Kane Brown isn’t big over here just yet. The Tennessee country singer has only played one London gig, at the 2,300-capacity Forum this February, and could easily be confused with a British comedian of the same name. As an indication of how big he is in the US, however, consider this: this week he made news headlines because he had to call the police to rescue him after getting lost on his own property.
This is not a case of accidentally walking into the airing cupboard on your way to the bathroom. The way the 26-year-old tells it there were plummeting temperatures, disappearing light, precarious clifftop drives in a 4×4 truck and worrying nearby gunshots, somewhere in the 3,000 acres of Nashville wilderness surrounding his own 30.
Nevertheless, he’s taken becoming the meme of the week in good humour. You must feel pretty bulletproof when you’re country music’s hottest crossover star, sharing song space with huge pop and R&B names including Marshmello, Khalid and John Legend. Brown’s two albums to date – a self-titled debut from 2016 and 2018’s Experiment – went double platinum and platinum respectively over there. He’s approaching 400 million YouTube views of the video for his 2017 hit Heaven, and the collaboration with dance producer Marshmello, One Thing Right, has been streamed almost half a billion times. A month before he introduced himself to Londoners at that small theatre show, he was headlining to 20,000 at LA’s Staples Center.
“Everybody already calls me ‘pop country’ so I just want to go ahead and claim that title,” he tells me. “I want to have songs on pop radio and I want to have songs on country radio. I don’t see why that should be a problem.”
Not everyone is keen on his sound and image, which are a long way from traditional Nashville country. He’s biracial, plastered in tattoos, and although he sings in a low drawl that sounds perfectly at home making southern-fried lyrical observations such as “Love is like a rodeo”, he’s also comfortable doing acoustic reggae on his recent single Be Like That and crooning at the piano with John Legend on Last Time I Say Sorry.
“There are people who are, you know, ‘red dirt country’, who are still on Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, and they can’t stand me. My fans love all genres of music,” he explains. “I was a nervous wreck coming into the country music scene, and I did feel like I had to dress a certain way and do certain things. Now I’m at a point where I can do my own thing. I don’t push too hard to break no boundaries, but I do break boundaries.”
Doing his own thing means releasing a mixtape today. It’s a liberating format that allows him to try a few things out, such as featuring soul star Khalid and rappers Nelly and Swae Lee, as well as a gospel choir and digitally altered backing vocals on Worldwide Beautiful. He says these seven songs will be added to 10 more to become a full album, probably next year, and there’s a duet with another soul singer, H.E.R, to come, but he isn’t rejecting the genre that made him.
“The full album will have a lot more country songs on there. I’ll never betray country music because they’re the ones that got me started. I’ll always have a heart for them,” he says.
We’re speaking on Zoom while he’s in Nashville with his wife and baby daughter. His interview technique is clear and polite, without giving away any more than required. I’m the grand finale of a long day of promotion. He checks his watch while we speak and is visibly relieved to get to the end. His music is similarly free of unnecessary extras. Whether pop or country, his songs are so immediately memorable that you could attempt them confidently at karaoke after hearing just one verse and a chorus. He might be country’s Justin Bieber, building an early fanbase through online cover versions rather than the traditional route of courting radio stations and playing poorly attended gigs in Nashville’s bar venues.
“I was working two jobs, and I was bored, but I loved to sing, so I was just putting videos up on Facebook for the heck of it,” he says. “It took me years and a lot of videos but I finally got there. I wrote a song called Used to Love You Sober, it went to the top of the iTunes Country chart and that’s how I got my record deal.”
His early life did not make a glitzy singing career seem possible. His father, who is black and part Cherokee, has been in prison since Brown was three. He moved around Tennessee and Georgia with his white mother, and thinks he attended five elementary schools, two middle schools and six high schools. He had hopes of becoming an American football player, but was not quite tall enough or heavy enough. He tried to join the army but they wanted him to remove his tattoos.
His song Learning, from his debut album, is startlingly honest from a musician who looks superficially so tough. “When I was six years old, I kinda wet the bed/My stepdad came in and nearly beat me to death,” he sings.
“I knew I had a story to tell,” he says. “I wanted my fans to know what I went through, to make them closer to me. After I wrote the song and sang it, it brought tears to my eyes. I hope other people can relate to it.”
He was also unafraid to rock the boat a little on his song American Bad Dream, which dared to suggest that the US of A might not be the greatest country on Earth. Brown, who performed at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas in 2017, at which 58 people were murdered by one gunman, sings: “Now you gotta take a test in a bullet proof vest/Scared to death that you might get shot…I’m becomin’ numb to all of this tragedy.”
Today he’s more diplomatic, sympathetic to those who want to “protect their families” in the gun debate, and putting himself on middle ground in the race rage that is engulfing America too. “I have a black family and a white family and they mostly disagree all the time. When they can stop fighting and actually listen to each other, they might understand. I understand both sides.”
One thing’s clear: he certainly understands how to ensure mass appeal. Country or pop, black or white, everyone’s welcome to fall for this new kind of star.
Mixtape Vol.1 is released today on RCA Nashville/Zone 4