Ten years after the release of his first album, music listeners likely think they have a good idea about who Lee Brice is, based on his eight #1 singles and his seven CMA Award nominations.
He is, one might argue, a sensitive country roughneck, the guy who embraces the power of long-lasting relationships in "Love Like Crazy," "A Woman Like You" and "I Don't Dance." He's the guy who makes his audiences cry every time he memorializes people who sacrificed their lives on our behalf in "I Drive Your Truck."
But with his 2020 album Hey World, people are likely hearing Brice differently. Singing next to smoky vocalist Carly Pearce on the #1 single "I Hope You're Happy Now," the power and range in his voice comes in loud and clear. In the follow-up #1, "One Of Them Girls," he attacks the subject matter with bite and swagger. It's still sensitive, but it's imbued with an undeniable playfulness and a commanding drive.
Throughout Hey World, listeners experience a fully-formed version of Lee Brice, through the twangy power-pop of "Good Ol' Boys," the old-school R&B behind "Don't Need No Reason," the bluesy sexual tone of "Do Not Disturb," the new wave tech flavor of "Soul," the dark and dangerous "Sons And Daughters" and the honky-tonk middle finger in "If You."
Those textures have always been there in one form or another - his celebratory #1 "Drinking Class" and the alt-rock undercurrent in the chart-topping "Hard To Love" bear that out - but Hey World is the deepest, widest and most complete exploration to date of Brice's unbound creative spirit.
"There's so much more to me, and most people who've been to my show, they see that," he says. "They come out and kick the footlights out - you know, we have that side. That's partly who I am. I'm just rowdy, fun, tough, let's go, let's hit it - you know what I mean? But you don't hear it in the singles much."
That's changed in recent years. "Rumor," which ascended to #1 in 2019, is a stew of blues and gospel. "I Hope You're Happy Now" applied a big-sounding train groove to a regret-filled storyline, and "One Of Them Girls," which topped the chart in September 2020, embraced a propulsive backbeat. Those songs helped Brice in his determination to widen perceptions of his art beyond the sensitive country balladeer.
"We have an opportunity now," he says. "We can stretch a boundary, and we can bring some people in."
There are already plenty of people on board the Lee Brice express. He has amassed over 2.3 billion career on-demand streams, more than 3.2 billion Pandora Radio plays and more than 450 million YouTube views. The world at large is paying attention to Brice.
And that mirrors the reception he received among his peers in Nashville's creative class after moving to Music City from South Carolina in 2002. Before he earned his recording deal with Curb Records, he signed a publishing contract that had him writing songs for some of Nashville's best. He penned Garth Brooks' "More Than A Memory," the first single to debut at #1 on the Billboard country chart in 2007. Brice authored Tim McGraw's "Still" and Eli Young Band's first #1, "Crazy Girl." And he racked up recordings with Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney and Jerrod Niemann.
Songwriter/publisher Doug Johnson, known for penning Randy Travis' "Three Wooden Crosses" and Clay Walker's "She Won't Be Lonely Long," laid the groundwork for some of Brice's current creative advancement during those earlier times. Under his tutelage, Brice recognized that even songs that demand a physical response - danceable titles or rockin' anthems - should still say something.
"Doug was a huge, huge part of my life, like a big brother/uncle/daddy figure, took me everywhere, taught me so much," Brice says. "He said, 'What we need is tempo songs with ballad lyrics and ballad thoughts, meaningful feelings and content. And so that's where I started this record and the record before. I really started to dig in and write the songs that I still want to write, and pull heartstrings, but I don't have to write them slow and sad. I can still write it with a groove and with tempo, but still say stuff."
Making music that counts has been a part of Brice's makeup since his earliest days. Born and raised in Sumter, South Carolina, to hard-working parents - an electrician father and an administrative mother - he recognized the emotional power of music by watching his mom perform in church.
"Mama could sing, you know, and so many times, I would see her stop singing and talk the words," he says. "In her mind and her heart, when this song is saying something, it's supposed to teach you or speak to you, so if she felt like she needed to, she would stop singing and speak the words so that you would hear them. There was this soulful kind of connectivity that she had, and still has."
His father, meanwhile, was a big fan of harmony groups: Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys and gospel quartets. He would typically sing the bass part, but he picked out the other parts, too, as he sang along with the records, and Lee developed his range trying to keep up with his daddy.
On his own, the young Brice picked up country, Southern rock and arena rock, and his participation as a guard on the Lakewood Gators high school football team increased his musical education.
"My schools growing up probably were about 75-80% African-American," he says. "When I played, you know, I think I was the only white guy on defense. But we grew up together, and one of the guys had a car and they'd take some of us home back and forth from school. I'd be listening to music that I hadn't ever heard."
Those divergent musical tastes always informed Brice's vocal style. The gospel intensity, the rock power, the R&B cool and the country conversationalism all made their way into one of country's most distinctive tones. It's unique enough that when Pearce told him she wanted "that Lee Brice thing" on "I Hope You're Happy Now," he was able to identify it and deliver it fully.
"I kind of like to scoop over notes and put a little more blues and stuff in there, put some stank on it," he says. "Some of those notes aren't absolutely correct, but they feel good to me."
Finding the feeling for Hey World was a new experience. Brice originally plotted a 12-cut album, though it swelled to 15 tracks before it was done. Half of the project had been recorded before COVID-19 shut down the nation. Brice and his co-producers - fellow songwriters Kyle Jacobs (George Strait, Kellie Pickler) and Ben Glover (Kim Richey, The Newsboys) - were unable to meet up with musicians safely in-person. So they developed the last half of the album by sending the tracks to the musicians to layer their parts into the recording one instrument at a time.
Brice created the original demos, playing the parts in a small studio on his Middle Tennessee property that looks out into a cornfield, with the assistance of personal engineer Cody LaBelle. Because of the deep history and connections that Brice and his team had built in the Nashville music community, they were able to elicit the right musicians to reinterpret Brice's instrumentals for every track.
"Hey World," a song that Brice was inspired to write by the pandemic lockdown, became a late addition with Blessing Offor - a blind, Nigerian-born singer who came to prominence via NBC's The Voice - enhancing its gospel/R&B tone. The song seeks healing, celebrating isolation and its ability to revitalize the spirit and recapture the motivation that's required for a fulfilling life. "Hey World" essentially turns the hurdles of a turbulent era into the building blocks of a muscular personal character.
"I've definitely learned so much from this experience," Brice says, of the pandemic. "I'm appreciating things and not taking things for granted as much as I did. I hope that we all probably have in some way, shape or form."
But what he learned most in creating Hey World is an extension of the journey he's been on for several decades. He's figured out how to better express Lee Brice in his full musical personality: emotional country, spiked with shards from a variety of other genres. Whether it's through the funereal life lesson "Save The Roses" or the raucous "More Beer," it's an album that embraces the moment and connects with the listener over our shared humanity. It's about messages, but even more, Hey World is about the panorama of feelings that comes from living successfully day-to-day.
"I've learned to kind of walk that line a little bit better," Brice says, "of being able to do exactly what I want to do, but still make music that grabs people."