New Country artist Kane Brown talks about his early life
Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
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New Country artist Kane Brown talks about breaking out on social media
Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
2 of 2
All Kane Brown wants is a chance in country music.
Growing up as a sometimes-homeless biracial kid in Georgia, he’s used to being judged.
“Color does matter, even though people don’t see it,” Brown said. “I’ve lived it my whole life. It’s just what I know.”
Even though Brown attended five high schools in as many years, he graduated. And when he covered a Chris Young tune at his high school talent show — his first public performance — the heavily tattooed singer recalls being showered with racial slurs from his classmates. When the song was over, the students gave him an encore, he said.
The 23-year-old singer is trying to conjure that same brand of fortitude again, but this time on a much larger stage as he looks to persuade a skeptical country music industry to embrace his self-titled debut album. In stores Dec. 2, the 11-song collection is home to songs penned by fellow artists Florida Georgia Line and Young, along with top Nashville songwriters including Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin and Brown himself.
“The coolest part about seeing him have a full album out now is I know how long he’s been writing for this and looking for outside songs,” Young said. “Being able to fit all of that sonically and make it his own on his first album is something that’s hugely important. It’s your first step out as an artist, and I think he’s handled it really, really well.”
To get this far, Brown has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles stacked from a childhood facing poverty, violence and racism. The album tells that story — along with one of forgiveness, growth, fun and unconditional love.
“I just feel like I have a chance to be a role model now,” Brown said.
To date, Brown has amassed more than 3 million followers on Facebook, driven by amateur performance videos, previews of which have generated more than 100 million views and shares. His co-penned “Used to Love You Sober” sold more than 500,000 copies without significant country radio support, he spent much of the year on tour with Florida Georgia Line and is currently headlining the Monster Energy Outbreak Presents: Kane Brown Ain’t No Stopping Us Now Tour.
Why country radio hasn’t been supportive is up for debate. Country music historian Bob Oermann theorizes it’s because radio frowned on Brown’s social media success, preferring to be the vehicle that breaks artists into the format. Or, he says, it could be due to Brown’s touring schedule he hasn’t made as many visits to country radio stations as other new artists. Race, Oermann admits, is a murky area and notes that, apart from Darius Rucker’s crossover success, it has been decades since an artist of color has had consistent success in the format.
Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO at Sony Music Nashville, signed Brown to his record label in early 2016. He chalks the hesitation at country radio up to not giving “radio the right music.”
However, he believes, that’s about to change.
“We were trying to move quickly and take advantage of (his social media and touring momentum),” Goodman said. “Maybe we moved too quickly. But the great thing about it is, is that I know we’ve got great music, great songs and we’re going to get this guy (on) radio. Our next bat at radio, we’re going to be loaded.”
For Brown, it’s not much different than his high school talent show — he’s looking for a chance from another group of people he has to win over.
He describes himself as a “poor kid” who lived in a car with his mother when they didn’t have a place to go. Sometimes he stayed with his grandparents; other times he bounced between friends’ houses.
Brown grew up listening to country radio, playing rodeo with his grandfather and hanging out in the fishing room at his other grandfather’s store, the Cold Spot, which Douglas and Shamblin helped him memorialize on his album.
In high school, Brown watched as friends fell victim to drugs and guns. He managed to sidestep the same situations. His mom, he explains, “raised me better than that.”
“I always look at it like, ‘Stuff happens for a reason,’ ” he said. “I feel like God put me in places in life to learn, and it was getting me ready for now. Now I get to tell it, and show people what’s wrong and what’s right.”
Brown details many of those hardships on “Learning,” a key track on the album, which begins with the lyrics: “When I was six years old, I kinda wet the bed/ My stepdad came in and nearly beat me to death.” The chorus includes the lines: “Forgiveness is something we gotta know/ ‘Cause if you hold on forever, it’ll hurt your soul/ That’s why I’m learning how to let it go.”
“What’s amazing about Kane is his willingness to go there, his willingness to open himself up,” Goodman said. “How many guys in country music would start a song saying, ‘When I was six years old, I kind of wet the bed’? That’s not the gravitas you would expect from a country male.”
Brown’s voice developed in his teen years. Even then, Brown had never been to a concert. When another friend bought him tickets to see Young and Brad Paisley in Atlanta, he jumped at the chance.
“When Chris Young came out, I was a little fan girl,” Brown said. “Just seeing him up on stage and seeing Brad Paisley come out with his light show and his lasers, it was just like, ‘Dude, I want to do this.’ I just started running with it.”
As a second-year senior, already pierced and tattooed, he had to beg to enter his high school’s talent show. Videos of the performance show students initially referring to Brown with racial slurs and threats of “better not mess this up.” After he sang, the same students clapped and cheered until Brown followed up with a Josh Turner tune.
Within a couple of years, the singer started filming videos of himself singing cover songs and sharing them on social media. In 2014, he posted a clip of himself singing Lee Brice’s “I Don’t Dance” and went to sleep. The next morning, he had 800 friend requests on Facebook and then 700 more. Brown’s account maxed out at that, but by the end of the day he recalls having 20,000 followers and the video getting 60,000 shares.
“I was freaking out while I was at work,” he said. “I had posted videos of me singing for a while, but I would get 50 likes at the most. Every second I had to check my phone to see what was happening.”
He continued to post videos, which gained popularity, eventually attracting millions of views. When he started posting songs he wrote, Brown broke more than 1 million followers on Facebook. He recorded his song “Used to Love You Sober” at a friend’s house, and the video got 15 million views. Then he released the song to iTunes, where it became the first of five Kane Brown songs to top the iTunes country charts.
At that point, record labels took notice. Because of the viral nature of Brown’s success, the singer says, some people in the music business brushed him off.
“A lot of people don’t think it’s real, is what I’ve heard,” he explained.
Goodman called his first meeting with Brown “jarring,” but in all the right ways.
“We use two words here a lot when we’re looking at artists and listening to music. … ‘Is it unique? Is it compelling?’ ” he said. “Just the fact that he’s biracial and he’s tatted up and he’s got piercings — that makes it completely unique. Then, when he starts singing with that Chris Young-esque voice. When he made the turn and got really authentic about what he was singing about, the compelling nature continued to grow.”
About one year later, Brown is planning to release his debut album. Largely produced by Dann Huff, the album flows between country’s most contemporary (“Learning”) and its most classic (“Cold Spot,” “Grandaddy’s Chair”). It bothers the singer that radio still hasn’t given him a shot, but he’s still trying to “push forward.”
“I just want people to know that I’m a good person, and I’m not a thug like everybody thinks I am,” he said. “I feel like I have my loved ones, but I have a lot of haters, too.”
Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet Kane Brown
Full name: Kane Allen Brown
Hometown: Fort Oglethorpe, Ga./ Chattanooga
Last movie watched: “Glory Road”
Favorite album: Too difficult to pick just one. Maybe Alan Jackson’s greatest hits?
Book on your night stand: Does Facebook count?
What’s on your Christmas list?: A few days to spend with family and loved ones
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