"I've gone through tough times the last few years and it's led to this. I appreciate it way more now because I know how hard it is," the country star told PEOPLE

By Sarah Michaud
June 13, 2019 10:00 PM
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Good things come to those who wait — and no one knows that more than Chase Rice.

Though the country star previously hit No. 1 as a songwriter on Florida Georgia Line‘s “Cruise,” making it to the top spot as an artist had eluded him — until his latest hit, “Eyes on You.”

Topping the charts for two weeks “feels amazing,” Rice, 33, told PEOPLE recently while celebrating with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire in Boca Raton, Florida. “We finally got this one. And I called it, weirdly enough, two years ago in the studio. My camera guy has footage of me saying, ‘This is going to be my next single. This is going to be my first No. 1.’ I just felt that confident about the song, which has proven to be right.”

Chase Rice celebrates with fans and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire in Boca Raton, Florida on May 18
Rick Williams

Rice hasn’t always felt so self-assured about his standing in the country music community. Though breakout single “Ready Set Roll” and follow-up “Gonna Wanna Tonight” both climbed to the top five and set Rice’s career in motion, 2016’s “Whisper” failed to gain the same traction and led to the musician parting ways with his previous record label. Today, Rice considers the struggle of years past to be a blessing.

“Now I can actually appreciate it,” Rice told PEOPLE ahead of an acoustic set at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. “I’ve gone through tough times the last few years and it’s led to this. I appreciate it way more now because I know how hard it is.”

He continued, “There’s just been a big misconception about who I am … and a lot of it was not even a misconception; it was just me not really knowing who I was. Five years of figuring that out led to me knowing who I am as a man and who I am as an artist. And now I have a group of people around me who are very passionate about what I do — you’re only going to go as far as the people around you.”

Chase Rice celebrates with fans and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire in Boca Raton, Florida on May 18
Rick Williams

FLASHBACK TO 2014: Chase Rice Performs His Debut Single, ‘Ready Set Roll’

In addition to the team surrounding him, Rice attributed much of his success to a dedicated fanbase that’s always had his back, even when country radio was slow to initially accept “Eyes on You” and its predecessor, “Three Chords & the Truth.”

The live crowds “really kept us going because even not having a song on the radio the last two or three years, people kept selling out a lot of shows. Otherwise, everything else was not going well,” Rice admitted. “But the fans kept showing up and kept singing the songs. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most. The most important part of it was there and we knew that.”

Chase Rice celebrates with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire on the way to Boca Raton, Florida on May 17

Those fans continue to turn up — rain or shine. Last Thursday, Rice’s headlining set at Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville during CMA Fest was cut short due to a downpour and a late night noise ordinance, but not before the singer-songwriter debuted his next single, “Lonely If You Are.” The new track will be the lead song from Rice’s upcoming album — but “Eyes on You” will always hold a special place in his heart as his first No. 1 as an artist.

“The melody is just so catchy — it stays in your head,” Rice said. “It paints a cool picture. And it’s fun to sing every night! If that’s the case, I’ll sing this one forever.”

Chase Rice performs at CMA Fest in Nashville, Tennessee on June 6
Mickey Bernal/Getty

Chase Rice is currently touring the U.S. through the fall, before heading to the U.K. early next year. Ticket information is available here.