In the regimented world of country music — where would-be stars pass through a Music Row boot camp of nights spent at open mics and days spent peddling songs to publishers — Kane Brown, 25, thinks of himself as an outcast. He’s biracial, and came up hard in Tennessee and North Georgia, living with his mom in a car at one point and moving so often he went to five high schools. “I got bullied so much growing up for being a different color in a majority white school,” he says. “I remember being chased through the woods being called the n-word. I was in middle school. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘They’re gonna kill me.’”
At the start, as a person of color with a neck tat and an eyebrow piercing, Brown would get asked a lot if he rapped. But his outcast feeling isn’t just a matter of race. Brown mastered social media before guitar, shooting country covers on his phone, posting them on Facebook and YouTube and racking up big numbers. Going from social media sensation to major-label artist has been commonplace in pop for more than a decade, but skipping the Nashville boot camp got Brown tagged as country’s Justin Bieber. “Nobody’s really done it in country music like that before,” he says, shrugging off the negativity. As he explained in “Learning” — a song from his 2016 self-titled debut album that addressed everything from a brutal beating at age six from a stepdad for wetting the bed to the racism he’d experienced at school to losing friends to guns and overdoses — bitterness is something he’s worked hard to let go of.
Brown has a distinctive low-register that’s more like a twanged-out Eddie Vedder than Johnny Cash. He grew up with country, but gravitated toward R&B in his teens. As he finished high school he found himself connecting to an emerging wave of shuffle-play country — Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett — that blended elements of hip-hop, dance-pop, R&B, and rock. “Country had completely changed from Shania Twain and Tim McGraw and the stuff that my mom used to listen to,” he says — though he’s careful to add that he listened to all that as well.
When he was in 11th grade a co-worker at Lowe’s overheard Brown singing Chris Young’s “Gettin’ You Home” and pushed him to perform it at a school talent show. He won. Now Brown opens for Young on tour, and his debut album included a Young duet. That album also spawned two huge country hits: “What Ifs” (a duet with 2011 American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina, a friend from middle school) and “Heaven,” both of which soar with power-ballad longing. His feature on a remix of Camila Cabello’s “Never Be the Same” helped push that song into the Top 10, and opened up new audiences for both artists.
“It’s new school with old-school country,” says Kane Brown of his new album Experiment
Brown might be well poised for mainstream stardom, but he’s responding with a second album that blends more traditional sounds into his mix. In part, that’s the result of a trip to Texas that saw Brown trading songs with local artists. “I was playing ‘What Ifs’ and two fiddle players jumped in on it and just made me fall in love,” he says. He started putting fiddle and steel guitar — instruments he feels “are going extinct” in country — on the tracks he was recording. “It’s new school with old-school country,” he says. “It’s an experiment.”
So much so that the album is titled Experiment (out November 9th). Brown teamed again with producer Dann Huff — whose resume includes everything from playing guitar for Whitesnake to producing Carrie Underwood — and came up with a carefully crafted balance of “stuff that guys like to listen to, with solos that they wish they could play” (like the swampy guitar thumper “Baby Come Back to Me”) with songs that would appeal to the ladies. (“I guess because I’m getting married … we have so many love songs on there,” says Brown, who wed fiancée Katelyn Jae in October.)
He also made sure the album had “both songs you could play on country radio and then some songs that were gonna stream well.” Among the latter is “American Bad Dream,” a ghostly grinder that opens with a verse about school shootings. “I wanted to talk about what was happening in today’s world,” says Brown, who was at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas last year, but left minutes before the start of the shooting that would take 58 lives. “Before, you never saw on the news there was a shooting today. Then, the next day, there’s another shooting, and then the next, repeating. I’m basically just saying, ‘Stop being on the left side or the right side, just wake up and realize that we’re in a screwed-up world and we need to try and fix it.’”
When he started out, Brown knew he was struggling for acceptance in Nashville. Now he’s in a position to try to experiment with and expand country, and he feels he’s brought non-traditional listeners, like himself, further into the music. “If you come to my shows, there’s all kinds of different races, all kinds of different people. Now, I feel accepted. I still feel like an outcast on the inside, but it doesn’t bother me anymore, at all. It kind of feels cool to be the outsider.”