“It was truly organic, and truly this amazing, divine intervention,” Chris Tomlin recalls, thinking back on the origin story behind his new album, Chris Tomlin & Friends.
The project is a team effort between the Christian singer and a slew of gusts, the bulk of whom come from the country format. While Tomlin grew up a fan of the genre, he hadn’t done much collaborating with its artists before beginning what would eventually become his new album. In fact, the singer first forayed into working with country performers last year, when a fateful chance encounter with Thomas Rhett led to Tomlin’s participation in a song called “Be a Light.”
“Last year, I did a thing called Good Friday Nashville, which was at Bridgestone [Arena],” Tomlin explains. “I had been trying to get Thomas Rhett to do it with me — like, to be my surprise guest. And it never happened. But then I’m walking up to do my soundcheck this past year, and I finish my soundcheck and walk offstage, and my road manager says, ‘Hey man, why don’t you come backstage? Thomas Rhett just walked up and wants to meet you.’”
As it turned out, while Tomlin was soundchecking, Rhett was in the arena’s rehearsal space preparing for his upcoming summer tour. He’d realized that Tomlin was in the building after recognizing the music coming from the stage, and wanted to come say hello and introduce himself as a fan.
“So we just connected right there…What are the odds, right?” Tomlin continues. After all the time he’d spent trying to figure out the logistics of bringing the country superstar out onstage during his show, it was a lucky encounter that finally brought the two performers together.
“We started talking about music. He said, ‘Why don’t we get together and maybe see if we can write some songs together?’ I thought, ‘Man, that would be so cool.’ We talked about how much we loved each other’s music,” he adds. “And then it was probably just a couple of weeks later that he sent me that song, ‘Be a Light.’”
Released in March in part as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Be a Light” also featured the likes of Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and Lady A’s Hillary Scott. Its release marked Tomlin’s first preview into how a country fan base would respond to a collaboration between him and country artists.
But by the time that song came out, Chris Tomlin & Friends was already well underway: In fact, it wasn’t long after meeting Rhett that Tomlin had another chance encounter that would go on to hugely impact his duets project.
“Like, two weeks after I ran into Thomas, I was on vacation down in Florida after my tour ended, and so was Tyler [Hubbard] from Florida Georgia Line,” he continues. The pair met while working out in the same gym, and just like in his meeting with Rhett, a simple introduction led to plans to write together sometime.
“We smashed up our genres and wrote songs, never thinking we were gonna make a record,” says Tomlin. “It wasn’t like the label came and said, ‘Let’s put these artists together…’We just started writing some songs and were like, ‘Wow, we’re sitting on some really great stuff. What would it be like to do this together, make a record together?’
“So we started getting more people involved. Like, ‘Let’s go out and find those people who are of like heart, like mind and like faith, and let’s do this,’” he adds.
Soon, acts like Lady A, Brett Young, Russell Dickerson, Cassadee Pope and RaeLynn had also signed on to the project, and FGL took on an executive producing role. Many of the artists lending their voices had a hand in songwriting, too — a particularly appropriate approach for a collaborative project that seems to have emerged largely out of organic connections and sit-down songwriting sessions.
“We were writing songs together. We were producing it together. Singing it together. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you go sing your verse, I’ll sing mine and we’ll never even see each other,’” Tomlin explains, going on to say that being surrounded by country songwriters afforded him the freedom to experiment with lyrical style in a way that was new for him.
“Country music is [for] the common man,” he points out. “So it allowed me to say things and write things that I really wouldn’t write in my songs, because my songs are more for singing to God and worshipping God. It’s a different kind of language. It gave me license to use language in a different way that I really, really loved and have always wanted to do.”
As an example, he cites “Thank You Lord,” a song that boasts both Rhett and Hubbard as co-writers and guest vocalists.
“If you ever told me I could sing a chorus like, ‘For my babies, for my girl / For the way they changed my world’…all these things we’re singing, it doesn’t really work on a Sunday morning in church,” Tomlin says. “But then when you get to the bridge of the song…it really is kind of more of a praise [lyric.] It’s beautiful how that worked together.”
Just like Rhett saw “Be a Light” in a different context after the pandemic broke out, Tomlin says that 2020 has expanded the scope of his new album in ways he couldn’t have predicted. More than anything, the idea of collaboration itself — two or more people in a room together, sharing space as they work toward a common goal — means more today than it ever could have even six months ago.
“Because first of all, we feel so isolated with the pandemic. With the quarantine, there’s more isolation than ever, which causes so much stress and anxiety,” Tomlin elucidates. “Then with all the racial tensions — man, we really need each other. We’re really the same. We’re really one people. So this record is not even trying to do that, but it’s meant in a way that’s really special.”