The first time Kane Brown sat down to write a song with a professional Nashville songwriter last fall, he had a feeling that the writer, Josh Hoge, wasn’t too excited to be there. Hoge had received a last-minute call to meet with Brown, the singing sensation whose covers of country songs had collected millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.
“He kind of got stuck in this write with me,” Brown, 23, recently recalled, sitting backstage before a concert at the Fillmore Silver Spring in Maryland. Still, Hoge appeared perfectly nice and even intrigued when Brown pitched an idea for the title of a breakup anthem, “Used to Love You Sober.”
A few weeks later, Brown posted a Facebook video of him singing the song, also written with Matt McVaney, and it accumulated a million views within hours. It also shot to the top of iTunes and sold 38,000 copies in two days, rare for an unsigned singer. Nashville label executives called with offers; Brown soon signed with Sony Music Nashville. On Dec. 2, he released his self-titled debut album.
But even before the tune’s success, Hoge took him aside at the end of the writing session, Brown said, and told him, “Dude, this song came out great.” Then, he added, “I’m not gonna lie to you – honestly, I didn’t want to write with you at first. But now I love you.”
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It wasn’t the first time Brown changed a skeptical mind as he embarked on a career in Nashville. Of all genres, country music is particularly regimented when it comes to a path to success. There are certain steps you take, and Brown has completed none of them.
Yet he’s become one of country’s rising stars. Some view him as a progressive signal for the future, a multiracial young artist who is candid about his rough upbringing, in which he battled discrimination and abuse. Others see another bro in a line of singers who dismiss the genre’s storied sounds by including pop, rock and hip-hop – and one who was launched via the whims of social media, no less.
Brown didn’t play in bars and at writers’ rounds. He didn’t get a publishing deal, and then a record deal, and then a radio tour, and then watch his debut single climb high enough on the charts that the label could confidently release an album.
Instead, during his senior year of high school, in 2013, between status updates about getting ready for prom and playing video games, Brown would sit in his grandmother’s basement or the kitchen or the bathroom and click “record” on his iPhone. He sang his favorite songs by Chris Young and Brantley Gilbert and George Strait, and he posted the videos online. Over several years, he watched the likes and the comments and the shares increase until the industry couldn’t ignore his fiercely loyal, mostly female fan base, who adored Brown’s soulful voice and magnetic blue eyes.
“Like, even Luke Bryan, it took him eight years going bar to bar and just playing,” Brown said. “With me just coming off social media, a lot of radio people were like, ‘Who is this dude?’ ”
Music never felt like a realistic dream when Brown was growing up, raised by a single mother in northwest Georgia and around Chattanooga, Tenn.; at one point, they slept in their car. In his emotional song “Learning,” Brown talks about being physically abused by a stepfather, whom his mother later divorced. He moved to about 12 different schools.
After high school graduation, he worked multiple jobs, from FedEx to Target, and tried to figure out how he could make the leap to full-time singer. He auditioned for “The X Factor” and “American Idol,” and when he was turned down, he just kept posting more cover videos. Despite little singing experience other than school choir and talent shows, he recognized his deep baritone made him stand out.
Although Brown was a huge country music fan, he acknowledged the challenges of trying to break into a genre with few artists of color. Brown, whose mother is white and father is black and part Cherokee, originally used the Twitter and Instagram handle @mixed_country.
Some assumed he preferred rap because of the way he looked and made nasty comments about how he shouldn’t be in country music. “I know it wont happen but id love to be the cure to racism, a mixed kid that sings country and sees both sides of the world and its the exact same with everyone,” he once wrote on Facebook.
Now, Brown says, although “the race thing” hasn’t really been a problem for him in Nashville, he still sees comments on the internet about how he doesn’t belong in the genre. “I just got a lot of tattoos, so people when they look at me, they think, ‘Oh, you’re a rapper,’ ” Brown said. He tends to delete the negative postings online.
Randy Goodman, chief executive officer of Sony Music Nashville, said that Brown, who is soft-spoken in person, is highly conscious of the judgment he’s faced in the past, along with his difficult childhood.
“He didn’t have the financial means to even get a guitar until later on when he started working,” Goodman said. “And because he’s a biracial young man coming into what is typically a white world in country music, I think he comes to it with a bit of personal trepidation.”
Brown’s vulnerability – and many selfies – connect deeply with his fans. They relentlessly encouraged him to ignore the haters and pledged to donate to his GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns when he decided to record an EP. Brown made industry connections and landed a manager; he started writing his own material and started selling out concerts at smaller venues.
His independent EP was released in June 2015 and spiked on iTunes, and helped lead to the co-write for “Used to Love You Sober.” Country megastar duo Florida Georgia Line recruited him to open on their summer tour, before he signed with Sony in January.
Hoge, his “Sober” co-writer, now thinks of Brown as a little brother. “I think I was just kind of like, ‘I don’t know anything about (him),’ ” Hoge said, but after writing with him, “You could tell the talent was there.”
Still, commercial radio has had a lukewarm reception to Brown’s music. His current single, the up-tempo “Thunder in the Rain,” sits at No. 50; “Sober” peaked in the mid-30s.
And some have questioned the legitimacy of Brown’s quick, social-media-fueled rise, and point to the fact that Jay Frank, his first manager, was an influential music executive. Brown’s current manager, Martha Earls, says a prominent industry figure recently pulled her aside and said, “I don’t believe any of this is real.”
“If you say it’s not real ... you can’t understand how this happened underneath your nose, and happened in a way that is nontraditional,” Earls said.
His die-hard fans would also defend those claims. At a recent concert at the Fillmore Silver Spring, they lined up as early as 11 a.m. in the cold for a show that started at 9 p.m. When asked what they liked about Brown, fan responses tend to be similar: “His voice.” “He’s so lovable and genuine.” “He’s a cutie.”
During the 90-minute set, the hundreds in the crowd screamed as Brown charged through the lighthearted “Rockstars,” the flirtatious “Pull It Off” and ballad “Granddaddy’s Chair.” He got serious during “Learning,” which chronicles the childhood abuse he faced, as well as bullying because of the color of his skin. Ultimately, the song concludes, he’s not bitter: “If you hold on forever it’ll hurt your soul/ That’s why I’m learning how to let it go.”
Brown repeatedly thanked his fans: “I wish there was some other way I could show my love, y’all,” he said. “You mean everything to me.”
As other genres can attest, it’s a powerful thing when fans discover an artist through their own social channels. Kind of sounds like another 20-something superstar who started on the internet.
“Whether he’s the country Bieber or whatever, I don’t know,” Goodman said. “Would I love to have Justin Bieber’s success with Kane? Absolutely.”