If you’ve been hoping that the lines between country and contemporary Christian music would blur, your prayers have been answered.
Because Grammy-winning contemporary Christian music singer, songwriter and worship leader Chris Tomlin has a new album due out on Friday (July 31) — called simply, Chris Tomlin: Chris Tomlin & Friends — and oh, what a friend he has in country.
Some of Tomlin’s country collaborators are ones he’s worked with before. He is one of the artists on Thomas Rhett’s uplifting ballad of perfect timing, “Be a Light.” And late last year, he crashed a Florida Georgia Line concert and has stayed closely connected to Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley.
The list of who Tomlin sings with and who he wrote with on this project goes on and on and on, and runs deep into the well of country music’s most gifted singers and songwriters. I know this because I had the chance to talk to Tomlin about which country stars he had on each track, and the story behind each one. “There was really never the thought of, ’Let’s make a record together.’ It was more like, ’Man, this friendship started and wouldn’t it be cool to see what would happen if we wrote some songs together,'” Tomlin told me about how the process evolved so naturally. “This album has no rules. And that’s the beautiful thing.”
CMT.com: Let’s go track by track. Tell me first about “Thank You Lord,” with Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line.
Tomlin: This song is so fun. I mean, this is the perfect example to me of collaboration and what this record is about. Because it’s Thomas (Rhett), it’s Tyler (Hubbard), it’s BK (Brian Kelley), and so I think you can hear all the different DNA in the song. To me, it is the ultimate smash-up song because it’s so country with the lyrics, and then we get to the bridge about “praise up, eyes closed, one thing I know” and that definitely feels more like me. I think it just is a combination of all of us together and what the song say is also incredibly powerful, right? To have a life of gratitude and thank God for all things that are around you. I think that’s a big theme in this record. And not only thanking God for all the good things and the sweet things in life, but the hard things as well. The ones that you look back on and go, “Wow, at the time I didn’t really feel very grateful for those things, but now I know how much they teach us and shape us.”
And how about the Lady A collaboration on “Who You Are To Me”?
There’s a great story in that one, too, because things started organically taking shape. And I thought, “Man, we must get more artists involved. Let’s do something so expansive and wide, as wide as we can make it.” I instantly thought of Lady A. I’ve known Hillary (Scott) and Dave (Haywood) for a while, but I didn’t know Charles as well. And I remember walking into Dave’s little writing room just to see what would happen if our worlds collided. It was so special, because when Charles walked into the room, he was just so vulnerable from the start. He was trying to say that this wasn’t in his wheelhouse. But he said, “You know what? When I think about faith and the stories of Sunday school and the Bible stories that you grew up hearing, I think that for the last few years I’ve just really been in a hard place and gone through a lot. And you find that in those hard places, God meets you in a special way. You understand who God is in a special way when it becomes more personal.” And so those first lines, about, “Some people think you’re just some words on a page and you’re nothing more than fables handed down along the way, but I’ve seen you part the waters when no one else can pull me from the deep, and that’s who you are to me.” I think that’s really where a lot of people are. Like, I’ve heard all the stories. I know what the bible says about God, but how has he met me in all these different ways? At the end of the song, it turns into this really high praise. That’s so incredible to me. Hillary said, “I just think at the very end, we should just take it one more level where it’s just high praise to God for who he is.” When we were writing this song together, I remember Charles saying that he hadn’t enjoyed writing a song this much since “Need You Now.” And as you know, when those guys start singing, everything sounds so good. You don’t even know if the song is any good, or if it just sounds good because they’re singing it.
The third track is one with just you and Thomas Rhett. It’s called “God Who Listens.” Which kind of reminds me of one of his first singles “Beer with Jesus” from almost a decade ago. What can you tell me about that one?
This was my first time sitting down with Thomas. We were writing together for his Christmas album last year, and he said, “I’ve got this idea that I’d love for us to think about.” It was me, Thomas, Ashley Gorley and David Garcia. I mean, if you can’t write a good song with those guys, you just need to quit first of all. And then secondly, Thomas just said that he’d heard his pastor say that the difference maker in who we worship is that we are praying to a God who listens. He said that really meant something to him. So immediately that lyric came, “I’m not just hoping, I’m not just wishing. I know I’m praying to God who listens.” We really tried to paint a picture of that: of this grandness, this greatness, this all powerful and untouchable — you would think — God and yet he still draws close to us and still hears what’s in our hearts. That is an incredible thing to contemplate and to think about throughout all of your life. And so I think that’s the heart and core of this song.
I’ve really been turning up the volume on “Be The Moon,” with Brett Young and Cassadee Pope. What was it like to work with them on such a spiritual song?
