Christian Artist Works With Country Singers
Christian Artist Works With Country Singers
By Matthew Leimkuehler, The -Tennessean – 8-3-20
NASHVILLE — A nineyear-old Chris Tomlin once told his dad that when he grew up, he’d be one of two things: A professional baseball player or a country music singer.
“I missed the mark a little bit on that one,” Tomlin, a Grammy Award-winning worship songwriter and performer, said with a laugh.
Spoiler: Tomlin isn’t pitching shutouts in the majors. But, with the release of his latest album, “Chris Tomlin and Friends,” this applauded Christian artist finds his way to at least pinch hitting in a new league alongside some of Nashville’s top country-pop hitmakers.
With “Chris Tomlin and Friends,” the Nashville-based Texas native unifies worship music he’s been delivering for more than two decades with the sound of a modern Music Row, enlisting the likes of Thomas Rhett, Lady A, Cassadee Pope, Brett Young and others for collaborations.
Florida Georgia Line collaborated with Tomlin on multiple songs and served as executive producers on the album; chart-topping songwriter Corey Crowder produced a dozen “Chris Tomlin and Friends” songs.
“This is definitely a different sound than anything I’ve done,” Tomlin said, adding: “What would it sound like for our worlds to collide? … I think you hear that a lot on this record.”
A CHANCE MEETING
Although Tomlin didn’t know it at the time, the “Friends” project began while he was on vacation with his family last year in Florida.
During his beachside visit, Tomlin took a trip to the gym and found one other person in the room: Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard. He decided to introduce himself, but wasn’t ready for the reply that waited.
“I said, ‘Hey, man. I’m Chris Tomlin,’ and I’ll never forget,” Tomlin said, “he looks at me and he goes, ‘For real? This is crazy … you’re one of the reasons I’m in music.’ That’s not what I thought was coming.”
At that chance visit, Tomlin said he learned Hubbard began listening to his music in eighth grade and, years later at Belmont University, connected with Brian Kelley through worship before properly forming the country-pop powerhouse Florida Georgia Line.
“I started feeling my age pretty quickly,” Tomlin joked: “I was so floored, honestly. [Hubbard] said, ‘Bro, there’s two reasons I’m in music Chris Tomlin and Garth Brooks.’ I was trying to get my head around that.”
A few weeks later, Tomlin was back in Nashville for his annual Good Friday concert at Bridgestone Arena. He tried for six months to ask Thomas Rhett to be that year’s special guest, but couldn’t get a word through management or mutual friends to the “Life Changes” singer.
But, backstage during a soundcheck, he ran into the second encounter that would lead to “Friends”: Rhett rehearsing for his upcoming summer tour.
“[He goes], ‘Man, we should get together and write some songs,’” Tomlin said. “This is all happening in the same couple of weeks. Like, what? This is crazy.”
‘OUT OF THE BLUE’
The “hello” and handshake meetings led to no-pressure writing sessions and, eventually, Tomlin found himself collaborating with a slew of only-in-Nashville possibilities.
Tomlin, Hubbard and company began “connecting the dots” to others who could sing and write on “Friends.”
He enlisted “Every Little Thing” singer and former Tomlin guitar tech Russell Dickerson for a Florida Georgia Line (FGL) collaboration titled “Sing”; rising singer RaeLynn takes lead on the spiritual “Chase Me Down”; Dan + Shay singer Shay Mooney co-wrote “Reaching For You,” a collaboration with Christian outfit We The Kingdom.
“All these relationships are happening out of the blue,” Tomlin said. “There was nobody behind the scenes, pulling the levers. It was just this collaboration that really happened in a very organic way. Out of relationships that I didn’t see coming, that I don’t think they saw coming.”
He added: “This was not in the plan. This was something that was never really in my mind to do.”
To kickstart the record, Tomlin and Rhett join forces with FGL for standout collaboration “Thank You Lord.” Tomlin points to this number as an example of how contemporary country meets modern worship music on the record.
The song starts with Rhett offering a conversational verse and chorus. He sings, “For my mama, for my friends/ For Your love, it never ends … Yeah, I just gotta say, thank you Lord,” he sings. After the second chorus, Tomlin delivers “praise up, eyes closed,” a line akin to his familiar worship tunes.
For Tomlin, the project flexed “different muscles” with songwriting and language.
“Let’s not think about this as a worship song or a country song,” Tomlin said. “Some of it is very much down the line of their country smashes and there’s other songs that you can hear a lot of me on.”
As host to a squad of “Friends” on the album, Tomlin said he wasn’t afraid to ride the bench as needed. The album doesn’t follow a traditional duet format, where each guest artist sings the second verse and maybe a chorus harmony.
Tomlin doesn’t join some songs, such as “Thank You Lord” or FGL collaboration “Forever Home,” until deep into the cut. Others, such as “Chase Me Down,” he can be heard exclusively singing harmony.
“This is a different record, and I can’t go into everybody’s home and explain it,” Tomlin said. “But I hope people feel that. This is truly all of us together.”
And, yes, “Friends” may sound different from the dozen Tomlin albums before it or the modern worship staples sung by churchgoers each Sunday, but faith remains at the forefront of the project’s songwriting.
REFLECTING A ‘GREATER LIGHT’
He points to the moon, literally, for one example of faith on “Friends.” Album track “Be The Moon,” featuring Brett Young and Cassadee Pope, delivers a message about why musicians write and perform Christian music.
The first verse offers, “Everybody wants to be somebody/ I wanna be somebody too/ If I’m gonna be›known›for›something/ I wanna be›known for you.”
Light doesn’t shine from artists singing worship songs on stage, Tomlin said, but instead reflects a “greater light,” like the moon does.
“It’s the essence of our faith,” Tomlin said. “The moon is not striving to be anything else. It’s just what it is. It reflects a greater light. It reflects a light into a dark place.”
And it was just one turn in a winding path that pushed Tomlin into a league with a handful of new “Friends.”
“It was like a river that was just going,” Tomlin said. “Wherever the current was going, we were going. And it kept changing. It kept winding.
“What an incredible, creative thing to be able to do.”