Kane Brown
Country

How Kane Brown Overcame Poverty and Prejudice To Become The Biggest New Thing in Country

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Like any artist on the verge, Kane Brown is grappling with the stirrings of fame. Last night, 12 separate people asked him for photos at his neighborhood grocery store. But as he explains today over the phone from Nashville, he’s not being recognized simply because he’s got a No. 1 album. (That would be his self-titled full-length debut, since dropped to No. 2, but with nine previous nonconsecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.)

"I have lots of tattoos and am biracial. Even if they don’t know me, people are like, 'Hey, you’re that Facebook guy,'" says Brown, a 24-year-old Chattanooga, Tenn., native who launched his career posting covers on the social network. "You’ve got Dustin Lynch, [Jason] Aldean and people like that who wear cowboy hats to stand out, but switch to a ballcap, and it’s kind of hard to tell them apart, unless you’re a diehard fan."

While it’s true that Brown stands out from the white faces under the vast majority of those hats, the bashful, blue-eyed heartthrob has also distinguished himself with an unorthodox path and unvarnished lyrics. Before signing with RCA Nashville in early 2016, he capitalized on those Facebook videos by self-releasing a Kickstarter-funded 2015 EP. He sings -- in an old-school, nasally baritone reminiscent of Randy Travis, who’s a fan -- about racism and growing up poor. And he packages it all in a radio-friendly, state-of-the-art sound that’s irresistibly accessible.

"Our listeners identify with people like Kane," says singer Lauren Alaina, who knew him as a kid in Georgia and duets with him on his 2017 hit "What Ifs." "He has had a life that was made for being shared."

Brown spent his childhood between Tennessee and northwest Georgia, where he faced abuse at the hands of his stepdad, as well as poverty. "I’m used to having to worry every day," he says. "Especially when I wasn't [living] with my mom anymore, I had to worry about my car payment or getting an overdraft fee because I got a $1 sandwich at McDonald’s." He decided to pursue music after winning a talent show in 11th grade with a Chris Young cover, but the road wasn't easy, and after turning down a basketball scholarship to the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Brown contemplated joining the Army. When his neck tattoos scotched his enrollment, he got work at FedEx, a job that allowed him time off to try out for TV talent shows. (He made it onto the U.S. version of The X Factor, but quit when producers tried to rope him into a boy band.)

When he was off the clock, Brown learned the industry and refined his skills, "traveling back and forth to Nashville in my 2002 Honda that wouldn't go over 4,000 RPMs, hoping that things would work before my car blew up." Brown is still rigorous about numbers and strategy, easily reciting his chart figures and career details of the artist whose trajectory his most resembles: Justin Bieber. "My fans have said they clicked my videos because they thought I was going to be rapping or something," says Brown, explaining what set him apart from the wannabe Biebers. "Then I started singing country, and they say they just kind of fell in love."

"People were connecting with him the same way that they were connecting with us at the beginning," says Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line. The duo gave Brown his first arena tour opening slot in 2016. Now, Brown is selling out 4,000-seat venues on his own. "I knew he was going to be big, but I didn't know how big." "What Ifs," an uptempo love song with a sticky chorus, knocked Sam Hunt’s record-setting "Body Like a Back Road" from No. 1 on Hot Country Songs the same week Brown became the first artist ever to lead all five of Billboard’s main country charts simultaneously. Just three years since releasing his first EP, he’s angling for his second Hot Country Songs No. 1 with the romantic "Heaven" (currently No. 2) and working on the follow-up to his self-titled debut, which has earned over 808,000 total album-equivalent units, according to Nielsen Music.
 

Still, Brown says he’s accused -- on the same social media outlets that helped launch him -- of playing "the race card" to stand out from the homogeneous country pack. "The thing people see about me is my tattoos more than anything, but the color aspect does not help," he says with resignation. "You wouldn't believe my blocked list. But that’s more publicity, because then they go and talk about me on their page: 'Oh, Kane Brown blocked me.'"

But he’s convinced his music will ultimately bring folks together. While his early songs had a bro-country feel ("I don’t play them anymore because they’re that bad"), his latest demos, like "Heaven," add a soulful flair. It’s a formula he believes will take him to the next level: "You put my voice on R&B melodies, on top of a real country band, and the sky’s the limit."