There are artists whose fame and influence transcend their musical genres. And for Lee Brice, who plays the Key West Amphitheater this Thursday evening (Nov. 7), the “country star” label he once held has now fully culminated into international “music star.”
Today, Brice boasts a resume filled with No. 1 hits, CMA Awards and Grammy nominations — along with achieving gold and platinum status on every album and single released to date. Equally impressive, he is also among the top 25 most-streamed country artist on Pandora with more than 2 billion spins.
Yet during his ascent to stardom, the South Carolina native and former Clemson Tigers footballer was a regular here in Key West — playing local bars and restaurants alongside talented peers like his brother, Lewis, and childhood friend Nick Norman — who will be the opening act for tonight’s show.
On the eve of his Key West show, Keys Weekly caught up with Brice during some studio time with Nick Norman at the Key West Theater (more to come on this), where one of music’s brightest stars shared everything from how he stays grounded to his affinity for Post Malone.
KW: You’ve reached a level of fame and achievements few artists ever experience; yet you are known for your humility and down-to-earth nature. To what do you attribute this and what keeps you grounded?
LB: Number one, my mamma and daddy would kick my butt if I didn’t act the way I should be acting. And it’s just not my nature. On the other hand, it hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve been brought up and I’ve been brought down. There have been a lot of ups and downs and that makes it pretty easy to stay grounded. We’ve worked really hard to do what we do and that really helps us stop and appreciate some of the highs.
KW: One of first major milestones for you was a single you wrote for Garth Brooks called “More than a Memory.” Tell us a little about that and what it meant for your career?
LB: I did feel like it was really special when I wrote it because it was probably one of the top three most personal songs I’ve ever written. I planned to record it myself because it was so special to me, but when Garth calls, it changes things. I was at the beginning of my career and just had a single coming out, so that was a big moment for me to have my hero, one of the biggest stars in the world, call me up and want to play my song.
KW: Justifiably, you have expressed how proud you are of your more recent hit “Rumor.” And you’ve also teased that in 2020 you have another song called, “One of Them Girls” that has the makings and feel of another great hit. Do you automatically know something has amazing life breathing through it as you write it or is it an organic process?
LB: I think this whole record really is just that, and I feel like “Rumor” has really put us on that upstroke again. All the momentum from that song and this Carly Pearce duet I’ve done — I hear my name on the radio and even though it’s kind of more her single, I’m out there and people are hearing my voice… and it’s a big deal and I think it leads in really hard to my next single called “One of Them Girls.”
KW: So what do you love about “One of Them Girls?”
LB: It’s just one of these tempo things that radio has been wanting forever from me. So this whole plan we’ve had for some time is really falling into place. And if it keeps falling into place, I think “One of Them Girls” could be the fastest-rising single we’ve ever had.
KW: Some of your other peers and stars in the country music industry are increasingly crossing over into various genres. We just saw Sturgill Simpson release a very different type of album, Chesney performs with artists like Pink and of course Zac Brown is no stranger to rock collaborations. Do you ever see yourself exploring these crossovers?
LB: Absolutely. I’d love to. And already “Rumor” right now is on the AC charts in the top 2, but there are so many new artists I love. I’ve thought about hollering at Post Malone to write a song with him or just see what happens. But, I mean, from John Mayer to Coldplay, it’s always on my radar and if we can get it to work out that’s something I would definitely do.
KW: You just turned 40 in June and have three kids. Do you write any differently now than you did at 30 and does that resonate in your newer songs or albums?
Yeah, three kids. I feel like just getting to this age in your life with young’uns, it takes you to a different place. You’re always looking ahead but you start looking back some, too, and enjoying some of the stuff you’ve done. And I think it really reflects on this new record I’ve been making. It’s probably some of the most personal stuff I’ve got.
KW: How does a guy like you with a family and stardom find a way to balance between fatherhood and life on the road?
