“We’ve never written a song together,” Evans, 33, tells PEOPLE, chuckling at the seeming absurdity. “It’s crazy. We’ve worked on a couple things a little bit, like giving each other advice on sections of my songs or her songs, but we’ve never sat down with a blank page and two guitars.”
So how have the two singer-songwriters, who celebrate their first year of marriage in December, managed to avoid that?
“I don’t know,” Evans concedes. “It’s funny. I feel like if we’d written before we’d become romantically involved maybe then it would still work, but there was no time there. It was just ‘all in’ straightaway.”
And it’s that “all in” love story that, more than anything, drives Evans’ album, Things That We Drink To. After all, who needs Ballerini as a co-writer when she’s already serving as the perfect muse? Indeed, the new album has to be one of the most life — and love — affirming releases in country music this year.
“This is my story over the last two years,” Evans says.
It’s an epic story, with or without a musical setting. Sparks first flew between Evans and Ballerini when they met in his native Australia in 2016. Ballerini was Down Under to appear on a country awards show that Evans, already an established artist there, was hosting. But lest you think Evans then followed his love-struck heart to Nashville — surprise — it turns out he’d already moved to Music City, where he’d been struggling to get a professional foothold since 2013.
As his romance with Ballerini caught fire, the love songs soon tumbled out, with no small help from some friends he’d met on another fateful trip back to Australia.
Home for a Christmas visit the year before, he participated in a songwriting camp there, and he was separately paired with Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley, the event’s superstar tunesmiths who’d been imported from Nashville. Immediately clicking with both, Evans knew how lucky he was.
“That’s not something that happens every day in Nashville for a guy with no publishing deal, no record deal or anything like that,” he says.
Once back home, DeStefano, especially, took Evans under his wing.
“That was kind of when things started to take a turn for me,” Evans recalls, “in terms of just being able to sit with Chris to work out what are the best parts about what I’m doing … He introduced me to a big part of the writing community, obviously, that I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet yet.”
And obviously, DeStefano heard something in Evans’ music that made him want to sign on as the producer of his first American album and have a hand in co-writing all 11 tracks. (Gorley, Josh Kear and Josh Osborne, among other who’s who names, also contributed.) Evans and DeStefano, both accomplished musicians, almost singlehandedly created the accompaniment; only one other instrumentalist, a drummer, appears on the entire album.
The album’s lead-off single, “Kiss Somebody,” hit No. 1 this summer, and it’s also struck platinum. A second single, “Day Drunk,” is now steadily gaining radio adds. Deeper album cuts — from the passion of “Me on You” to the love-at-first-sight playfulness of “Everything Changes” to the sheer exuberance of “Young Again” — are lying in wait for listeners to discover.
The album’s bittersweet title song, “Things That We Drink To,” is special to Evans because it’s a tribute to Rob Potts, his Australian manager who died last year in a motorcycle accident. But Evans considers “Dance With Me,” a heart-throbbing duet with his 25-year-old wife, to be his favorite cut on the album.
He wrote it to Ballerini, in the first throes of new love, while he was sitting in front of his TV waiting to watch her appear on a morning show. “The whole first-verse chorus just came out in, like, 20 minutes,” he recalls. “It was just this magic moment of inspiration and just felt really pure and real.”
A few months later, Ballerini invited Evans to sing harmony on “Unapologetically,” the title cut of her latest album. “On the way to the studio, I was like, ‘Well, if I’m singing on one of yours, would you sing on one of mine?’” he recalls. “And of course she was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be awesome.’”
But which one?
“Dance with Me” immediately beckoned, but knowing its significance to Evans, Ballerini hesitated. Evans recalls she told him, “I don’t want to mess with that.” Evans felt differently, telling her: “No pressure. Let’s just go into the studio late at night. It will just be Chris [DeStefano], me and you, and if we don’t like it, we don’t like it. But it might be awesome.'”
That night, he remembers, “The second she started singing on that first chorus … it was like goosebumps and hairs on the back of your neck standing up.”
Another standout, “We Dream,” is the final song that Evans wrote, and it turned out to be the “missing piece” of his story. A soaring expression of hope, the song reflects Evans’ own sunny optimism about life and love.
Looking back on his two difficult years in Nashville of “people not calling you back,” he knows what kept him going was the faith in his dreams.
“I don’t know how you can get through that without being optimistic,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always kind of pushed myself to feel — and to appreciate every moment for what it is, no matter what might come next … That’s the feeling I want to leave the stage with every night. And that’s the feeling that hopefully people get when they hear the album.”