Country

Makin' Tracks: Kane Brown Gets Up Close and Personal With 'Homesick'

Kane Brown
Kwaku Alston

Kane Brown photographed on Oct. 8, 2018 in Malibu, Calif. 

When Kane Brown sang his own name in the second verse of his new single, “Homesick,” the song joined a rather unique group.

Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” Loretta Lynn’s “Hey Loretta,” Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” all feature an artist name-dropping themselves in the lyric.

It’s a move that sounds egotistical at face value, but being self-referential does not have to be self-reverential -- and that’s particularly true for Brown, whose co-writers had to persuade him to keep it.

“I just hate talking about myself as it is,” says Brown. “So when I’m singing, ‘It says Kane Brown on a sign with a line out the door,’ it’s weird to me. But, I mean, it makes sense.”

Indeed, “Homesick” is a personal tale about the constant push and pull that artists feel between home and the road. Brown took three co-writers -- Taylor Phillips (“Hurricane,” “Good As You”), Brock Berryhill (“What Happens in a Small Town,” “Good As You”) and Matthew McGinn (“What Ifs,” “Heaven”) -- along for a few concert dates in spring 2018, and they saw him battling the pangs of separation from then-fiancée Katelyn Jae.

“I don’t know if we would’ve written that song if we weren’t on the road, watching him miss calls and him trying to call Katelyn and then her not being able to talk,” recalls McGinn. “It was just like, ‘Oh, this is their life.’”

The song’s image of the “Kane Brown” marquee and a long line of fans at the club entrance is part of Brown’s life, too. It comes from a real-world visual at Coyote Joe’s in Charlotte, N.C., where Brown performed on March 9, 2018. And that second verse reference to the sign underscores the dichotomy in an artist’s life: He often lives out his dreams in front of an adoring public while the woman he loves most is hundreds of miles away -- out of reach, though not out of mind.

“Someone like Kane, somebody like Luke Combs, they literally move here, and they’re, ‘Hey, I made it.’ Well, guess what? You’re going to spend 200-plus days not here,” says Berryhill. “It’s just the beginning of the journey. I think that’s why that song feels so real.”

Even before they showed up at Coyote Joe’s, the seeds for “Homesick” were planted in a tattoo parlor. Brown had intended to have the words “Love” and “Hate” spelled out above his knuckles just before the trip. The tattoo artist, though, took note of how often Brown is out of town and suggested “Homesick” instead. “That’s pretty sick, so I got it tattooed,” says Brown, noting he endured roughly 15 minutes of intense pain. “It’s about two minutes a finger. It didn’t feel good.”

Phillips understood Brown’s homesickness — and the commitment that the tattoo represented. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not trying to be funny, but if it means enough for you to put it on your hands, have you ever thought about putting it in a song?’ ” says Phillips.

Thus, they started writing “Homesick” on Brown’s bus outside Coyote Joe’s, with McGinn picking a simple chord structure and humming the original melody while Berryhill worked up a percussive track to support it. Brown had to split for a half-hour for sound check, and his co-writers wrote what would become the second verse while he was gone.

Since the typical fan never experiences the road, the first verse needed to provide a more familiar home life. They waited until Brown was able to write again -- on the bus ride back from Charlotte to Nashville -- and he provided the images for that opening stanza, drawing on his relationship with Katelyn and their dogs, Nash and Rambo.

“That song is that song because it is real-life experience,” explains Phillips. “It’s easier to write those songs when you’re pulling from something that you’re feeling versus something in the imagination.”

The verses were built in a lower, conversational part of Brown’s register, while the chorus stretched to the upper reaches of his chest voice, showing off the breadth of his range. “That was me trying to do my Randy Travis impression as much as possible,” quips Brown.

They almost pulled an all-nighter in the process, working up a demo after the writing was finished. “It was really built around that acoustic,” says McGinn. “It was really simple and really stripped down to kind of let the lyric speak.”

Brown delivered the final vocal for the demo around 6 a.m. as the bus approached Nashville. At his urging, Berryhill finished up the demo that day after just a few hours of sleep, and Brown put out a one-minute clip on social media on March 11, announcing, “I think we just wrote a career-changer.”

Brown recorded “Homesick” at Blackbird Studios with producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Brett Young). He remained fairly faithful to the bare-bones demo, which was easy to re-create. “If you can’t catch that on a tracking date, then you have no business being in the record business,” says Huff with a laugh. “I’m sure I went home and monkeyed about with a couple of little things, but by and large, it was intended to sound simple. And that’s what we got.”

Paul Franklin overdubbed steel guitar at a later date. Meanwhile, Brown played an acoustic set in Texas with Cody Johnson and Mike Ryan, whose fiddlers backed Brown on a version of “What Ifs.” Brown loved the sound and asked Huff to slide some fiddle into his Experiment album. As a result, Stuart Duncan gets a solo on “Homesick.”

“I don’t know why it shocked me when he said it, but I was like, ‘Sure, that would be great,’ ” says Huff. “He loves real organic-type instruments like that. And when you hear the other side of his music, you know, you sometimes wouldn’t put that together, but it’s entirely consistent with the kind of stuff he grew up on.”

Even before “Homesick” was a single, Brown was able to flip the song’s work-related separation story to a military theme with a powerful video that included a montage of soldiers reuniting to their children and spouses. “It’s easy to lose track and [make this job] all about notoriety and money and reaching a certain level in songwriting,” says Berryhill. “It’s awesome to see a song that can make people feel back at home with their families.”

RCA Nashville released “Homesick” to country radio via PlayMPE on June 27 with an Aug. 5 add date. Despite Brown’s initial reluctance to insert his name into it, the song’s relatability and sincerity make it one of his most natural performances to date. “I think I sang it maybe three times, and then we were done,” he says of his final vocal. “It was easy, I guess just because it’s so personal.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.