Saturday, July 11 Entertainment
Lee Brice is a craftsman, the kind whose boundless desire to hone his skills and relentless pursuit of perfection are matched only by his humility about the entire process. His new album, I Don't Dance, is a showcase for his painstaking approach to writing and recording, with his distinctive fingerprints clearly emblazoned on every element of the album. While Brice is now known as reliable charttopping Nashville hit-maker whose 2014 performance on the Academy of Country Music telecast —
where he picked up the trophy for “Song of the Year”— "stole the show" (USA Today), there was a time when he was only recognized for his work behind the scenes.
"I had success as a writer before I had success as an artist," says Brice, "so there's a misconception that I was a songwriter first and then started to sing my own songs later. But all along, I've really
always been writing for myself. When I started writing songs at ten years old, it was because I wanted to sing them, and when I came to Nashville, I came to be a songwriter and a singer. It's all one thing to me."
After relocating from his native South Carolina to Music City, the former Clemson lineman dove headfirst into his craft, writing on his own and with a slew of talented musicians he fell in with. He
found early success, with songs picked up by established artists like Jason Aldean and Keith Gattis. Though they may have been sung by other artists, those songs were stories from deep within Lee's own heart.
"'More Than A Memory' was a very personal song for me," he says of his breakout 2007 track. "I was thinking about keeping it for myself when Garth Brooks called, and that changed the whole dynamic."
It changed a whole lot of things. Brooks' recording of the track was the first single in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart to debut at #1. Lee's stock skyrocketed in Nashville, and that
same year, he signed with Curb Records and began laying the groundwork for his inexorable rise as a solo artist.
He released his debut album, Love Like Crazy, in 2009. The title track reached #3 on the Billboard Country chart and set a record as the longest-charting song in that chart's history. In 2012, he topped his own success with Hard 2 Love, an album that went Gold and featured three #1 Country singles, including "I Drive Your Truck," which won Song of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards. The record earned raves from NPR to Country Weekly and found the New York Times hailing him as "a sensitive macho man," a compliment that perfectly encapsulates both sides of Brice's persona. Hard 2 Love also garnered Lee his late-night debut, a stirring performance of "I Drive Your Truck" on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
"On my first record, I had all these ideas and sounds I didn't know how to get out of me," Brice remembers, crediting frequent collaborator Doug Johnson with helping him learn some of the early ropes of recording. "On Hard 2 Love, I figured out that I could really step out and try things in the studio, and if they don't work they don't work, but sometimes those ideas become the basis of how you record some tracks.”
Brice took it a step further on I Don't Dance, relishing the role of producer with a flair for experimentation as yet another way to mold and shape his songs to match the sounds he'd been
chasing in his head.
"I wanted to have control over every drumbeat, every lick of the bass part," he explains of his meticulous approach in the studio. "It was a lot of really sitting down and thinking about every little piece that goes into it."
Rather than approach the record as a whole entity, Brice listened to what each song called for and played to its strengths, allowing the warmth and presence of his personality to form the cohesive
thread that binds them all together. On the lighthearted summer anthem “Girls In Bikinis,” he built the track entirely from the ground up, playing every single instrument himself. The searing “Sirens,” on the other hand, was cut live and loud in the studio, with raw electric guitars and a banjo part that captured Brice's first time playing the instrument. Other tracks grew out of drum loops and studio experiments, inspired in part by his love of recent albums from Bruno Mars and Eminem. Live-showmoment “Drinking Class,” one of three songs on the album not written by Brice, taught him a valuable lesson about hearing what the music calls for.
"We had ideas to put a lot of electronic sounds in it," he explains, "but after we cut it, I had a feeling that this is really a song about the working class, and it needed those sounds, like chain gang stomps and claps and hums, and now I have a sledgehammer hitting a railroad tie on there. I changed everything about it to get it back to its roots. Sometimes you gotta go to a lot of the wrong places to get to the right places, and that's not wasted time. It takes that trip to get to where you're going."
"Panama City" is another track that took a circuitous journey to its final destination on the new album. Written by his good friend Chris Thompkins, the track first caught Brice's ear a decade ago when he heard a stripped-down arrangement of it on one of Thompkins' work tapes.
"I couldn’t imagine it being any different than what I heard on the work tape," says Brice. "I said we had to do it live because I didn't want to give myself the option of redoing vocals or piano or bringing in background singers later. They brought the piano out into the main room of Ocean Way Studios [in Nashville], which is an old church, and we took our headphones off, had no click tracks, no drums. It's like they did 50 years ago. We played it four times and the last time was perfect. I took it off the board exactly the way we recorded it and mastered it, and it's my favorite track on the record by far.”
