Kane Brown didn't fit the country music mold. So he made his own. (2023)

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Prejudice has accompanied the multiracial singer since his early days as a performer. Now a proven hitmaker across a range of genres, he's releasing his third album, Different Man.

Kane Brown didn't fit the country music mold. So he made his own. (1)

ThroughHank Shteamer

Kane Brown recently hosted a country singer friend at his Nashville home, then took a break to collect himself. "After he left," Brown recalled, "I thought Randy Travis really just came over and had a barbecue at my house."

The two first met at a radio station in 2016 when Travis, a Country Music Hall of Famer,surprises Brown, then a largely unknown 23-year-old, in the middle of a stunningly mature cover of his own 2002 hit "Three Wooden Crosses." 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 of great importance to any aspiring talent. But for Brown, who has become a reliable hitmaker in the genre while regularly fending off complaints about whether he — a multiracial man who regularly pushes stylistic boundaries and has worked with as diverse a collaborator as possibleKhalid,MarshmelloandBecky G– even belongs to their ranks, the co-sign is particularly meaningful.

"That's the validation I need," Brown, now 28, said as he sat on the patio of his room in a Soho hotel last month, chewing a stick of tobacco and making his way out of a poverty- and racism-ridden world Childhood looked back on America's biggest stages.

For anyone wanting to critique Brown's country references, his third album -- Different Man, out Friday -- contains 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"Great",where Brown effortlessly slips 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 are so many comments that say, 'This isn't country.' "I wasn't trying to make this country."

Finally, Brown said, he's tired of micromanaging his public perceptions. "When I first walked in, with my looks — tattoos, biracial, all that stuff — I was already recognized as a rapper, and it went on like that for years," ‌Brown‌‌ said. So he figured, "I might as well take on that role."

As willing as he is to cross the country's borders, Brown retains a deep loyalty to the genre. Much in Different Man feels decidedly traditional: Bury Me in Georgia, a pounding 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 showcases Brown's baritone twang and calls on many of his key influences, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and George Jones.

Brown's eclectic approach reflects his own evolution as a fan. Frequently moving around northern Georgia and southern Tennessee with his single mother, Brown only listened to country, mostly the '90s classics she loved like Tim McGraw, Sugarland and Shania Twain. He branched out in middle school, trying 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 measured.”

Around junior year of high school, Brown noticed that country was coming back into vogue. "'Cruise'by Florida's Georgia Line had just come out," he recalled, referring to the 2012 bro-country hit, "and there was no escaping that song." He dived back into the genre, incorporating work from other artists , which were on the rise at the time. Chris Young became his gold standard thanks to his robust vocal artistry and similar baritone range.

"When I first found out about him, I studied every song from his first album to what he has now," Brown said in his deep, drawling voice, "and that's when I knew I wanted to sing."

Brown struggled with long chances to achieve his dream. When he was young, he and his mother suffered from homelessness, often living in their car. (As Brown mentions in "Pop's Last Name," his father has been jailed since 1996; he said he visited him twice as a teenager, but they didn't keep in touch.) He later saw friends and relatives spiral into serious drug addictions expired . There was a year, he said, "when I overdosed six or seven of my friends."

Brown played sports and worked a number of retail jobs but remained focused on music. Inspired by his middle school friend Lauren Alaina - with whom he would later hit his first country No. 1, 2017 duet "What Ifs" - he tried his hand at singing shows and eventually made it on The X Factor. He quit when producers tried to put him in a boy band and started posting country covers on Facebook. Some went viral, as did"I used to love you sober"a lurid original that he self-published in 2015. Brown soon had a deal with RCA Records Nashville.

He began scoring country chart hits and eventually teamed up with his early idol Young for the 2021 single"Famous Friends",one of Brown's 21 songs to make Billboard's Hot 100. But his road to country success was marked by very different obstacles than those of his white heroes. As a child, Brown only found out from schoolmates that he was half blackstarted writing it on hima racial slur, and when he got up to sing at a high school talent show, heendured similar barrages.

One of the few black marquee names in the 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 well on 'Dancing With the Stars,'" he said. “I say, 'It wasn't me; that was Jimmie Allen. That's the other black guy.'"

The plight of black artists in the country and the genre's deep-rooted history of racism is now the subject of avery public conversation, which accelerated last year when theCountry star Morgan Wallen was filmed witha racial insult. Brown was released after the murder of George Floyd"Worldwide Beautiful",a call for unity, but he still feels constant pressure to speak out. "I guarantee you that probably every artist has been asked about this," he said of the Wallen incident. But, he added, when he, Allen or Guyton was asked the question, it was "completely different than when they asked someone else," he said. "It's like, herwantan answer."

Having remained quiet so far, he's ready to speak his mind. "This is the first time I've even spoken about this, but I know Morgan personally," Brown said of Wallen helping write a trackon its debut in 2016. “I texted him that day. I told him he shouldn't have said it, but knowing Morgan I knew he didn't mean it like the world thought he meant it." He's quick to add that he would have taken action if he would have detected racial malice in the remark. "I think if it had been in a different context," he said, "I probably would have fought."

Brown is optimistic about country's move towards more inclusivity, and he recently signed black songwriter Levon Gray - a writer on his latest single"One Mississippi"– to a publishing contract. But he knows he will always have his critics. Looking ahead to the album's release, he's focused on the allies he can count on: artists who have his back, like Travis and Young; and the support system he screams "Grand," whether it's the fans who helped him sell out basketball arenas nationwide on his recent Blessed & Free Tour, or his wife and two young daughters.

"I used to be nervous about what people would think, and I was kind of scared — I didn't want people to think I was leaving country music because that's my heart," Brown said. "But now it's come to be, I'm a father now, two kids; I care what you think. So I'm just not such a scared kid anymore."

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