This one is the core of the record to me. I had this idea that I’d been trying to figure out how to write for years. It’s all about how the moon is such an incredible picture of our faith. And what I mean by that is, the moon is the light in the dark, right? It lights up the night. It is a light in the dark, and yet incredibly, the moon does not have any light on its own. It just reflects a greater light. That is such a beautiful picture of what faith is about, and what the essence of Christianity is to me. To me, it’s that essence of faith in the sense that I don’t have any light of my own, and it doesn’t come from me, but if I get in the right place, I can reflect the light of God. Isn’t it incredible how the moon is not striving to be anything? It’s just floating and it gets in the right place and it reflects light. Sometimes, it’s just a sliver. Sometimes, it’s full moon. Life has been hard in 2020. This year is one for the books, man. There’s so much about life that is unfair, and it comes at us different ways. As we were getting together, the artists, we all kind of talked about the idea of bringing glory to God and being a light in a hurting world. I love the line in the song, “Everybody wants to be somebody. I want to be somebody, too, but if I’m going to be known for something, I want to be known for you, I want to be the moon.” That definitely resonates with me and helps me understand what faith is about.
It was such a pleasant surprise to hear Russell Dickerson’s voice on “Sing,” along with Florida Georgia Line. How did that song come together?
To me, Russell had to be a part of this project when it started happening. Because Russell was my guitar tech for three years over a decade ago. He’s such an incredible guy. He has so much charisma, right? And so we’ve had this great relationship for so many years. It’s been really fun to see him become a superstar. So when we started thinking, “Man, we’ve got something here. We got a lot of great song. Let’s get a lot of like-minded, like-hearted, like-faith guys and see if we can do this together.” And Russell was one of the first calls I made for this.
How did you and RaeLynn end up together for “Chase Me Down”?
Oh my goodness. I felt like we were in the current of the river, right? The river was rolling over and we were just going wherever it took us. And it got to that point where we were just creating this whole project through friendships. There was no A&R, no labels, no managers involved. People didn’t even know we were doing this. It was just us. And I didn’t know RaeLynn, but instantly I knew this song was so special. We were saying we think it’s the best song RaeLynn’s ever written. So I said, “Let’s just let her sing the song, and I’ll just sing harmony.” There’s a lot in the song that just knocks me down every time. And then in the chorus, there’s a part that says, “When I’m lost and I’m low in a place that I think you won’t go, you chase me down.” That is great. That is the gospel. That is the good news, and all of us have felt that. Or maybe thought they were so far away. Or that there’s no way that with all things they’ve done that God could ever hear them or their prayers. And that’s the story that Jesus told the prodigal son, and it is all through the Bible. RaeLynn has such an honest voice, and such a haunting voice, that I can’t imagine another person singing this song.
And then there’s “Gifts From God,” with Chris Lane. I know he is a very spiritual man, but you can’t always tell that from his country songs. What was this collaboration like for you?
This one was the first song we wrote for the record. And I knew that no matter what happened, after we wrote lots of songs that aren’t on this record and edited some out when we were trying to find the best, I knew this one would make it. And I love the very country feeling of the lyrics and the idea. But it’s done in a different way, when you’re just thanking God for those gifts that are the ones money can’t buy. You know, it’s the people that you love next to you, it’s your families, it’s your kids, it’s peace at night, it’s knowing that every day you wake up is a gift from God. And even the things you looked back on and thought, “Man, that was a terrible thing and I didn’t get what I wanted, but it’s actually a gift that didn’t get what I wanted.”
For the songs on Chris Tomlin & Friends, Tomlin teamed up with Nashville singers and songwriters B. Kelley, Hubbard, Dickerson, Thomas Rhett, C. Kelley, Haywood, Scott, RaeLynn, Shay Mooney, Garcia, Gorley, Cary Barlowe, Josh Kerr, Natalie Hemby and Corey Crowder.
Chris Tomlin & Friends full track list:
1. “Thank You Lord” (Intro)
2. “Thank You Lord” feat. Florida Georgia Line & Thomas Rhett (Chris Tomlin, Thomas Rhett, Tyler Hubbard, Corey Crowder, David Garcia)
3. “Reaching For You” feat. We The Kingdom (Chris Tomlin, Shay Mooney, Ed Cash)
4. “Who You Are To Me” feat. Lady A (Chris Tomlin, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood)
5. “God Who Listens” feat. Thomas Rhett (Chris Tomlin, Thomas Rhett, Ashley Gorley, David Garcia)
6. “Power” feat. Bear Rinehart of NEEDTOBREATHE (Chris Tomlin, Pat Barrett, Ed Cash)
7. “Be The Moon” feat. Brett Young & Cassadee Pope (Chris Tomlin, Corey Crowder, Tyler Hubbard)
8. “Sing” feat. Russell Dickerson & Florida Georgia Line ((Chris Tomlin, Corey Crowder, Brian Kelley, Tyler Hubbard, Cary Barlowe)
9. “Chase Me Down” feat. RaeLynn (Racheal Lynn David, Josh Kerr, Hannah Ellis)
10. “Gifts From God” feat. Chris Lane (Chris Tomlin, Corey Crowder, Tyler Hubbard)
11. “Forever Home” feat. Florida Georgia Line ((Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Ashley Gorley, Corey Crowder)
12. “Together” feat. Russell Dickerson (Chris Tomlin, Brian Kelley, Tyler Hubbard, Russell Dickerson, Corey Crowder)
13. “Tin Roof” feat. Blessing Offor (Blessing Offor, Natalie Hemby)