Perhaps the most personal song on the album, though, is the title track, which Brice wrote for the first dance at his May 2013 wedding. As with so much of his work, the lyrics are inspired by his undying love for his wife, Sara, but they resonate with a huge audience. Top wedding website The Knot recently selected it for the "Dream Wedding" they threw for a pair of Boston Marathon bombing survivors.
"It's my favorite song I've ever written in my life," says Lee, "and I don’t know that that'll ever change."
Sunday, July 12
BIG and RICH
Big & Rich
As Big & Rich, John Rich and Big Kenny Alphin have exerted a definite “gravitational pull” to the direction modern country music has taken. Their much anticipated new project, “Gravity” provides a stellar example of the genius of their creative brotherhood--the result of two unique musical personalities colliding to form an even greater positive sum total.
From the vantage point of today’s career success, John notes:
“When Kenny and I were first considering doing music together some 15 years ago, I can recall like it was yesterday him saying, ‘Man, we are like two individual planets— wouldn’t it be awesome to collide and smash the universe together,” he recalls. “We definitely felt that creative gravitational pull from the beginning and I think it continues to translate into the music.”
They are America's Technicolor cowboys, brothers-in-arms in service to the creed that great music has no boundaries. Individually, John and Big Kenny are first-rate musicians, songwriters, producers, entertainers—and now the creative force behind their own label imprint, Big & Rich Records. Together, they are one of the most truly original musical forces ever unleashed on a welcoming world.
The new label is fueling even more passion to produce and present their music. “We now have the freedom to write songs, call our own shots and put every ounce of our guts, soul and DNA into music that we have complete creative control over—from creation to release schedule,” notes Kenny. “We can bring the best gunslingers to the shoot out and know everyone is 100% committed to our success. From making the music to getting it out there to our audience, it’s a great place to be. As John says—we’re like wild horses that don’t do good in a stall—we’d rather be running the wild range.”
As witnessed too by their new single, “Look At You,” their influence on their musical universe shows no signs of being eclipsed. “The unusual twist of this lyric really makes the song stand-out, notes John. “It’s a Shannon Lawson co-write that dead-on nails the gut wrenching feeling of being that guy that loses the hot chick—something I think a lot of us guys can relate to.”
Big & Rich have, of course, made a career of being relatable and musically relevant since exploding into the public consciousness in 2003 as the rarest of breeds—true country music game changers. With 2004’s triple-platinum Horse of a Different Color, they were able to tap into the best strands of a wide spectrum of popular music, filter them through their pens and voices and produce a sound that is instantly recognizable, if not classifiable.
"You still can't really define what that sound is," says John. "Even we can't."
It begins, of course, with that one-of-a-kind vocal blend, as unique and compelling as any in the history of the popular airwaves.
"I listen to a lot of music and I haven't heard any two voices go together like this," says Kenny. "John and I can match each other anywhere. He can sing anything and I can make an entirely different melody around it, and vice versa."
If radio didn't fully know what to make of them at first, fans of every musical stripe did. They packed arenas with a flying circus of sight, sound and spectacle, a touring renaissance fair of the mind, complete with raised glasses and danceable beats.
With a much anticipated new studio album that finds them at the top of their creative game, their live performances find them at their hell-raising best, with crowds as intense and appreciative as any they've ever faced.
"It seems like when you put John and Kenny together and we become Big & Rich, it's like Clark Kent walking into the phone booth and coming out a superman," says John. "We can't explain it. It's like a chemical reaction between Kenny and me on stage, something you can feel there. It's funny to think about but it's really true, we walk out on stage and start laying into this thing, the energy goes back and forth between us and the crowd and it's palpable."
They are, in addition to everything musical, noted philanthropists and good-will ambassadors. Both remain committed and enthusiastic livers of life and givers of time, talent and fortune to great causes. Kenny has become a world traveler, fighting poverty and supporting education through agencies including the United Nations Foundation and the Red Cross from North America to Africa. John takes part in any number of charitable outreaches, and his win on The Celebrity Apprentice brought well over a million dollars to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Those things go to the core of two men whose music and worldviews intersect seamlessly.
"We continue to try to inspire," says Kenny. "We just try to be ourselves in a world that sometimes insinuates you shouldn't go outside the boundaries. And now the fact that we've got the family thing going on has made a tremendous difference for both of us, but we're still the same guys. I think life in general moves you forward in a positive way if you let it. Our relationship has grown more positively here than you could ever imagine. I think we just continue to grow, to respect each other more and more and respect the kind of ability we have when we're singing together."
"We both have a lot of things that we do creatively," adds John, "but there's been something magical about this since the beginning. As good as we are at what we do separately; neither of us is as good as Big & Rich are together. The Big & Rich thing is like a new color in the crayon box."
"No question in my mind," says Kenny, "that we have put forward as high quality music as we can do. And we believe we just keep getting better."