How Unknown and Unsigned Artist Chris Janson Dominated iTunes

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BY JOSEPH HUDAK

With the dream-big anthem “Buy Me a Boat” and the help of an influential country DJ, the independent artist hit Number One.

For all of Friday and most of Saturday last week, the Number One slot on iTunes’ country songs chart was occupied by a rail-thin singer-harmonica player named Chris Janson and his simple man’s salute to dreaming big, “Buy Me a Boat.” The song, which fantasizes about winning the lottery and purchasing a country boy’s wish list of toys, was edging out hits like Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown” and Cole Swindell’s “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” all of them in regular rotation on country radio. “Buy Me a Boat,” however, did not have the same luxury. Nor did Janson, a relative unknown to those outside of Nashville, have a major record label supporting him. For that matter, he had no label at all.

Which is exactly what had Music City insiders buzzing this weekend about the surprise buoyancy of “Boat.”

But with a reputation for being a thrilling live performer (one major-label band swears he’s the one act they’ll never follow) and the respect of the Grand Ole Opry, where he has performed more than 60 times, Janson released his new song to iTunes on Friday with goodwill on his side.

As well as the communicative power of a rogue DJ: Bobby Bones. It was Bones, who after getting ahold of “Buy Me a Boat” on Friday morning, gave it a high-profile endorsement on his nationally syndicated Bobby Bones Show.

Janson awoke that day to the sound of his phone ringing. It was Bones, who promptly put him on the air as the song inched its way up the iTunes chart. When it hit Number One, the host suggested that the Missouri native — who cut his teeth playing for tips at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge when he moved to Nashville nine years ago — could finally pull the trigger on that titular boat. “I’m going to buy diapers,” replied Janson, somewhat bewildered. He and his wife and manager, Kelly, welcomed a son just last year.

It’s such an everyman attitude that helped Janson instantly connect with Bones’ listeners and set “Buy Me a Boat” afloat. (Listen to the song below.)

“Chris is really talented, and he’s a good dude. We don’t hang out or anything outside of the show, but I like him a lot. And I loved the song,” Bones tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s not often that I play completely untested, unsigned artists — because it’s not really good for ratings. Aside from any politics, generally people don’t like new music. They like to hear the hits that they know and they’ve been downloading. But I thought the song was so good, I said screw it. Within one play of the song, it was a Top 30 download. We were freaking out.”

Two more spins later, “Buy Me a Boat” rose even higher, eventually reaching Number One. It would also peak at Number Seven on the all-genre list, ahead of Taylor Swift.

“We played the same song twice in a half hour, which is a no-no. It hit Top 15 and I realized this song had real legs, because our West Coast markets hadn’t even played it yet,” says Bones of the show’s tape delay. “And I’ll be damned, it hit Number One and took down Sam Hunt, which has been the Number One song for weeks. People were messaging me, ‘Hey, you’re playing an untested song over and over again.’ I said, ‘What do you mean untested?’ We’re looking at a test right now that people love this song: people speak more clearly with their money than anything else and they’re buying it.”

Janson, though thrilled, isn’t imagining a millionaire lifestyle like the character in the lyrics.

“All I ever tried to do was keep the bills paid and have a great family life,” Janson tells Rolling Stone Country. He says he and songwriter Chris DuBois (who penned Brad Paisley’s Number Ones “Mud on the Tires” and “Water,” among others) wrote “Boat” during an inspired writing appointment. The finished product included a Warren Buffett name-check, a biblical verse, a shout-out to the popular Yeti coolers and a hook catchy enough to make a radio programmer salivate.

“Chris [DuBois] ties things together so well as a songwriter,” Janson says. “He brought up Warren Buffett and the ‘can’t fit a camel through the eye of a needle’ line, and I brought up ‘redneck, white trash and blue collar.’ We threw Yeti in there cause I carry a big Yeti cooler in the back of my truck. We wanted to write a lifestyle piece that not only us, but other people can identify with. We tried to write it to people who live normal lifestyles.”

