This week, when crossover country superstar Kane Brown appeared as Blake Shelton’s guest adviser on The Voice, he confessed that in his pre-fame days, he’d dreamed of auditioning for The Voice and joining Team Blake. As it turned out, he was unable to do so, because he was still under contract with a rival TV talent contest, The X Factor. In 2013, he’d successfully tried out for the third U.S. season of Simon Cowell’s series, but had walked away from that show when producers attempted to put him in a prefab boy band.
“Something in my heart was just telling me no, which was a hard decision,” Brown tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Literally, I couldn't even explain the feeling to anybody, but something just told me to say no. It was definitely scary, but I just went with it and you know, it worked. It wasn't long after that when I kind of went viral.”
A TV show like The X Factor USA seemed like a huge opportunity for someone like Brown, who was only 19 at the time and had already had a rough life growing up multiracial in rural Georgia and Tennessee with his single mother. (His father has been incarcerated since 1996.) Brown also unsuccessfully auditioned for American Idol following the Idol success of his high school friend, Lauren Alaina. But he eventually eschewed reality singing shows and tried another then-unorthodox route in his pursuit of country music stardom: posting his amateur performance videos on social media.
It soon became clear that leaving The X Factor had absolutely been the right decision. Brown quickly amassed more than a million followers on Facebook, with his cover of George Strait's “Check Yes or No” racking up 7 million views and his original song, “Used to Love You Sober,” receiving more than 1 million plays in just its first three hours of release.
It was a career strategy that helped Brown — who has been dubbed the “Outcast King” by Rolling Stone, and represents a “new era” of country music according to Shelton — bypass some of skepticism and racism that sadly exists at country radio. While Darius Rucker recently revealed in an interview on Rissi Palmer’s Apple Music show “Color Me Country” that a radio programmer once told him, “I don’t think my audience will accept a Black country singer,” Brown went to radio armed with viral statistics to silence any doubters, and that made a big difference.
“Yeah, I don't doubt in my mind that somebody said that to [Rucker]. But I will say they were wrong, and they were dumb for that. I did not get that [resistance] when it came to radio, luckily, because I was already in a position where I was getting streams and the numbers were there. I mean, I did get some different looks, me walking in [to a radio station] with a flat bill on and all my tattoos. I believe at the time I even had an eyebrow ring — what the hell was I thinking?” Brown laughs. “But I think [social media] was very helpful, because I got a bunch of diehard fans that came with me, and they were also buying tickets. I remember when I was showing up [at gigs], they were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s real!’ — because they had only seen me on Facebook. So, it was a lot of hype under that as well. And that's kind of what broke it for me [at radio].”
Brown does note that in his early social media days, he got a lot of “ignorant comments” and hate. “It'd be like, ‘This dude ain't country, just look at him!’ I never really understood that one,” he shrugs. He’s since learned how not to overreact with his clapbacks — “You learn, you know what I mean? I took the eyebrow ring out — like, I've learned,” he jokes. But he admits that he didn’t always know how to deal with online trolls.
“When I first started out, if somebody said something, I was going off on them like they were in front of me and we were in high school,” Brown chuckles. “But now I've learned. If I see hate, I block them and just delete the comment — because once I comment, that's what causes all the trashing to come in. But if I do comment, my fans will have my back. I've had a lot of people that literally delete their Facebook and create a new one, because my fans go to their page and just won't stop going off on them.”
Brown gleaned a lot from those early experiences, and has sage advice for any of his new Voice mentees who’ve been thrown into the deep end of the social media pool after their television exposure. “I would literally say, ‘Look at the likes, and don't look at the comments.’ I would say leave the comments open — and that's the crappy thing, because the more comments, the more engagement on your posts, so you can't turn the comments off — but I would say. ‘Don't read the comments,’” he cautions. “And if you do read the comments, don't do what I always did, which was skip over the good ones and go right for the ones that are mean. That was my biggest thing, and it would always hurt me, getting in my feelings. Once I learned not to do that, and I was just looking at all the lovers that I had around me, it completely changed.”
And now, everything has come full-circle for Brown. Not only is he on The Voice with Team Blake, but the above-mentioned boy band he walked away from seven years ago, Restless Road — who went all the way to fourth place on The X Factor USA without him — just signed to Brown’s new record company. Brown had kept up with Restless Road and was impressed by a 2016 cover they did of “Used to Love You Sober,” the song got him his own record deal. “And then the main guy, Colton Pack, that they put me up against [on The X Factor], ended up leaving the group after the show was over and started doing his own thing, and he covered another one of my songs, ‘Good as You.’ So I reached out to him to sign him, and he decided he wanted to get back with Restless Road, who hadn't done anything in a while. So he got back with them, and now they're on my label.”
Looking back on how far he’s come professionally since he was denied a chance to compete on The Voice, Brown admits that he’s “shocked and surprised. It hasn't sunk in yet. I still feel like the dude that was in Chattanooga. I feel like tomorrow, if I had to, I could go back to [working at] FedEx. I wouldn't love it, but I would do it and I wouldn't treat anybody any different. I guess that's just been from my upbringing. I've never had an amazing life, and for all of it to turn around so quick and just to be where I'm at today, compared to where my whole family is… it's like, ‘How did this happen?’”
Speaking on the phone from his backyard in Nashville, Brown sums it up with: “It's weird, but I'm outside looking at it right now, and it never in my life thought that I would have an in-ground pool. I thought that I would always be the dude that has, you know, an inflatable pool. I'm just so blessed to be here.”
Kane Brown returns a guest adviser for another episode of The Voice Season 19 Battle Rounds on Monday. Nov. 16.
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