Biracial Singer Kane Brown Forges His Own Path in Country Music

Kane Brown is an up-and-coming country singer who is the genre's first true star to break out through social media. Brown has a gold single without ever being on country radio, and his EP landed at No. 3 on Billboard. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
Kane Brown is an up-and-coming country singer who is the genre’s first true star to break out through social media. Brown has a gold single without ever being on country radio, and his EP landed at No. 3 on Billboard. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)

All Kane Brown wants is a chance in country music.

Growing up as a sometimes-homeless biracial kid in Georgia, he’s used to being judged.

“Color does matter, even though people don’t see it,” Brown said. “I’ve lived it my whole life. It’s just what I know.”

Even though Brown attended five high schools in as many years, he graduated. And when he covered a Chris Young tune at his high school talent show — his first public performance — the heavily tattooed singer recalls being showered with racial slurs from his classmates. When the song was over, the students gave him an encore, he said.

The 23-year-old singer is trying to conjure that same brand of fortitude again, but this time on a much larger stage as he looks to persuade a skeptical country music industry to embrace his self-titled debut album. In stores Dec. 2, the 11-song collection is home to songs penned by fellow artists Florida Georgia Line and Chris Young, along with top Nashville songwriters including Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin and Brown himself.

“The coolest part about seeing him have a full album out now is I know how long he’s been writing for this and looking for outside songs,” Young said. “Being able to fit all of that sonically and make it his own on his first album is something that’s hugely important. It’s your first step out as an artist, and I think he’s handled it really, really well.”

To get this far, Brown has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles stacked from a childhood facing poverty, violence and racism. The album tells that story — along with one of forgiveness, growth, fun and unconditional love.

“I just feel like I have a chance to be a role model now,” Brown said.

To date, Brown has amassed more than 3 million followers on Facebook, driven by amateur performance videos, previews of which have generated more than 100 million views and shares. His co-penned Used to Love You Sober sold more than 500,000 copies without significant country radio support, he spent much of the year on tour with Florida Georgia Line and is currently headlining the Monster Energy Outbreak Presents: Kane Brown Ain’t No Stopping Us Now Tour.

Why country radio hasn’t been supportive is up for debate. Country music historian Bob Oermann theorizes it’s because radio frowned on Brown’s social media success, preferring to be the vehicle that breaks artists into the format. Or, he says, it could be due to Brown’s touring schedule he hasn’t made as many visits to country radio stations as other new artists. Race, Oermann admits, is a murky area and notes that, apart from Darius Rucker’s crossover success, it has been decades since an artist of color has had consistent success in the format.

Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO at Sony Music Nashville, signed Brown to his record label in early 2016. He chalks the hesitation at country radio up to not giving “radio the right music.”

However, he believes, that’s about to change.

“We were trying to move quickly and take advantage of (his social media and touring momentum),” Goodman said. “Maybe we moved too quickly. But the great thing about it is, is that I know we’ve got great music, great songs and we’re going to get this guy (on) radio. Our next bat at radio, we’re going to be loaded.”

For Brown, it’s not much different than his high school talent show — he’s looking for a chance from another group of people he has to win over.

He describes himself as a “poor kid” who lived in a car with his mother when they didn’t have a place to go. Sometimes he stayed with his grandparents; other times he bounced between friends’ houses.

Brown grew up listening to country radio, playing rodeo with his grandfather and hanging out in the fishing room at his other grandfather’s store, the Cold Spot, which Douglas and Shamblin helped him memorialize on his album.

In high school, Brown watched as friends fell victim to drugs and guns. He managed to sidestep the same situations. His mom, he explains, “raised me better than that.”

“I always look at it like, ‘Stuff happens for a reason,’ ” he said. “I feel like God put me in places in life to learn, and it was getting me ready for now. Now I get to tell it, and show people what’s wrong and what’s right.”

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SOURCE: USA Today; The Tennessean, Cindy Watts