Kane Brown’s country music career was just beginning to explode when he first came to Roanoke. A Sidewinders Steak House and Saloon gig in August 2016 had to be moved outside to Campbell Avenue due to ticket demand. The “X Factor” TV music contest escapee had a hit at the time with “Used to Love You Sober.” But he felt that his first full-length album was going to do even better, he said in an interview before the show.
Brown was correct. A couple of months later, his self-titled debut album, fueled by hits “Heaven” and “What Ifs” — the latter with former high school classmate Lauren Alaina — topped the Billboard country albums chart and crossed over into the pop top 10, too. His 2018 follow-up, “Experiment,” went to No. 1 on both those charts late last year, and the single “Lose It” did the same.
On his return to Roanoke, Brown is an arena headliner, with a show set for Thursday at Berglund Coliseum.
A lot has happened very quickly for Brown, whose only recent break came in October, when he got married. Otherwise, he has been in a show business whirlwind.
“It’s just something you adapt to,” the 25-year-old Brown said. “Before, I was either at work or I was on Xbox. I didn’t really have much of a life before that. Now I just do what my schedule says and in the meantime I’m on Xbox and hanging with my wife, watching movies and Netflix. It doesn’t really change, other than you’re on a bus and you’re in a different city every other day.”
Brown departed “The X Factor” TV show in 2013, when producers tried to make him part of a country music boy band. Instead, he took a job at FedEx and posted videos of himself singing cover songs to stave off boredom. The videos, featuring his smooth baritone, went viral, and Nashville, Tennessee’s, music industry took notice. Before he signed with the RCA Nashville label, in 2016, he had never been a songwriter. He took to it quickly, though, co-writing five numbers on his debut album, including “What Ifs.” On “Experiment,” he was a co-writer on all but one track.
In between, he learned about how to pace an album and keep audience interest, he said.
“When I first moved to Nashville, everything happened so quick, I didn’t know what to write or say,” he said. “With the new album, I wanted to make my tour fun, because I realized I sang those old songs for years, and some of them were pretty slow, so they weren’t very energetic.”
Among the cuts on the first album was “Learning,” with lyrics about his abuse at a stepfather’s hands, dealing with racism after moving to a new school and the loss of friends to drug overdoses and violence. His audience’s response to that one was so strong that he wanted another “real song” on “Experiment.” That number was “American Bad Dream,” which opens with some of the realest lyrics you’ll hear in a modern country song.
Remember when ninth grade was about gettin’ laid
Skippin’ class tryin’ not to get caught?
Now you gotta take a test in a bullet proof vest
Scared to death that you might get shot
Brown proposed the idea to co-writers Sam Ellis, Josh Hoge and Chase McGill. They were influenced by the 2017 shooting massacre at a Las Vegas country music festival and another mass shooting in 2018 at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California.
“We really wanted to write just what nobody in country music’s talking about, and not let it be forgotten, because we had a lot of fans, which is family, and artists, which is also family, at that Vegas shooting,” he said. “And we had fans and family at the shooting out in L.A., at the bar.
“It sucks to see that, and I just feel like I’m at a place where I can say something, and hopefully … it works in some way, and it’s hopeful.”
Hoge came up with the lyric about the vest, Brown said.
“Once he said that line, it hit a different spot [than] I’ve felt from a lyric before, so I had to stick it in there.”
Audiences have responded well to it, as well as to the more up-tempo, fun stuff that Brown and his band are playing. Most of the band members are from the Chattanooga, Tennessee, and northwest Georgia region where Brown came up.
“I’m so family-oriented that I have my boys that started out with me. … They’re with me still,” he said. “The label tried to get rid of them a couple of times, because we weren’t doing that well. But we were all new. We were learning together.
“And now, every time anybody hears our band, they are like, y’all are so tight. We’re all family, just growing together.”
He recently hired a multi-instrumentalist who plays fiddle, banjo and pedal steel, to give country touches to what often feels like pop music.
“It depends on which song” whether it leans more to one genre or another, he said. “But I feel like I’m Kane Brown. I don’t feel like my stuff would work on pop radio. I love country music, so I got [country instruments]. I’d say it fits right in the middle there, with either.”
Now he’s taking it all on the road as an arena headliner. Brown spoke by phone with The Roanoke Times the day after his Jan. 11 tour opener at the Infinity Energy Center, near Atlanta.
“I was so scared, … but it was honestly amazing,” he said. “The energy was insane. Everybody was singing every word back. Everybody was standing up. It was just totally exciting. I can’t wait to get back on stage tonight. I can’t wait to get down to Virginia and get on stage. I’m just excited to be on the road again.”