There are many things about Kane Brown that might surprise a new listener. For starters, you might not expect the quiet guy covered in tattoos to open his mouth with a deep country croon. On top of that, there aren’t many teens who can singlehandedly turn a camera and a personal Facebook profile page into a chart-climbing debut EP and a die-hard online following more than three million strong. It may not be par for the course for a young artist who sold out every single venue on his first headlining tour to have a compassionate back-and-forth with fans of all stripes, sympathizing with their struggles and celebrating their successes alongside his own by fostering a close-knit online community.

But to know Kane Brown is to learn that defying expectations and forging his own path is standard procedure. Fortunately for newcomers to Brown’s homegrown sound, his self-titled debut album on RCA Records/Zone 4 is all about explaining how he got here. Take album opener “Hometown Proud,” a barn-burner penned by tourmates-turned-mentors Bryan Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line.

“My hometown—Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia—we ain’t got nothin’. There’s just fast food and banks,” Brown says, but it sounds more like a term of endearment than a jab at small-town life. “I try and go back every time I have a free day.”

Days off are few and far between. Since signing with Sony Music Nashville in early 2016, Kane released an EP that hit No. 1 on the Hot Country Albums chart, headlined a series of sold-out tour dates, and snagged a spot on the road with Florida Georgia Line. Additionally, once his highly-anticipated Kane Brown full-length became available on December 2, it debuted No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums and Top 10 on the Billboard 200 all-genre charts with 51,000 units (45,000 in album sales) earning the best-selling debut country album since 2014.

But while Brown has technically moved to Music City, his heart remains firmly fixed back home. “It’s a big party when I go back,” he says. “It’s fun.”

Brown’s roots remain strong beyond the good times and big parties. Album tracks like “Cold Spot,” a personal number written to honor Brown’s grandfather, recall details like the old country store that shaped many of his fonder childhood memories.

“I went to Cold Spot everyday after school. That was just my hangout,” he says of the song. “We used to always go there and we used to fish afterwards. That's where we would get our fishing equipment, crickets and minnows, because that's what he sold—everything except for gasoline.”

Where he comes from is a huge part of who he is, but the idea of a hometown isn’t something Brown has ever taken for granted. The 23-year-old moved around constantly throughout his childhood, switching schools and shifting households as trouble at home kept his life in limbo.

“We didn’t have a lot of money and we moved all the time. There were a bunch of family issues,” he says. Album track “Learning” goes in-depth on the struggles of those early years, detailing the child abuse, bullying, and racism he endured throughout his adolescence. But the takeaway of the song’s chorus—a mantra about forgiveness and letting go—is a much more familiar side of the soft-spoken and enthusiastically kind Kane Brown that fans have come to know.

“Growing up being bullied… I wouldn’t be the person I am today if that hadn’t happened,” he says. “I know not to treat people that way. It hurt, but it inspired me to write about it.”

Writing and performing his own music was its own feat for Brown. Sure, anyone who’s heard his low, thick drawl can understand why the young singer has taken to country. He’s been compared to his hero Chris Young, and his rich vocals shine on cover songs by George Strait and Josh Turner. But for a long time, Brown was satisfied just being another voice in the choir.

“The only time I would sing was if I was in a big group of people,” he says. “Or in the shower.”

That anxiousness about performing in front of people is what led him to the steadfast fan base he now appreciates online. Encouragement from friends and family pushed him to perform in—and win—a school talent show with an uncanny performance of Chris Young’s “Gettin’ You Home.” Soon, Brown began to conquer his fear of an audience by singing cover songs alone at home for a camera and then posting them to his Facebook profile page.

“I would just sing and put them up on Facebook, not thinking that anything was going to happen,” he says. “One day, I just woke up and got lucky. I had 60,000 shares on a song.”

As his cover videos began to go viral—his rendition of Strait’s “Check Yes Or No” racked up more than 7 million views—Brown began to take the idea of a music career seriously, tackling the challenge of writing his own music, too.

“It was a huge learning experience—finding my kind of writing and finding the artist that I want to be,” Brown says. He laughs about the steep learning curve, but early singles like “Don’t Go City On Me” and “Used to Love You Sober” resonated with his emphatic followers, many of whom already felt a personal connection with Brown from his transparent social media presence. To support Brown’s vulnerable leap into original material was, for many fans, akin to celebrating the success of a longtime buddy or personal connection. Now that Brown is moving forward with has released his debut album, he feels like he’s hitting his stride—without sacrificing any of his individuality. “I feel like we really did it right with this album, just talking about my life and getting my story out.”

With so much of himself being shared on the Internet, Brown continues to see his fair share of harsh words and thoughtless comments. Now, though, he’s more concerned with using the medium to give bits of the love he gets from his followers back to them.

“My fans got me to where I am today,” he says. “When I take the time to comment back in ten seconds, they always get excited and it makes me feel happy, too. It makes me feel like I'm giving them something for where I'm at today. There's just such a strong connection. They are the ones that got me started, and they are the ones who wanted to follow my journey and be a part of something. It’s an awesome connection and it means the world to me—they know that it means the world to me.”

Within the context of Brown’s strong sense of relationships and community despite tough times, his single “Thunder in the Rain,” takes on a heightened meaning. The song, which is steadily gaining traction at country radio, covers the white-hot intensity of an unbreakable relationship, a topic that sprouted from a title Brown brought to the writing room.

“We started talking about two unstoppable forces that are in a relationship. Nothing is going to break them apart—lightning, fire, rain,” he says. “We just felt like that's what marriages should be, it's what relationships should be: something you cannot stop. We just turned it into a song.”

When you look at the song as one small part of the overwhelming force that Brown has become, it’s clear that Brown didn’t just turn that can’t-stop feeling into a song; he’s turned it into a career, and millions of fans are along for the thrilling ride.

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