‘Eyes’ On the Prize: How Chase Rice Turned a Strategy Shift Into His Biggest Hit Yet

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The country singer's latest hit "Eyes On You" is sitting at No. 5 on Country Airplay.

Chase Rice is no stranger to success: the 33-year-old co-wrote Florida Georgia Line's crossover smash "Cruise" in 2012, then saw his first two solo singles -- 2013's party starter "Ready Set Roll" and 2014's romantic "Gonna Wanna Tonight" -- reach the top 10 of both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs. But no hit has meant quite as much as his latest.

"Eyes On You," a piano-driven love song, is currently sitting at No. 5 on Country Airplay and No. 6 on Hot Country Songs, and has scored Rice his biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit yet at No. 52 (all charts dated April 20). It's his first country top 10 in four years, and in that time, Rice has been all about refining his strategy. Rice left Sony imprint Columbia Nashville in 2017 and found a home at Broken Bow Records, where his new team helped the singer implement a plan to rebuild his career back to where it began -- an approach that involved keeping "Eyes On You" on hold. 

"We had to reboot," Rice says. He felt strongly about "Three Chords & the Truth," another ballad which he released as the lead single of his fourth album, Lambs & Lions, in August 2017. Though he knew he had a smash in "Eyes On You," the North Carolina native also knew that waiting was the best way to restart. Nearly two years later, "Eyes On You" has proven his instincts were right.

As "Eyes On You" continues to soar, Rice detailed his successful strategy to Billboard, explaining how the song came to be and why a little faith can go a long way. 

This is your first top 10 on both Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay since “Gonna Wanna Tonight” in 2015. What does it feel like to be back?

Redemption. I had success right away when I moved to Nashville as a writer on “Cruise,” then I followed that with “Ready Set Roll” and “Gonna Wanna Tonight.” I was like, “Damn, this is easy, anybody can do this.” I took it for granted, and the last two years have shown me that.

It’s been a hell of a roller coaster ride, but to me, this is the very beginning of my career. The artist that I am now, compared to what I was three and four years ago, it doesn’t even compare. I know who I am as a man more, I know who I am as an artist more.

What made you feel confident about signing to Broken Bow in 2017, not long after things didn’t work out with Sony?

Broken Bow believed in me after Sony didn't. When I met with [then-BMG president] Zach Katz and Broken Bow’s [EVP] Jon Loba, I played them some stuff, and it just felt right. It felt like that girl you meet and you’re like, “Oh man, this one just feels right.” I was like “Oh my God, these people are amazing, they believe in my music.”

It took me a while to get used to hearing how much the Broken Bow reps loved my music. I was really confused; I was like, “Why do these people like me so much?” [laughs] Then they followed the passion by going into rooms with radio programmers. I’d get texts from programmers like, “Dude, I don’t know what you’re doing, but your label absolutely loves you.”

And it’s not just me. It’s Jason Aldean, it’s Dustin Lynch. These people give up their life for these artists, and you can tell.

Why were you so adamant about releasing “Three Chords and the Truth” before “Eyes On You”?

After “Gonna Wanna Tonight,” everything went away at radio, so we had to recharge. We wanted to make sure it didn’t fall apart again. The first year with Broken Bow was to get me in with their radio team, spend time with them, to be out on the roads spending time with all these different radio people from California to Carolina.

“Three Chords & The Truth” took over a year to get just to number 20, which a lot of people would call a failure. I’m like, hell no! That’s the thing that made that rock strong again. A lot of people thought we were crazy, they thought “Eyes On You” was the hit. We knew the day we wrote “Eyes On You” that it was a hit, but I believed in “Three Chords & The Truth,” and we had a plan. Now we’re reaping the benefits of that plan.

How did “Eyes On You” come together?

[Co-writer] Ashley Gorley started playing piano, and I looked through my Notes app. I came across a note on my phone that said “Eyes on You,” and under it said “travel the world, miss it all because you’re looking at her.” I realized it went with what Ashley was playing. We recorded it that day, and we were like, “Oh my God, we’re on to something huge.”

I had never seen Gorley so obsessed about writing a big song with me. We’ve written so many good songs together, but none of them were singles, and it was almost like our last stretch. These songwriters want hits, and they deserve hits because they’re getting screwed right now.

We all deserve a No. 1 song because we’ve worked so hard for it. But I don’t care where it peaks – whatever happens, we’re going to have a “Number Whatever” party. The band deserves it, the crew deserves it, the label deserves it, management deserves it. We’re going to have a hell of a party.

What’s your plan for following up “Eyes On You”?

We’re going to follow “Eyes On You” with something new. I’ve been writing like crazy, and I’m trying to beat it. We’ve got a lot of great stuff: the top five are called “Lonely If You Are,” “Down Home Runs Deep,” “You,” “Breathing Room” and “Nowhere Tonight.” “Lonely If You Are” has just an acoustic guitar in the beginning, which I’ve never really done. It’s a little different sound for me, but it’s a jam. It’s probably the leader for the next single. The song [we go with] will be released by summer, probably by the end of May or beginning of June.

In the meantime, fans have shared videos dancing to your song at their weddings. How does that feel?

That's ridiculous. I mean, it is cool [that people] first dance into forever to our song. One person said on Twitter, “Thank God Chase Rice came out with ‘Eyes on You’ so people can stop getting married to Russell Dickerson and Ed Sheeran. We finally got somebody else!"

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 13 issue of Billboard.