LB: The biggest thing I’ve done is I put a full studio on my bus while we’re on the road. So instead of coming home for two or three days and then taking a day or two to record at the studio for my record or demos or whatever, I don’t have to do that now because I can spend time in the studio on the road. Even this duet I did with Carly Pearce, I did the vocals in my studio on the bus. I actually never saw her. We talked. I did a vocal and tweaked a few things and sent it back to her and that was it. Getting work done on the road has really given me more time with them [family]. Being able to pick them up from school or being able to pick them up from soccer practice or being there in the mornings — it’s made a big difference.
KW: Speaking of your bus. When you do have down time or traveling between shows, who are you listening to and what inspires you today?
LB: A lot of times it’s random if I get to listen to outside stuff because I’m always working on what I’m doing. A lot of times I’m listening to a rough mix or how to finish a song I started last week — so I don’t have a lot of time outside of what I’m doing. But when I do, I just turn it on to a country station or the hits station like the top 40. And a lot of it I have to look up their names because I don’t even know what’s out there. But some of the cool stuff I’ve been hearing is like Post Malone. He’s on top of the world but I’ve really kind of dug into that stuff. He has really cool melodies and it’s something that has really stuck out to me the past few years.
KW: You’re a former Clemson football player. What do you think about the undefeated Tigers and defending national champs being slighted to No. 5 in the most recent CFP rankings?
LB: I ain’t worried about it (laughing).
KW: OK, but speaking of South Carolina, you ran around with Key West musician Nick Norman as a kid, who is ascending in his own music career as well. He once told me you guys met at a summer camp at age 7 and have been friends ever since. It has to be a special feeling that he is opening your Key West show, not just for Nick, but for you as well.
LB: I’ve had Nick on the road with me some already…opening up on my show and he’s been blowing crowds away. But it’s just really cool to have your old friend doing something he loves and being in front of crowds and seeing them react to him like that — it’s just awesome.
KW: You’ve been working with Nick recently as well. Can you tell us about that?
LB: He’s worked so hard for so long. Nick and I finalized a record deal at Pump House. It’s funny. We really started a studio called Pump House when were kids in camp and were making music for campers back then. And now we are finishing a record and are going to start moving it soon. We are actually in the studio tonight putting some finishing pieces on it.
KW: To achieve what you’ve been able to do in this industry and still be surrounded by your brother and childhood friends who are all incredibly talented — do you ever take a step back and take a moment to appreciate it all?
LB: Whenever I can it’s really the first thing I want to do. Whenever I can.
KW: You were a regular here in Key West with those guys for many years. What’s it like being back in your old stomping grounds and where are some of the spots you have to hit?
LB: It’s really cool. I haven’t been back in seven years, but one of the first places we have to go is Conch Republic for some conch fritters and cracked conch and some shrimp. I used to play over there and really all over Key West with Nick and myself and the Songwriters Festival and all that stuff. I miss Key West. It was a huge part of my life for 10 straight years or more. I just haven’t been back in so long with me being married and kids and being on the road…we just don’t have a lot of time to do that, so it’s really nice to get back and do a show and get to hang with Nick.
KW: Any Nick Norman stories only you know that can be shared?
LB: I’m trying to think of something I can say out loud [laughing]. We worked at the same camp and kept working there as we got older. But he was there one year before me and became the head lifeguard. But when I came in right after him I took over his spot as lifeguard.
KW: That’s horrible! You can’t have everything, Lee!
LB: [still laughing].
KW: Cliché question, but what’s the most sincere compliment you’ve received in your career?
LB: Well, it makes me feel good when I really don’t think I’m doing anything special, like showing up to a hospital to see kids or a military vet tells you a song helped them get through a tough time…when they talk to me about that stuff and tell me it helped, I really feel like I didn’t really do anything and they say ‘no, you really did more than you think’ and I get humbled by that. So that kind of stuff is the stuff that makes me deeply appreciate what I’m doing, beyond the fact I get to do what I love to do.
KW: What advice does 40-year-old Lee Brice give 25-year-old Lee Brice?
LB: Do it all again!