But when the CMA Awards shafted Brown this year -- he wasn’t even nominated -- it certainly felt political. “There is a contingency that looks at certain acts and says, ‘That ain’t country,’ and I think that happened with Kane,” says Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO of Brown’s label, Sony Music Nashville. “Kane is African-American, and he has tattoos. Maybe that’s not culturally what they think fits.”
“We’ve been systematically programmed to let stereotypes lead the way,” says Brown’s tourmate Jimmie Allen, who, as a black country artist, has encountered plenty of them himself. “Because the stereotypical country guy is supposed to be from Georgia and is supposed to be white.”
Meanwhile, Brown is finding an audience outside the United States. When the Latin American market sees him, says Goodman, “they say he looks like them.” Brown, who joined Camila Cabello on a duet version of her hit “Never Be the Same,” could be country’s ticket to global growth.
“He is expanding us and our format,” says Brad Paisley, who took Brown on tour this past summer.
Brown sounds like the world at large, too. His songs describe modern life for the Instagram generation and beyond: binge-watching Friends, falling in love, dealing with hardship and regret but looking for fun, too. And writing, of course, about his own experiences.
“What better gift for country music than a fascinating life?” says Paisley. “He’s not singing songs where he’s role-playing. He’s singing from a place of truth. And that’s so powerful for country music.”
The life Paisley refers to is fascinating indeed, but it was also hard. Growing up poor in Georgia and Tennessee, Brown shuffled between homes with a single mother who loved country music, sometimes sleeping in the car. He helped his pawpaw milk the cows and did plenty of dodging the slings and arrows of the broken American dream -- the racial slurs, the overdoses that took his friends, the bipolar disorder and depression that plagued his family, the temptation that could’ve landed him in jail, like the one that houses his father (and his stepfather, who abused him).