While the lyrics touch on some of the buzzwords of today’s country radio, the writers made sure to steer clear of the now shopworn “hey, girl” catcalls. “Lord knows I’ve written my fair share of those,” Janson admits, “but this one, we sat down with an ‘I don’t give a crap’ mindset and tried to write something fun. To me, it’s the perfect feel-good song.”

“It wasn’t Fireball whiskey with Auto-Tune talking about chicks. It was a normal guy singing about what normal people dream of,” says Bones, who refuses to take credit for the song’s performance. “This was radio and this was Chris. And it was the listeners downloading a good song. As much as I’d like to hurt my elbow patting myself on the back, I didn’t do anything other than take something that was already good and put it out there.”

While Janson’s iTunes triumph may have been unexpected, he’s far from an overnight success. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (his harmonica playing would give John Popper a run for his money) has been slogging it out for nearly a decade. For a hot minute, he was signed to Sony, for whom he released the single “‘Til a Woman Comes Along” (“It was just out there and gone,” Janson says), and later joined the now shuttered independent label Bigger Picture. On the strength of the true-to-life “Better I Don’t,” a cautionary tale about partying too hard (he no longer drinks), Janson scored his first Top 40 single and his only taste of major radio play, thanks especially to Nashville mega-station WSIX. The station is home to Bones’ studio, and the DJ says it has officially added “Buy Me a Boat” to its rotation.

Prior to his budding hit, Janson’s greatest renown had come as a songwriter. He’s had cuts recorded by Justin Moore, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols and LoCash, and helped pay off a huge chunk of those pesky bills when Tim McGraw put out his swaggering “Truck Yeah.”

“Every song I’ve written in the last couple of years, I was always thinking of who’s recording now, or who’s looking for songs, or what I could do to write for somebody else and get another ‘Truck Yeah,'” says Janson of life as a working songwriter.

When he finished “Buy Me a Boat,” however, he knew he wasn’t letting it go.

“I just had to have that one for me. It’s rare that I love one that much,” he says.

With a busy summer touring season ahead, Janson wanted a new song to pump up his shows. Instead of waiting for a label to back him, he and his wife decided to release the track independently to iTunes.

“We had to get music out,” he says. “And I have to give credit to my wife. She pushed me as my manager, my partner and my best friend. She motivated me to do it and go through with it. We were Number One on iTunes in country, and still in the Top Three a few days out from the release. I’m not on the radio full-time and have no radio promotion staff, so I’m unbelievably humbled.”

But he might not be going it alone for much longer. Already labels have been reaching out to arrange meetings, and stars like Toby Keith and Nashville‘s Charles Esten have been tweeting congratulations. This weekend, he received another rapturous response when he sang “Boat” on the Opry stage.

“‘Buy Me a Boat’ is a great tune and it matches his brand. It’s a perfect statement for who Chris Janson is as an artist, and audiences are connecting with that song in a special way,” says Pete Fisher, vice president and general manager of the Grand Ole Opry.

Having seen Janson perform on the Opry numerous times, Fisher could have predicted this weekend’s iTunes response. “Chris walks onstage and people may have never heard of him, but by the time he gets done, you not only respect him, but you can’t help but become an advocate. And that’s what you saw with Bobby Bones,” he says. “Country music at its best is real people singing real songs about real life, and Chris is as real as it gets.”

Despite the dizzying attention and the flurry of text messages and calls, Janson is staying as calm as pond water. Citing his family and his faith as anchors, he’s taking it one stroke at a time.

“I take this stuff day by day. I want to grow it the most natural way possible, and the fact that anybody would pay attention and come calling, I’m thankful for that,” he says. “My ears are open and I’m looking forward to what tomorrow brings.”

Bones, meanwhile, says he hasn’t spoken to Janson since he first played “Buy Me a Boat.” “I stepped back from it, as far as reaching out to him personally. The song is good enough that it’s made that big punch in the face, and it’s a big one, because I’ve never seen that happen before,” he says. “Had I done this with a bad song, it wouldn’t have mattered, because people aren’t going to buy it if it’s bad.”