When Chris Young played the Grand Ole Opry on June 6, he found himself in an awkward position in front of a house packed with tourists in Nashville for CMA Fest.
He pulled out “Drowning,” a ballad he’d not played previously on the WSM-AM show. From the outset, his voice was noticeably shaky. As the song progressed, he missed a few notes, grew pink -- then red -- in the face and finally just walked away from the microphone two lines into the final chorus. The band finished out the song while Young leaned over, hands on his knees, slowly regaining his composure. When he returned to the mic, he apologized to the crowd, then noted that he’d never before received a standing ovation for a song he never completed.
“I’m not a crier,” he says in retrospect. “I just don’t, but that one got me.”
It makes sense. The Opry’s physical home, the Grand Ole Opry House, is the star attraction in the complex where Young’s career got its start. He signed with RCA in May 2006, a day after he won the USA Network talent contest Nashville Star, which filmed at the Opry-affiliated Acuff Theatre. Contestants were housed at the Opryland Hotel, and Young -- whose home was just 37 miles away -- developed cabin fever as the season wore on. “Even though I lived in Murfreesboro [Tenn.], they didn’t even want me to go home to wash clothes,” remembers Young. “They wanted me on-site.”
His best friend, Adam, served as an informal, unpaid roadie and was a huge help in getting through the inescapable tension. “When I was just like, ‘Man, I gotta go somewhere where I’m not inside Opryland Hotel,’” says Young, “he would drive over and sit in the parking lot with me and just hang out and listen to music.”
Adam (whose last name Young has chosen not to reveal) died in a car accident when both men were in their twenties. He was -- for Young, anyway -- the inspiration behind “Drowning.”
But his two co-writers have their own personal connections to the song. Josh Hoge (“Losing Sleep,” “Used to Love You Sober”) had lost a friend, Jason Coole, and happened to be talking about him on Dec. 5, 2017, over breakfast at the Alley Pub, a Nashville restaurant Coole and Hoge used to frequent. After the meal, Hoge headed to the home studio of Corey Crowder (“Raised on Country,” “Famous”), who that same morning had heard someone mention -- on either a podcast or talk radio -- how the emotions from a breakup come in waves.
“I was kind of sitting there reflecting on it,” recalls Crowder. “It hit me that that would be a crazy way to write a song about death, because if missing you comes in waves, then I’m drowning. The image hit me like a giant wave crushing you.”
Crowder brought that idea up once his co-writers arrived, and they dug in, with each of them drawing on their own histories: Young and Hoge recalling their friends, Crowder channeling his mother’s thoughts about her own deceased mom.
“It was very heavy and emotional, but in a good way, kind of a cathartic way,” says Young. “And we were putting together a puzzle because we wanted this to be right. Writing a song about people that you’ve lost, you want it to be, you know, written to the wall.”
They approached it very deliberately, holding the “best friend” reference until the final verse, which gives the listener time to apply their own sense of loss to someone in their life. Even if that person is a parent, a sibling or a spouse, sometimes they’re a best friend, too.
“[We made it] personal for Chris to sing, but also open-ended enough where people could actually relate to it and apply their own story to it,” says Crowder. “It’s just vague enough to where it could be applicable to whatever your specific scenario was.”
They also let the details of the loss unfold slowly. It’s clear in the opening that the singer is missing someone, but even when the word “grieve” is introduced in the sixth line, it could still apply to a broken romance. Cleverly, they wait to introduce a few clichés -- phrases writers would usually try to dodge -- in small doses, fully revealing the cause behind the pain. “You were taken way too soon” and “I know you’re in a better place” transmit a loss of life without using the word “death.”
As it came together, Crowder worked up a track that utilized pulsing keyboard sounds, offsetting the weight of the topic with subtle movement.
“It’s a little tricky when you do songs like this,” observes Hoge. “They tend to be super slow and draggy, but the music that Corey and Chris created underneath it is very commercial for a type of song like this.”
Crowder called on drummer Miles McPherson, bassist Tony Lucido, keyboardist Dave Cohen and guitarist Rob McNelley for a session at the Tracking Room, where they played along with the programmed sounds Crowder had built into the demo. Alex Wright overdubbed additional keyboard parts later. Crowder and Young eventually settled on a mix that started with the synthetics and gradually used the real instruments to enhance the sound and provide some change in texture as the song moved along.
Young’s previous ballads (including “Tomorrow” and his Cassadee Pope collaboration “Think of You”) reach high-energy crescendos by their finales. But “Drowning” remains comparatively sedate, relying more on those supporting sonic changes and a few judicious vocal runs to heighten the intensity.
“We did that a lot on this record,” says Crowder. “This record doesn’t shoot the moon in that way as many times as we have in the past. This song in particular didn’t feel like it was appropriate. It just felt like this was more about pulling out pictures and reminiscing on somebody that you lost.”
Even before it emerged as a single, fans began singing along and lighting arenas with their cellphones during “Drowning,” creating an early sense that it could become for Young what “I Drive Your Truck” is for Lee Brice and “You Should Be Here” is for Cole Swindell.
“Those are songs that are going to be around for a long, long time,” says Hoge. “This isn’t like writing a truck song or a beer-drinking song or something like that where it’s flavor-of-the-month. Unfortunately, people are always going to experience loss.”
RCA released “Drowning” to country radio Play MPE on Aug. 27 with an add date of Sept. 23, the same day the video premiered. The clip uses pictures that fans contributed of people they’ve lost. And, naturally, it includes an image of Young’s friend.
“The photo that I used of Adam is him making this completely just goofy-as-hell face,” says Young. “It was his personality, and I can look at that photo and be happy and sad at the same time.”
That’s the magic of “I Drive Your Truck” and “You Should Be Here” -- and “Drowning,” as well: They emphasize the gap that’s left in the world when someone close passes away, but also serve as a reminder of how much those people added to life while they were here.
“I use the word ‘special’ a lot when I’m talking about this,” says Young, “but it is really something that is a piece of me in song form. That’s always what you’re looking for.”