After Charting As A Songwriter And Artist, Lee Brice Joins Willie Nelson's Country Throwdown Tour

Country artist Lee Brice is out on the Higher Education tour with his friends Jerrod Niemann and Tyler Farr. But one might say Brice has been pursuing a double major as a songwriter and performer for years.

The South Carolina native came to Nashville in 2000 to make it as a recording artist. But he first gained traction as a songwriter, signing to Curb Publishing before also inking a label deal with Curb in 2007. Brice scored his first hit as a songwriter with Garth Brooks' 2007 chart-topper "More Than a Memory" (co-written with Kyle Jacobs and Billy Montana), which became the first track in the history of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart to debut at No. 1.

Brice has also made history as a recording artist. The top 10 title track of his 2010 debut album, "Love Like Crazy," spent a record 56 weeks on the Hot Country Songs ranking, breaking the previous record of 54 weeks set by Eddy Arnold's "Bouquet of Roses" in 1948-49.

Now, Brice's touring career is on the upswing. Following the Higher Education trek, Brice will join Willie Nelson and such artists as Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser in May for the second Country Throwdown tour.

Calling from Miami, Okla., prior to the second Higher Education show, Brice is stoked about the touring year ahead. "The first [Higher Education] show was sold out," he says, "and tonight's sold out, so it's looking good."

Performing with a band in front of paying customers isn't something all songwriters could do, even if they had the inclination. Brice has plenty of colleagues who see themselves strictly as songwriters and have no interest in playing or touring. "Some people are just not into getting out there and performing," he says. "They just want to write their songs and hear them on the radio."

But Brice is part of a new breed that's equally comfortable with songwriter nights and fronting a band before an audience of thousands. "When we came to town, really all of us boys-Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Jerrod Niemann-we came to town to be artists," Brice says. "We just happened to get a little success as songwriters first."

When he first arrived in Nashville, Brice says it was all about learning to co-write and making connections, developing the skill sets needed to sell a song with just an acoustic guitar.

"In that process, you do a lot of shows in Nashville, those in-the-rounds, guitar pulls," he says. "That's what I grew up doing since I was 10 years old, playing-just me and my guitar-so I'm real comfortable with that kind of stuff."

Brice is no stranger to touring, having played more than 200 shows per year for the last four years-everything from headlining a small bar to a big club to a small fair, to opening up for everybody from Hank Williams Jr. to Dierks Bentley.

Along the way, Brice has seen the difference a radio hit can make.

"When you have something like what we had last year with 'Love Like Crazy,' it's a whole other level," he says. "These people aren't just singing every word, they're screaming it . . . It's crazy. It's this feeling of, 'Wow, I've finally made it. People are coming to a concert to see me.' "

Brice is managed by Haley McLemore at 377 Management in Nashville and booked by Risha Rodgers at William Morris Endeavor. "You have to have the right artist to attack touring the way we did with Lee," McLemore says. "He was willing to tour in a van for two years, keep costs really low and build markets from the ground up. We knew his live show would sell if we could just get him in front of people."

Brice says his manager and agent "know the stuff I'd rather do, and they just go fight for it."

Case in point: Nelson's Throwdown. "I was so happy when I saw that offer," Brice says. "I'm great friends with Randy Houser and Jamey, and we'll end up having a great time. Willie's a hero of mine, and I'm going to get to spend a summer with him."

After Throwdown, Brice will play fairs and festivals to round out the year, squeezing in time with fellow songwriters on the road to work on material for a new album.

"If they put out two more singles [off the current record], then it could be another year-and-a-half before we put a new record out," he says. "But I want to make a record that matters, that I'm proud of, so I'm going to go ahead and start on it as soon as I can."