A full moon evanesced like a studio prop behind Nick Norman as he sat on stage at Hawks Cay Resort in late February. It was the second “Keys to the Country” concert for the resort, which highlighted country megastar Lee Brice, along with names like Rob Hatch, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Abby Anderson — all showcasing their musical deity beneath the canopy of a Keys-lit sky.
In the distance, cars passed over Toms Harbor Cut Bridge, unaware of the star power collected on the bright stage — with performers and songwriters responsible for more than a dozen No. 1 hits.
Yet for Nick Norman, the event evoked a rawness of emotion. It was the culmination of his childhood friends — some, like Lee Brice, who hit stardom in the music industry after cutting his teeth with Nick performing at summer camps in their native South Carolina — and others, like Rob Hatch, who has worked with every legend in the business and firmly believes Nick has what it takes to take the next leap in his career. And it was a celebration, not just for Nick’s new album scheduled to launch days later, but for his perseverance — and the friends who still stood by his side.
Much like the hordes of vehicle lights making their way south on U.S 1 that evening, Norman’s path had led him 16 years earlier to Key West, where he’s worked the music scene on every stage from small bars to sold-out crowds at the Key West Coffee Butler Amphitheater. And on March 5, his self-titled album, well over a year in waiting, launched across America — hitting No. 5 in iTunes total album sales the day of the release. In fact, on that day, Nick’s name appeared on that list between Chris Stapleton and Willie Nelson, something many believe will become a common occurrence in the weeks to come.
“I’m just proud of Nick,” said legendary songwriter Rob Hatch, who along with Lee Brice, Elisa Hoffman and Derek and Kristi Hutchins created Pump House Records and signed Norman as the staple of their label. “He didn’t need Nashville. Nick tried that and for whatever reason, he had the vision to come to Key West. And to be honest, Pump House was started about Nick.”
Hatch, who’s written No. 1 songs for stars that include Faith Hill, Lee Brice and Florida-Georgia Line, wrote several songs on Norman’s new album, but says Nick’s Key West experience is responsible for the individuality it takes to set one apart in a crowded field of rising stars.
“All of his songs are very much a product of Key West,” said Hatch, who says even with Norman’s success, he hopes he remains in the Southernmost City. “I would never want him to leave down there. It’s his point of view and his perspective. It’s part of him. When he tells his stories, they’re not Nashville stories. They’re not South Carolina stories. It’s his story in Key West.”
Lee Brice, who agrees with Hatch, doesn’t believe Nick’s music necessarily has to fit any genre or style, as he claims his childhood friend’s sound transcends most stereotypes.
“Nick’s music could be so many different things,” said Brice. “It could be folk, it could be pop, it could be adult contemporary, country and there are so many different versions of all of his stuff. We’re still just devising how we want to roll everything out. Maybe each of his songs has a different home. It just depends on where they land.”
Brice says he sees Nick’s music the way he has always dreamed a catalog of songs should be — that art should not be boxed into a genre, but something everyone should simply want to listen to and enjoy.
“Look, I’m a country dude and I write country music, but I also write all kinds of music,” Brice said. “So, for me it’s ‘why does it always have to be a genre?’ You don’t have to categorize it. Just listen to it.”
Norman, who recorded the album at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Studio in Nashville last summer, says writing and recording with childhood friends like Brice and Hatch has “saved me as far as the original side of my music.” And while Norman remains a product of Key West, he claims the occasional change of scenery, along with the support and belief his friends have poured into his career, has led to a creative revival in his approach to music.
“Rob and Lee have been behind me like a rooting parent for this entire journey,” said Norman. “When you see and feel someone’s belief in you, whether it’s music or something else, it gets your focus back. It’s not just me trying to live this pipe dream, but I have someone else behind me believing in the same thing, and that’s a powerful thing to have for anyone trying to succeed.”
The release of Norman’s record, which was completed in the summer of 2020, was originally designed around a promotional tour with occasional stints alongside Lee Brice that included massive venues and larger audiences. However, the pandemic had other plans for the album’s release. But Norman insisted on patiently waiting for what he felt was most important to his music, a seemingly spiritual-like connection to his audiences.
“We made a real record and we made real music,” Norman said. “I wanted for us to focus on that. So instead of scurrying around and forcing it, we made a great record and we’re getting it out now.”
Hatch echoed the significance of Norman’s ability to move a crowd. He, Norman and Brice have been touring with one another for over 20 years and Hatch says the intimacy of live crowds fits Norman’s comfort zone.
“The intimacy of an audience allows Nick to tell his story from his point of view,” said Hatch. “I watched him sing a show in Mexico and none of the crowd spoke English. But Nick just stole the show. They loved him and without knowing the words, they still sang along with him. We put this record together so the world could, too.”
(Editor’s Note: Nick says as COVID subsides, his next venture takes place this June, alongside pals like Lewis Brice and Joal Rush on an anticipated “Porch Tour.” The group will tour the nation in an RV performing in small venues, bars and of course — on porches. For more on the Porch Tour and Nick’s new self-titled album, visit nicknormanmusic.com or his Facebook page at Nick Norman Music. The album can also be found on most major platforms like iTunes, Amazon Music and more.)