NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kane Brown knows a hit when he hears one, whether it’s a tribute to '90s country or a collaboration with an R&B star or DJ that might light up the dance floor.
The 28-year-old multi-hyphenate who broke out on social media has let his ear for what’s hot lead his uncharted path in country music, all the way up to his third record “Different Man” out Friday.
But even after a string of eight No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay songs, Brown took his time finding the special song his fans have been begging him for: a duet with his wife, Katelyn.
“We’ve had, like, four other songs that we were going to do,” Brown said, of his wife, who was also an aspiring singer-songwriter when they met in 2015.
Nothing felt right until he heard a song — the only one on the album that he didn’t co-write — that fit her style, which Brown describes in the vein of the big vocal pop like Whitney or Mariah. He’s so confident “Thank God” is a hit, he’s ready to pitch it as an awards show performance.
“After we recorded it, I was like, ‘Are you going to sing this on the ACMs?’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ And I was like, ‘This is going to be the biggest song on the record,’” Brown said with a grin.
Brown has a right to feel confident in his song choices and his production. His latest hit, “Like I Love Country Music” shot to No. 1 on the country airplay chart and his cross-genre songs with artists like Khalid, Marshmello and Becky G have exposed him to a worldwide audience that recognizes his name and smooth baritone.
But behind the scenes of the industry, he’s pushing into new territory. He co-produced his new record, has hosted awards shows, started his own record label and was the first male country artist to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards last month, a show that generally doesn’t court a country fanbase. During his last tour he played every NBA arena in the country, often sporting a jersey for each team on stage.
Brown has already jumped over genre lines and his sights are set on international audiences with tour stops in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe in the coming months.
Last year, he launched his label, 1021 Entertainment, in partnership with Sony Music Nashville, where he handpicked its first band, Restless Road, after meeting the trio years ago while they were all trying out for “X Factor.” For Brown, the ambition to succeed extends all the way back to when he was often told he wasn’t the right look or fit for country music, even though his mother’s country records were the first ones he learned to sing.
“I tried to fight to get into Nashville for the longest,” Brown said. “People were just like, ‘Nah nah.’ And then when it started selling, that’s when people started coming to the door. And so I felt like I’m really good at finding talent, especially on social media, because I’m always on social media, so I might as well just try and help people even faster.”
Brown didn’t just give Restless Road a record deal — he’s also given them a masterclass in touring and songwriting, as they’ve been opening his tour stops and earned a co-write on Brown’s new record.
“He’s someone we’re always playing our songs for,” said Zach Beeken, one of the three singers and songwriters in Restless Road. “We take his opinion very seriously and he’s always looking to make sure that we’re highlighting ourselves and our strengths and really finding our sound every time we put out a song.”
Brown's album is built for his playlist generation audience, whether its going toe-to-toe on the title track duet with Blake Shelton, co-writing with pop singer-songwriter Mike Posner, to getting Brooks & Dunn in the studio to add their distinctive voices to a ’90s country tribute song.
While Brown has often been welcomed by other artists to collaborate outside of the country genre, he’s going it solo on a trappy pop single called “Grand” that he hopes will further establish himself on non-country playlists.
“That was the scariest thing — just doing it by myself and not having a feature on it, but we got all positive feedback from radio and the editorial playlists for streaming,” he said. “ESPN loves it. I heard it on the ESPYS before it came out.”
Now his next goal is to celebrate a hit song with his wife and the mother of his two kids.
“I want to share a No. 1 with her so I can relive what it feels like to have a No. 1 and just relive it through her,” he said.
Follow Kristin M. Hall at https://Twitter.com/kmhall