After wrapping a show in Illinois and riding his tour bus all night, Kane Brown rolls into Sony Nashville headquarters in the clothes he slept in: jeans and a jersey reading K-A-N-E. Caught sporting his own merch, the 22-year-old Georgia native shrugs. “Nobody can tell,” he says, “if they don’t know my name.”
Brown is no stranger to the art of self-promotion. He spent the last few years plotting an alternative route to country’s established paths to success, the well-worn gauntlet of Nashville labels, publishers and other industry heavyweights. Instead, he amassed north of 1 million Facebook followers, YouTube views and Spotify streams through no-budget, phone-shot videos and such self-released tracks as “Used to Love You Sober,” a ballad highlighting his stoic baritone that hit No. 2 on Country Digital Songs in Nov. 2015. Two months later, after rumors of a bidding war, RCA Nashville snatched him up. Now the label is trying to turn all those “likes” into radio success, packaging “Sober” on his Chapter 1 EP, out March 18; the song rises 46-41 in its sixth week on Country Airplay.
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.”
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.