The EP's artwork shows a heavily tattooed, ethnically ambiguous kid; the silver bar through his eyebrow is hidden in the shadow of his ballcap brim. Up until his signing, Brown occasionally flashed his abs in Instagram selfies, but "thought it'd be more professional if I didn't do it anymore," he says. His style and background (a white mother and a father of African-American/Cherokee descent) often prompt first-time observers to pigeonhole him as a pop-R&B bad boy, not a country artist. "I get that a lot," he says. "Everybody's like, 'You're a musician? Do you rap?' The world's not used to it."
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Young as he is, Brown already has learned the power of defying expectations. "[People] think I've never lived country in my life," he says. "But I lived on a dairy farm. I used to help my papaw milk the cows." In tougher times, he and his mom, who was then raising him on her own, slept in their car. Instead of lullabies, she sang him Shania Twain and Sugarland. "I was a mama's boy," he says, "so I was just like, 'I want to sing like you.' "
They moved around so much that he attended five different high schools; classmates made up the initial audience for his phone videos. Once he saw what American Idol did for country star Lauren Alaina, a friend from school choir, Brown gave reality shows a go. Idol rejected him, saying "they didn't need another Scotty McCreery," he recalls. He made The X Factor, but the show "tried to put me in a boy band, so I quit. I went home and did my own American Idol with covers online." Brown posted a video singing Lee Brice's "I Don't Dance" and awoke the next day to "like, 60,000 shares." Soon enough, his originals, including 2014's "Don't Get City on Me," were doing well too.
Now he's brushing shoulders with the stars he once covered, co-writing with Chris Young ("There Goes My Everything") and joining Florida Georgia Line's summer arena tour. He shot a professional video for "Sober," but will keep the phone footage coming (a full-length album is expected this year). "We tried to polish the videos and use a camcorder once, but it didn't work," he says. "My fans just like me being real, I guess."
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Billboard.