At nine years old, Chris Tomlin’s dad placed a guitar in his hands for the first time with strict instructions to learn the songs of the greats. Nelson. Haggard. Cash. Fast forward nearly four decades, and Tomlin is now a GRAMMY® winner most well-known for his worship anthem, “How Great Is Our God.” Although an estimated 20-30 million people now sing his songs in churches around the globe each week, the East Texas native was born and raised on Country.
“As a kid, I thought Country music was where I was headed. I was either going to be a professional baseball player or a Country music singer,” the 21-time Gospel Music Association Dove Award winner tells Sounds Like Nashville. “That was all my early music. It’s very natural to me. If you’ve known me for any time during my music career, I’ve been saying that one day I’m going to make something that’s more Country feeling because that’s my roots.”
A chance encounter with Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard gave Tomlin that opportunity. While one might naturally assume the pair got acquainted in Nashville—where they both reside—in reality, they met during a routine workout at Music City’s favorite oceanside haven. “It’s actually a pretty cool story. Me and Tomlin randomly ran into each other at a gym in 30A—where BK happens to live right down the street,” Hubbard says of their fated beach meeting. “It’s all definitely full circle. He came up and introduced himself, we hit it off, and I told him BK and I were big fans. We ended up hanging out the whole day. We were dreamin’, schemin’ together… We circled up with BK and [Corey] Crowder, started writing songs together, and then one thing led to another.”
Before long, they were working on a full-length project—a worship album with a homegrown sensibility. For the aptly-titled Chris Tomlin & Friends, Tomlin, Crowder and FGL’s Hubbard and Brian Kelley (who are featured on multiple tracks and serve as executive producers and co-writers on the majority of the record) recruited their superstar friends, many of whom grew up singing in church.
“Whether they were writing the songs or singing them or not, we were in the studio putting the right artists together, trying to really produce this in a very organic way,” Tomlin says of his collaboration with Crowder and FGL. “There was no white-boarded kind of thing of like, ‘We want this person, this person and this person.’ It just came out of relationships. We were putting these people together who had the same heart.”
The LP features a star-studded list of guests, including Thomas Rhett, who never shies away from conversations of faith. Much like the run-in with Hubbard, Tomlin and Rhett connected organically; and he soon asked Tomlin to be a featured artist on his new charitable single, “Be The Light.”
The record’s full of additional connections. Hillary Scott, who recorded a Gospel record with her family in 2016, joins Tomlin and her Lady A bandmates, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, for “Who You Are To Me.” The track listing also includes Brett Young, who grew up leading worship at his church in California where his dad was a pastor. Hubbard even recalls watching Tomlin lead worship at Passion—the largest annual faith-based collegiate conference in the nation—when he was a student at Belmont and dreaming of arenas full of people singing his songs in unison like they were singing Tomlin’s. Russell Dickerson, who guests on two tracks, even served as Tomlin’s guitar tech for a number of years before striking gold as an artist in his own right.
“He’s always had this heart of worship, but he was the worst tech in the history of the world, because he’d be side of stage worshipping God the whole time,” Tomlin recalls of Dickerson’s tenure with his crew. “I remember at one festival an amp was on fire, and we were trying to get Russell’s attention, but he had his hands raised praising God.”
While the unorthodox project is a dream come true for the kid who cut his teeth on traditional Country, the world renowned worship leader’s collaborators also saw it as a unique opportunity. “Any time I get to collaborate with somebody new, it’s always a fun experience. That’s what being a musician’s about—collaborating and merging two different sounds and creating a new one,” shares Cassadee Pope, who harmonizes with Tomlin and Young on “Be The Moon.” “I just loved the song; and getting to hear Chris’ take on it and his explanation of the lyric and the way he described it, it was so inspiring. He is such a sweet guy, and I love the people involved and the people connected to the project.”
The feelings are mutual, and Tomlin continues to be grateful for all the ways this record feels like a full circle moment. “I never even dreamed I’d be making this album, but then the way it just all came together, it was so beautiful,” he says. “It’s pretty crazy and just very divine. This album has been the surprise of my life at every turn.”