Early in his musical career, Blanco Brown had some success writing and producing tracks for other artists. But the success also presented him with a dilemma: very few of those artists were interested in recording the kind of songs Brown wanted to write — instead of heartfelt, story-driven tunes, people were asking him to create songs for the club.
“Everybody wanted to sing ratchet records,” says Brown, whose new album Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs was released October 11th. “Everybody else was like, we just want something with bounce. We want to be in the club. We want a slammin’ beat, talk about drinking. It wasn’t those records where you could say, ‘Hey, look at that little broken boy, somebody needs to fix him,’ those type of records. I have those records for days, because I’m, at heart, a true songwriter with purpose.”
It’s that tenet of country music — the emphasis on storytelling — that resonated with Brown, who primarily grew up in the tough Bankhead area of Atlanta but spent his summers staying with relatives in the Georgia countryside. Instead of handing off his songs, he started hanging on to them. Album track “Tn Whiskey,” for example, had some interest from Kane Brown’s team but its creator had already grown attached to it.
“I was like, I want to put out my own stuff where I can actually have messages in my music,” says Blanco Brown, who recently realized a dream when he sang the movie-in-three-verses tune “Don’t Take the Girl” with a visibly impressed Tim McGraw while on tour in Australia. “I don’t want to be watered down.”
Of course, Brown’s biggest hit to date, “The Git Up,” isn’t so much a story song as an endlessly joyful blend of country melodies and kitchen-sink hip-hop production that comes with a readymade dance. People filming themselves on TikTok while trying to master the dance helped propel the song into viral smash territory and a country chart hit, and the rest is recent history.
But elsewhere on Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs, Brown flexes those storyteller muscles on a sound he’s describing and stylizing as “TrailerTrap.” “CountryTime” is a bit of outlaw fantasy, describing police chases and “voices in my head” over acoustic guitar and trap beats before shifting to a lively bluegrass hoedown in the final coda. “Georgia Power,” which mixes beatboxed percussion to cascading, Beach Boy-style harmonies, is about summoning resilience in the wake of a breakup. “You gotta strap up your boots, get your feelings aligned,” he sings.
In “Ghett Ol’ Memories,” Brown waxes nostalgic about long and winding days of “sugar straws with the Big League bubble gum” or playing baseball in the yard, but there’s also danger and uncertainty at the edges. He hears “gunshots at the backdoor” and every night when he lays down, his sleep is soundtracked by sirens.
“When I went to the country, I had no worries,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about no friends dying tragically. It just felt like peace. When I went back to the projects, everything was a fun day, but you just never knew what was gonna happen — who was gonna get shot that day, or steal a car and be chased by the police. You didn’t know what was gonna go wrong.”
Unlike Lil Nas X’s world-conquering “Old Town Road,” which was held off the country charts, Brown’s similar hybrid style of music has been put out by a Nashville-based label group and afforded a little more space to exist there. They aren’t trying to make him change his style to be more palatable for country radio — just trusting his instincts.
“I don’t feel any different pressure other than just being great and doing what I love to do. And it’s just beautiful when you can do what you love to do and you don’t have to alter it,” says Brown, who cites Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast as a “life-changing” influence. “People wanted to try to make me choose rap/trap music, or singing R&B, over country. It couldn’t happen.”
With the rapid success of “The Git Up,” Brown has had to get more comfortable performing on stage — he’ll tour with Chris Lane in January 2020 — something he’d only really done in a supporting role in years past. Today, though, he feels like a completely different person.
“I was shy, I stood in the back, I just wanted to chill,” he says. “I never led songs. I didn’t have the confidence. And now I’m like, ‘Hey, where’s the nearest stage. Can I get on it?'”