for any artist. The format tends to swing like a pendulum from traditional sounds toward pop country in cycles that follow current trends. In the midst of that, Chris Young has found firm footing essentially straddling that line with a sound that is rooted in tradition yet decidedly contemporary.

He grew up listening to hard-core country acts like Keith Whitley and Randy Travis, and his considerable vocal skills put Young in good company with those acts. At the recent ACM Honors show in Nashville, Young was chosen to pay tribute to country legend George Jones, and wowed a crowd that included Jones' widow, Nancy, with a medley of three of Jones' best-loved songs. Yet Young, just 28, is as hip, handsome and — in recent years — hatless as any of the current stars who fall into the more pop country category.

One Country blog: More on the ACM Honors show

Young signed his record deal with RCA when he was barely out of his teens and has enjoyed a slow but steady build since then that has included a run of five No. 1 hits, a Grammy nomination for Best Male Vocal Performance and a growing reputation as a live act worth watching. Yet the early days of his career were lean. He once played a gig in a Borders bookstore with an audience of just three people, two of whom were playing chess. The third was reading a book. When Young announced at the end of his set that it was his last song, the book reader clapped.

These days, he's playing to much larger audiences as the middle act on Brad Paisley's current tour, which runs through November, interspersed with some of his own headlining shows. His fourth album, "A.M.," hit retail Sept. 17, fueled by the current hit "Aw Naw." Young co-wrote six of the 11 tracks on the set, which includes more up-tempo material than on his previous albums.

Now recovered from a near-fatal leg infection in late summer, Young took some time out before a recent show to chat with MSN Music about the new album, his career and his famous dimple.

MSN Music: You're now eight years into your career. Is there a new eight-year plan looking ahead?

Chris Young: In eight years, I would like to — this is so much pressure on myself when I say this — but I would like to have played at least one stadium. I think that gives me enough time to work up to that.

What can fans expect from "A.M."?

This record's going to be a little bit different from what I've done in the past, and then there's some stuff that's still the same on there. I think I managed to grow a little bit and experiment a little bit as an artist without getting too far off base where it's going to freak fans out.

Listening Booth: Hear the new album

I'm an average country fan with $10 to spend. Your album is coming out on the same day as new country albums from Justin Moore ("Off the Beaten Path") and Billy Currington ("We Are Tonight"). Why should I buy yours?

Because I'm bigger than both of them [laughs]. It's funny, because I know both of those guys, and me and Justin came out about the same time, so I'm really good friends with him. So I can't not buy the other two records that are coming out the same day mine is, because I like both of [them]. But just being an artist, I would say buy mine first because this is a very different record from what I've made in the past, so I think it's something people are going to be interested in. There's more tempo on this record than I've ever put on a record. The ballads and mid-tempo stuff that people expect from me are still going to be there, but there's a different aspect to this production. I think people are going to be interested to hear what that is.

You wrote more than half the songs on this album, but what qualities does an outside song have to have to get to be a Chris Young cut?

No. 1, it has to be something I want to say. No. 2 is [I have to have] that gut reaction of "Aw, crap, I wish I'd written that." If I wish I'd written it, then it's good enough to go on my record.

After you had five consecutive No. 1s, has the pressure been on every single since then to repeat the performance?

Yes and no. I had a top five with "I Can Take It From There," and I don't think anybody was crying and talking about the end of the world because it didn't go to No. 1. It got all the way to three. But, to a certain extent, I put a lot of pressure on myself making music because you want it to be better than what you did before. You want it to be something different, something that makes people sit up and pay attention.

Bing: More on Chris Young

What are your thoughts about the direction country music is heading in right now?

It's just evolving like it's always done. One of my favorite artists of all time is Marty Robbins. At the time that Marty Robbins came out, he was as pop as you could get. He had crossover pop hits.

There's room for everything in country, and there always has been. There's always influences from other things, but, at the core, it's country music. I think it's just growing. Right now you look at country artists having the biggest-[selling] records all-genre, multiple artists from the format being able to sell more records on their release week than any other genre of music. That's good for everybody else in country.

As someone who started his career by winning a TV singing competition ["Nashville Star" in 2006], when you see a Cassadee Pope or a Danielle Bradbery or a Tate Stevens or a Kree Harrison following that path, is there any advice you'd give them?

I don't know if I'm really in a place to give anybody advice. But I'd say from what I experienced, without trying to project onto them 'cause I don't know what they've gone through, it's an opportunity. It's really all up to what you do with the opportunity from that point forward. A lot of people are like, "Man, if I could only get a record deal, then I'd be set." Once you have the record deal and have that opportunity in front of you, then the work starts.

You had a cameo earlier this year on ABC's "Nashville." Did it spark any acting ambitions in you?

I think I was there for six hours, and I was on the show for 30 seconds. It's definitely hurry up and wait. [Acting is] not anything I would shy away from, but I also don't know if I'm like "Oh my God, I have to go be in a movie right now."

Finally, based on the chatter in your online fan community, it seems like your dimple has its own fan club.

I did not know that. I actually have two [dimples], one on each side, but most of the time I'm photographed from that one side. The other one feels left out now.

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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