Chance Gray’s name is a little ironic, considering his career in music was born not by serendipity, but by doing whatever it took to do the work he loves.

This Alabama singer-songwriter is near and dear to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he wrote and performed the theme song for my podcast, “Fred Hunter’s Alabama.” I’ve known Chance since before he came into the world. His uncle Harold Bouldin and I were roommates at The University of Alabama, after Harold broke into my apartment because he didn’t have another place to stay. We went on to be roommates for the next three years.

Chance and I had the opportunity to reconnect recently in downtown Fort Payne, a homecoming of sorts for him, as his hometown of Fyffe is about 20 minutes away as the crow flies. We spoke about his path to Nashville and to his dreams.

“My dad was a poultry farmer. My mom worked 45 years at the hospital here in town. I grew up on a poultry farm,” Chance said. “I lived there until my parents split when I was 18. I went to Northeast Alabama Community College for two years and moved to Tuscaloosa in 2005. (I had already moved on by then, so Chance didn’t break in on me.)

I attended The University of Alabama and graduated with a journalism degree in 2007, then moved back home,” he continued. “I worked here in Fort Payne at The Times Journal for a year. Then I got a job in pharmaceutical sales. When I was 24, the company I was working for filed bankruptcy, shut down and laid everybody off on a conference call.”

Chance had an idea that he wanted to run by his father.

“I went and had lunch with my dad. I said, ‘I love music, and I’ve always wanted to do that. I’m thinking about moving to Nashville.’ And he said, ‘Well, Son, if you’re going to go, you better go now.’ So a week after I turned 25, I moved to Nashville. August 12, 2010. And I’ve been there ever since.”

Church Music and Family Singing

But that decision wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it may seem. Music had been a big part of Chance’s life. Like a lot of entertainers, he grew up singing hymns in church. His parents attended Corinth Baptist Church in Fyffe, where his father directed the choir and his mother played piano. The family sang together regularly.

“That’s where it started,” Chance said. And then when I was about 12, my dad came in one day with a 1965 Silvertone guitar with the original bill of sale from Sears and Roebuck. And it was an awful guitar. He’d got it at a yard sale for $25. And he said, ‘Son, you might want to learn to play this, because I don’t think the Dallas Cowboys is ever going to draft you.’ And so I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12.”

The boy and his guitar practiced hard, and after a year or two his mother bought him a better guitar. He and that guitar grew up together. But in Fyffe, he had no music community to foster his passion. The focus was all about getting a good job, but a career in music was always lingering in the back of his mind.

“When I was in college, my roommate, Jacob Stiefel, who’s from here in Fort Payne, he and I played a lot of gigs together to help pay rent and bills. They’d give us 50 bucks and a free bar tab, and that was a lot back then. I did singer/songwriter nights here in Fort Payne. But it just really scared me to make the leap.”

After the layoff from his job at age 24, that leap came quickly. Chance had saved his money, and he set off, like so many others had before him, to the capital of country music. His mother cried, but he assured he was only two and half hours up I-65.

I said, ‘I really feel like I’m being called to do this, and it’s something I should do.’ Both my parents assured me that if things didn’t work out, I could always come home,” Chance said.

He hooked up his father’s cattle trailer and moved his belongings to Nashville, where he had no connections to the music industry. Within a short period of time, he was broke.

“One night my cousin Jacob was playing in a bar, and he said the bar back didn’t show up,” Chance recalled. “So I got up, got a shower, and scurried down to the bar. I worked as a bar back that night. I went back the second night and I just showed up the next week. No one ever hired me. There was never an interview process. I just kept going and thought, you know, this will help get me through.”

A piece of advice from a songwriter Chance met early on in Nashville echoed in his mind.

“He said don’t get a real job. And I thought, well, how am I going to make it if I don’t get a real job?,” Chance said. “But what he meant was that if you go to work 40 or 50 hours a week somewhere, your dream will die real quick and that’ll become your focus. So I got lucky that I ended up as a bar back. I worked 18 months at that job on the weekends, going in at 5 or 6 p.m., getting off at dang near daylight and getting home. I still wasn’t really in the industry, but I was beginning to get more stable and had money coming in, and I started going out and meeting people as much as I could.”

