During a recent tour stop in Grand Rapids, country newcomer Chase Matthew proved Nashville wrong with a performance to remember.

Much like Dante Hicks in Kevin Smith’s classic film Clerks, Chase Matthew isn’t supposed to be here. The high school dropout turned internet sensation has quickly established himself as a frontrunner for country music’s freshman class without music row giving him the time of day. Everything about him, from his look to his sound, does not fit modern Nashville. So much so that an audition at a prominent Nashville music school once ended with little more than a definitive comment from the casting director: ”He isn’t good enough.” 

Twenty-five years ago, that denial may have ended Chase Matthew’s journey before it had a chance to begin. However, rejection from traditional industry gatekeepers doesn’t carry as much weight in the internet age. It’s the listeners who ultimately decide your fate, and Matthew quickly found a community of people who felt he was more than good enough following the release of his song “County Line” in 2021. It wasn’t the songwriter’s first single, but it was the one that made people pay attention, and from there, Matthew knew what he had to accomplish.

This essay originally appeared in James Shotwell’s newsletter, The Wampus. Click here to subscribe!

Fast forward less than eighteen months, and Chase Matthew is currently touring the country, headlining his Born For This Extended Tour. The name comes from Matthew’s debut full-length album, which marks his second release in less than two years. The tour extension follows a successful run at the top of the year, which found Matthew filling venues with increasingly large caps throughout the American south and midwest. The new tour extends throughout the country and seems poised to stretch further before the year ends.

Matthew hit my radar with the release of “Pull Up,” a bro-country party anthem for today’s generation that helped accelerate the attention the Nashville native was already starting to receive. The video found Matthew riding his jeep to a party off in the cut, surrounded by his closest friends. It’s the kind of song that can define your summer, and based on its millions of YouTube views, and it’s safe to assume the track did exactly for a specific subset of the country listening audience (myself included).

As I dug into Matthew, his story spoke to me. He’s an underdog who knows the feeling of having golden doors slammed in your face while pursuing dreams people say are too big for people from your hometown. When everyone told him no, he pushed forward, forging a path for himself with the tools available to him. He didn’t have the budget or team of anyone working with labels, but he had heart and trusted himself enough to share deeply personal stories through song. The fact that people listened and related to his words only speaks to the undeniable power music has when it comes from a pure place.

The old guards of country music seem to misunderstand—not just about Chase Matthew, but everyone like him—that the next generation of country fans and musicians want to define the genre themselves. They want to tell new stories that reflect where we are right now. There are still songs about meeting people in bars, but the same material may also mention dating apps or the act of sliding into someone’s DMs. You can also find plenty of modern drinking songs; only the Jack Daniels references are not White Claws. It’s the same but different, attracting a new wave of young people desperate to find relatability in an increasingly fragmented world. 

When Matthew brought his Born For This Extended tour to Elevation at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 23, there was no doubt what the night would entail. Experience split the room between people lucky enough to have caught Matthew’s previous performance across the state earlier in the year and those eagerly awaiting this gig since the last one sold out. I was in the latter and found the majority of the nearly 800 people crammed inside the venue were the same.

Debut headlining tours are all about managing expectations. The artist on stage may be inexperienced, but fans expect a polished performance. Matthew has worked hard to deliver a show on par with someone more established, boasting impressive production and a backing band capable of adding that extra something special that elevates material for live audiences. His performance is also something to praise, as he often engages the crowd between songs with lively chatter and grace. I often felt he was more excited to see the public than the rowdy fans in the pit were to see him, which is saying something when the crowd includes individuals that brought homemade posters.

As Matthew tore through his catalog, the crowd sang every word as though it were gospel, and when the topic of Christ did arise—just before “Born For This”—the crowd roared even louder. Matthew would not have to work hard to impress his fans, but he did not rest on that understanding. Instead, he gave the room his all, leaving the stage only after the room smelled of sweat and spilled beer. The audience continued cheering, not caring that Matthew had no songs left to perform, before slowly making their way outside as the last flickers of daylight gave way to the night.