Arts

Kane Brown Didn’t Fit the Country Music Mold. So He Made His Own.

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Kane Brown recently hosted a fellow country singer at his Nashville home, then paused to collect himself. “After he left,” Brown recalled, “I was like, Randy Travis really just came over and ate barbecue at my house.”

The two first met at a radio station in 2016, when Travis, a Country Music Hall of Famer, surprised Brown, then a largely unknown 23-year-old, midway through a startlingly mature cover of his own 2002 hit “Three Wooden Crosses.” “I have not only become a fan of his voice, his style and talent, but of his heart, his passion and his character,” Travis wrote in an email. “If you listen to the stories his songs tell, you will understand his journey.”

Earning the respect and friendship of an anointed country hero like Travis would be significant for any rising talent. But for Brown, who’s grown into a reliable hitmaker in the genre while regularly fending off gripes about whether he — a biracial man who regularly steps across stylistic borders and has worked with collaborators as diverse as Khalid, Marshmello and Becky G — even belongs among its ranks, the co-sign is especially meaningful.

“It’s all the validation I need,” said Brown, now 28, as he sat on the terrace of his room at a Soho hotel last month, chewing a lump of tobacco and looking back on his path from a childhood marked by poverty and racism to America’s biggest stages.

For anyone inclined to nitpick Brown’s country credentials, his third album — “Different Man,” out Friday — includes a handful of obvious targets: “See You Like I Do,” which sounds like a lost boy-band classic; “Thank God,” a touching folk-pop duet between the singer and his wife, Katelyn; and “Grand,” where Brown slips effortlessly into post-Drake R&B, chronicling life at the top and affirming that he always keeps “it trilly with the fans.”

“I released ‘Grand,’ and there’s so many comments that are saying, ‘This isn’t country.’ It’s like, ‘No [expletive],’” Brown said with a mock fed-up chuckle. “I wasn’t trying to make this country.”

At last, Brown said, he is done trying to micromanage his public perception. “When I first came in, with how I look — tattoos, biracial, all that stuff — I was already getting perceived as a rapper, and it kept going on for years,” ‌Brown‌ ‌said. So, he reasoned, “I might as well just take on that role.”

As willing as he is to step outside country’s boundaries, Brown maintains a deep loyalty to the genre. Much of “Different Man” feels determinedly traditional: “Bury Me in Georgia,” a stomping ode to Brown’s rural Southern roots; “Pop’s Last Name,” the singer’s tender tribute to the maternal grandfather who helped raise him; and “Like I Love Country Music,” a playful, fiddle-accented romp that shows off Brown’s baritone twang and shouts out many of his key influences, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and George Jones.

Brown’s eclectic approach mirrors his own development as a fan. Moving frequently around northern Georgia and southern Tennessee with his single mother, Brown listened exclusively to country, mainly the ’90s staples she loved, like Tim McGraw, Sugarland and Shania Twain. In middle school, he branched out, checking out everything from Usher and Sisqó to AC/DC and Kid Rock. He even went through a brief pop-punk phase. “Oh, yeah, with the Vans and the skinny jeans,” Brown said. “I had my eyebrows pierced; I had my ears gauged.”

Around junior year of high school, Brown started noticing country coming back into vogue. “‘Cruise’ by Florida Georgia Line had just come out,” he recalled, referring to the 2012 bro-country smash, “and you couldn’t escape that song.” He dove back into the genre, taking in work by other artists then on the ascent. Chris Young became his gold standard, thanks to his sturdy songcraft and similar baritone range.

“When I found out about him, I studied every song, from his first album all the way down to what he has now,” Brown said in his deep drawl, “and that’s where I found myself wanting to sing.”

Brown battled long odds to realize his dream. When he was young, he and his mother endured bouts of homelessness, often living in their car. (As Brown mentions in “Pop’s Last Name,” his father has been incarcerated since 1996; he said he visited him twice as a teenager but they had not stayed in touch.) Later on, he saw friends and relatives fall into severe drug addiction. There was one year, he said, “where I had six or seven of my friends overdose.”

Brown played sports and worked a steady string of retail jobs but stayed focused on music. Inspired by his middle-school friend Lauren Alaina — with whom he’d later notch his first country No. 1, the 2017 duet “What Ifs” — he tried out for singing shows and eventually made the cut for “The X Factor.” He quit when the producers tried to funnel him into a boy band and started posting country covers to Facebook. Some went viral, as did “Used to Love You Sober,” a tear-in-your-beer original that he self-released in 2015. Soon, Brown had a deal with RCA Records Nashville.

He started scoring country-chart hits and eventually teamed up with his early idol Young, on the 2021 single “Famous Friends,” one of Brown’s 21 songs to reach Billboard’s Hot 100. But his path to country success has been marked by very different obstacles than that of his white heroes. As a child, Brown only learned he was half Black when schoolmates started labeling him with a racial slur, and when he got up to sing at a high school talent show, he endured similar barrages.

Now speaking as one of the few Black marquee names in country, along with Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and Jimmie Allen, Brown says racism is still a daily reality for him. “Even today, I walked in somewhere and they were like, ‘Oh, my God, you did so good on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘That wasn’t me; that was Jimmie Allen. That’s the other Black guy.’”

The plight of Black artists in country, and the genre’s deep-seated history of racism, is now the subject of a very public conversation, which accelerated last year when the country star Morgan Wallen was filmed using a racial slur. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Brown released “Worldwide Beautiful,” a call for unity, but he still feels constant pressure to act as a spokesman. “I guarantee you every artist probably got asked about it,” he said of the Wallen incident. But, he added, when he, Allen or Guyton were asked the question, it “was completely different than when they asked somebody else,” he said. “It’s like, they want an answer.”

After staying quiet until now, he’s ready to give his take. “This is the first time I’ve ever even talked about this, but I personally know Morgan,” Brown said of Wallen, who helped write one track on his 2016 debut. “I texted him that day. I told him he shouldn’t have said it, but also knowing Morgan, I knew that he didn’t mean it in the way that the world thought that he meant it.” He’s quick to add that if he’d detected racist maliciousness in the remark, he would have taken action. “I think if it was in a different context,” he said, “I probably would have been fighting.”

Brown is optimistic about country’s turn toward greater inclusivity, and ‌he recently signed the Black songwriter Levon Gray — a writer on his recent single “One Mississippi” — to a publishing deal. But he knows he’ll always have his detractors. Looking ahead to the album’s release, he’s focusing on the allies he can count on: artists who have his back, like Travis and Young; and the support system he shouts out on “Grand,” whether that’s the fans who have been helping him sell out basketball arenas nationwide on his recent Blessed & Free Tour, or his wife and two young daughters.

“I used to always be nervous about what people were going to think, and I was kind of scared — I didn’t want people to think that I was leaving country music because that’s my heart,” Brown said. “But now, it’s just to the point where it’s like, I’m a dad now, two kids; I care what they think. So I’m just not that scared kid anymore.”

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