It's Friday night in Nashville, and Chase Rice has just rolled up to the microphone at Bridgestone Arena. The pulsing introduction to his Top 5 hit "Ready Set Roll" rings familiar across a venue that's fuller than you'll find it for most opening acts.

This song is a photograph of him — and country music, really — from 2014. It's a version of himself he's trying to put distance between, but that's tricky, because, for better or worse, a performing artist needs to play the hits.

So, Rice compromises and strips this song and other early branding tracks of the elements that don't fit him or country music.

“There’s no tracks anymore. I’m done with the track world. That was a phase of my life and it’s in the past," he tells Taste of Country.

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I've spoken with Rice many, many times since 2011. He's something of an OG artist for Taste of Country, as one of our very first articles was a story about him performing a song as a contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor. There's an unusual kind of punching humility to him — he's never been quite satisfied with the music he's left behind, and he's always very confident about what's to come. When asked to reflect on the 10 years since he co-wrote Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" and set goals for his next decade, he'll say:

"Albums like the one I just made to be honest. That’s all I can really focus on. If you start thinking, 'You wanna sell out stadiums' or 'You wanna sell out arenas' or anything like that, then — I mean that’s a cool thought — but just thinking that ain’t gonna make it happen. What makes that happen is great music."

Professionally, Rice has carved out a respectable career. Four Top 5 singles (including two No. 1s on Billboard's Country Airplay Chart) and three studio albums stand out. He's also a headline-caliber touring act that many arena headliners stay away from. There's been no ACM or CMA love yet, but the former college football player may tell you he's not yet released anything worthy. The amped-up, pop-friendly tracks found on his debut album, Ignite the Night, almost make him cringe today.

"When I started in music, I didn’t know any better," he says, adding that this sound is not what he grew up on. "I was pretty ignorant to what I wanted to do ... and then all of a sudden, I had huge success with it earlier with ‘Cruise’ and then ‘Ready Set Roll.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I do.’ But that’s not what I ever really wanted to do.”

Three songs and two next-level music videos are what fans have heard and seen from what's to come. "Way Down Yonder" — a snarling, sparsely produced country thumper — is his most recent offering, and he says he hopes to share three or four more songs before the album drops in 2023. Most of the new material came late in his set opening for Jason Aldean in Nashville, as if he's wanting to leave fans with who he is today after reminding them of the man he once was.

That man — 26-year-old Chase Rice — still lurks in the shadows, but Rice is set on keeping him there. Personally, his outward confidence has kept hidden the kind of trauma that often leads someone to drugs and alcohol. The COVID-19 pandemic gave him time to draw conclusions after years of treatment to address some of that, which has led to a more mature musician and man. A terrifying 75 days of sobriety was a total game-changer.

"It made me realize how f---ed up I was getting every single night," he says. "I was passing out in hot tubs. I should have died. There’s no way I should still be here. I was getting messed up every single night. I just thank God that I didn’t die one of those nights."

Taste of Country: Did the success of “Cruise” create an unrealistic expectation for you?

Chase Rice: 100 percent. There’s no question about that. There’s an unrealistic expectation of what success looks like. It was also an unrealistic expectation of what I should be doing for myself. I chased that. “Ready Set Roll” is in that same vein. “Gonna Wanna Tonight” is in that same vein. Then you get to “Lonely If You Are,” “Eyes on You,” “Drinkin’ Beer …” It’s still kind of in that same vein of that era of country music. A lot of that is even production. The songs are one thing, but when you produce them so slick and pop, you create a sound for yourself that I think people just, when they hear that they think it’s you. Every time I’d hear it, I’d think, 'Aww, what are we doing? It sounds awesome, but it ain’t what I’m trying to do here.'

A lot of the literature about the new music you’re working on and what you’ve said elsewhere speaks to how you used the time during the pandemic to reflect and reinvent. Initially you were one of the artists who was pretty outspoken about venues shutting down. When did it turn for you to become something where you could embrace the quiet?

Well, I have my thoughts on that. I still don’t think what happened should have happened. There’s a lot of things that I’m disappointed in how people acted. But, as far as it goes, that’s just the way it’s going to be for a minute. I wasn’t going to sit here and beat my head against a wall trying to play shows when they weren’t real shows anyway.