He eventually met Travis Bettis, guitarist for Lee Brice. Bettis asked if Chance had considered going on tour and selling merchandise. In May 2012, he got the call to pack up and head out on tour.

I said, well, let me go quit my job and pack a bag, and I’m in,” he said. “And that’s pretty much how I got started in 2012.”

He had no experience, but he was willing to work at it and he ended up touring with some major acts.

I spent my first year with Sonny Sweeney, really just getting experience and getting the road under me,” Chance said. “And as a kid from Fyffe, I took the tour in like a duck on water. I couldn’t believe the places I was seeing, the places I was getting to go. I used to sit in front of the bus and just look out that big windshield. And going through the Shenandoah Valley, up to New Hampshire, was one of the first trips. The first summer I was on tour, we stopped at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. I was in Los Angeles, New York City. And I thought, growing up, these were places I never really dreamed I would see.”

Fortunately, Chance made plenty of contacts that year on tour, and he picked up more work the following spring. He was reading books about how to succeed in the business while picking the brains of seasoned professionals.

“Because the music industry is so fast-changing, I wouldn’t buy any book that was older than three years,” he explained. “I wanted to be in the know. And I told myself, if I attack this learning by reading, and also I’m out there in the real world getting experience and meeting people, I’ve given myself the best chance to succeed. I worked with numerous people. I went on the road with Chris Young for his first headline tour. I did Larry the Cable Guy for a weekend. One of the coolest things, I got to go on tour with Olivia Newton-John right when she was about 65, and she was still doing all those Grease songs. I thought, ‘man, how did I get here?’ But it was really incredible. And it was steady work and every opportunity that came my way, I took it.”

The Biggest of Names

I must point out that as a journalist myself, I’ve always been taught not to bury the lead in a story. Well, as fascinating as the chronology of Chance’s beginnings are, I am guilty of burying the lead. So here it is: Chance found himself on tour with the one and only Taylor Swift.

“In 2014, I was out on tour with Jerrod Niemann,” Chance said. “We were direct-support opening for Keith Urban. He had a guy who was also doing merchandising, so he and I worked closely together every day on tour. And this guy says, ‘You know, I went on Taylor Swift’s tour in 2013. I still know those people. And every year she hires people to go in her warehouse and package online orders for an hourly wage.’

Chance pursued that opportunity and was hired for the warehouse work. “I noticed on the first week I was working, she had just dropped a single called ‘Shake It Off.’ And it was all over the radio,” he said. “I thought, ‘if that’s a new single, there’s probably a new album, which would probably mean a new tour, and I’m already in here.’ Her merchandise manager was in the same room as me, and I thought, ‘I just got to do a good job here and show up on time and be nice to this guy.’ And I did that throughout the winter of 2014 and early 2015. Then I reached back out to him and said, ‘Hey, I understand you have a tour coming up. I would like to go on it.’

“I signed a stack of NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] about an inch or so thick. Then I got started, and you know to me it was really wild to move to Nashville in August of 2010 with nothing and not knowing many people at all. And by spring of 2015, I was on the biggest tour in the world.

That experience made quite an impress on Chance. “A lot of nights I would walk down to the front of house just in the center of everything. They’re playing the pre-music before she comes on. But there’s no feeling like when that music stops and they shut those stadium lights off and people start screaming … and I’m in the middle of it all just looking around at these people. That’s the biggest force of energy I’ve probably ever felt.”