So that’s when I embraced the — and honestly at the beginning I was like, “There’s no way I can take time off. We gotta go!” What I didn’t realize then was how much positive was going to come out of taking that time off and embracing the quiet and embracing the friends and embracing the time away from the stage and lights.

"When I started in music, I didn’t know any better. I was pretty ignorant to what I wanted to do, and that was what was in. And then all of a sudden, I had huge success with it earlier with ‘Cruise’ and then ‘Ready Set Roll.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I do.’"

Some of the text in your biography refers to obstacles you’ve overcome and even some addiction. What was the biggest obstacle you overcame that you identified during the making of this album?

Losing my dad was huge for me when I was 22. That was right before I moved to Nashville, so that messed me up more than I gave credit for. And then for the first time in my life I wasn’t playing a sport that required me to be the best athlete I could be, so I was coming off of losing the most influential person in my life and all of a sudden walking into a party town. That’s a very dangerous thing, and I had no idea how much it’s going to screw me up. And I went down that road. I went down it hauling ass, foot on the pedal, like all right, I don’t give a s--t about anything. And that lasted until just a few years ago.

The problem with that is some of the things I’d done — whether it’s sex, whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s drugs — they’re gonna affect you from here on out. So, you still got that baggage, and that’s just something you’ve gotta keep battling every single day. That’s the battle that I still live with. And that’s OK. At least I know I’m in a fight now, whereas before I just didn’t give a s--t. Alcohol doesn’t run my life anymore. Drugs are a thing that I’ve gone down that road, and thank God I got out of. Sex is a thing that most men battle their entire lives, but they don’t consume me like they used to.

I think that’s been a huge part of being able to create this new album and creating it from a point of me, a man, as opposed to being a lost little boy that didn’t have a clue what to do with his life.

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Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Did you fight those battles on your own or did you get help to fight those addictions?

Oh yeah. In 2013 I started to go to see somebody, just a therapist. They sent me to rehab. I went to rehab three or four times. Then I came back and started seeing somebody else and she was amazing, a friend today. Then, after that you still have to fight. I still have men in my life that help me every single day — just that I talk to. Just to have real men in your life. I’m using the word “men” on purpose — I think it’s crucial for men to have other men in their lives that keep them accountable. Because if you don’t have any accountability — which I’ve had that in my life — you can go down a road. Why not do everything you want to do? Nobody’s going to hold you up to it. But eventually the walls are going to fall down. They have with me.

What is your relationship with alcohol like now?

I did 75 days of complete sobriety. And the reason that I did it, it came up like four or five times. The first person that brought it up, I looked at him and was like, “that’s f---ing crazy. That’s dumb as s--t. I’m never doing that.” About a month later I started, so that’s how fast it caved in. The reason I really, really had to do it was because my buddy Brian called me and he said, “All right, you ready to start this s--t?” And I said, “Well all right, I got the Kentucky Derby coming up this weekend so we’ve gotta wait at least another week. When do you want to start it?” He said, “F--k that. We’re starting tomorrow.”

When he said that, my heart dropped. I said, “What? I got the Derby. I can’t go to the Kentucky Derby and not drink.” When I was so consumed with the thought and afraid of the thought of not drinking was when I realized that how much of a problem I had.

You mentioned not having a sport. That kind of physicality can be its own addiction. Do you still crave that?

I’ll be honest. There’s still days where I’m watching football where you just want to do that. That’s in your blood. That’s how you grew up. I think back then it was out of anger. Now it would just be out of love for the game. But no, I’m good with that. My body hurts enough as it is. I don’t wanna be slamming my head against other 300-pound dudes anymore. I’ve got so many injuries, especially head injuries that I’ve dealt with that are probably part of the depression and part of the addiction stuff that I’ve been through or put myself through. No, I’m happy in life. I really love where I’m at with the songs that I’m making. I love where I’m at with the life that I’m living with my family, with my mom, with my brothers, with my niece and my nephews. Everybody is getting closer, and in a way, my family is becoming friends more than we ever have.

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