Then and now, Chance knows that many aspiring artists would trade places with him, and the competitiveness of the industry keeps him motivated to do his best. But going on tour with Swift was actually his second choice. Yes, you read that right. He had come to admire and study the songwriting talent of Alabamian Jason Isbell. One night in 2014, he saw Isbell in concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

“I watched his band perform, and I was just completely blown away,” he recalled. “And I thought, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to work with. I’m an old-school country fan, right? I moved to Nashville to work in country music, but by the time I got there, really working in it in 2012, the music shifted to a place that I didn’t really like. I wanted to work with a real artist, someone who could really write and perform and sing … it was very authentic. I spent about a year and a half to two years trying to work for Jason.”

Though Chance tried every way he knew how to get on the Isbell team, it didn’t pan out.  He accepted the opportunity to go on tour with Taylor Swift in 2015.

Looking back now, from his position as merchandising manager for Isbell, he remembers how he felt. “I was out there working these sold-out stadiums and arenas and thinking to myself, ‘a guy like Jason needs to be doing this. I think it would be great if 50,000 people would show up to see this guy and his band, the 400 Unit. They’re all incredible musicians, but they’re all incredible people, too. And they’ve really become my family over the last eight years.

“In August of 2015, when I was out with Taylor. I knew that tour was going to end Halloween night, and I thought, ‘Here comes the winter again. I need to start figuring out what I’m going to do after this tour ends.’ Taylor didn’t tour again until 2018. I couldn’t go three years without a paycheck. I wrote down a list, and Jason Isbell was the first name on my list that I wanted to work for.”

On a trip to Seattle with the Swift tour, Chance was riding in an Uber past a small theater. The marquee said Isbell would be playing there, and Chance made a point to see the show. It was his 30th birthday. After that show, he made contact with Isbell’s manager and asked her if there was anything he could do for the group. While that didn’t immediately happen, she told him to keep in touch, and he did just that. His persistence paid off, as today he is Isbell’s merchandise manager and part of a family of musicians he believes deeply in.

Always Growing

Working with Isbell was the top of the ladder for Chance, but he isn’t sitting still as an artist in his own right. Being a student of music and lyrics has fueled his own talent and will continue to help him achieve his own goals. And life has a way of providing subject matter for an artist.

When I moved to Nashville, I had two goals,” Chance said. “I wanted to work in the industry and I wanted to write songs and be paid for it. I’ve accomplished both of those things. In 2018, I had a handful of songs that I wanted to record, so I went to Jason’s guitar player, Sadler Vaden, and he wanted to produce it. So when I put out my EP in 2019, I worked on it for a while because with my touring schedule and the busy things that they have going on, I just found, you know, spurts of time here and there where I’d go in and record, I couldn’t believe it. I was really overwhelmed that the entire band wanted to be a part of my project. When I recorded, wow, it was Chance Gray and the 400 Unit. Really, they were my backing band, and I, to this day, still can’t believe it.

“’ll never forget the first day going in the studio” he added. “I stepped up in the vocal booth and put my headphones on, and I looked out and realized everybody had a Grammy but me. And I got really nervous. I think that’s just a testament to the kind of people they are. And hopefully to the kind of writer I am. I struggled in the process, thinking, ‘are they doing this because they like me, or is it because I have good songs?’ And I came to realize that they really liked my writing and they wanted to be a part of it.”

Chance continues to write and play. His album, “The Long Crossing,” is available on his website and through major streaming services. You can read more about Chance and connect with his work by visiting Chancegray.com. Or follow him on Instagram here.

After our visit at Lucky Sound Studio in historic downtown Fort Payne, Chance left me to spend time with his mother and celebrate family birthdays back home. Then he was headed back out to crisscross the country on tour, this time with Jason Isbell taking the stage in stadiums and arenas. But before we parted, he talked a bit about “Feel Like Home,” the song with a more-than-appropriate title for the theme song of “Fred Hunter’s Alabama.”

It’s about being in love, but I wasn’t in love at the time,” he said. “I just imagined what it might be like and someone kind of feeling like home to you.”

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Again, a special THANK YOU to Chance for allowing us to use his song “Feels Like Home” as our musical theme for the show. It’s perfect in every way. Be sure to visit his website to learn more about Chance and his music.