It’s no secret that Lee Brice knows how to write strong, successful songs. In 2007, Garth Brooks’ “More than a Memory,” written by Brice, Kyle Jacobs and Billy Montana, became the first song ever to debut at the top spot of the Billboard Country chart. More recently, Eli Young Band achieved its first No. 1 with Brice’s and Liz Rose’s “Crazy Girl.” Other Brice songs have been cut by Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton.
As an artist, though, Brice hadn’t yet ridden any of his own tunes to No. 1, when he reflected on the prospects for his sophomore album, Hard 2 Love, released April 24 by Curb Records.
“There are a billion different reasons why ‘Love Like Crazy’ went to No. 3,” he said, referencing the song that became his first career Top 5 single when released in 2010. “There is so much involved in getting a No. 1 record. It’s not necessarily about the song at all. It’s extremely hard for a new artist to slip through the cracks and go up the charts. You have to beat out every superstar to have a No. 1 record.”
Written by Tim James and Doug Johnson, the single and title cut from Brice’s first album broke the record for most weeks spent on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and was rated by Billboard the most-played Country song of 2010. “Even though that wasn’t a No. 1, that’s what broke Lee Brice,” said Adrian Michaels, VP, Promotions, Curb Records. “That was a huge accomplishment to take an unknown act and get the most played song of the year.”
“I want a No. 1, but ‘Love Like Crazy’ did so much for me,” Brice agreed. “My career changed just as it would have if it was a No. 1.”
What, if any, barriers had to be overcome for Brice to make it to the summit? According to Michaels, the artist’s reputation as a hit-making songwriter can hinder as much as help his progress. “Some program directors come and say, ‘Lee needs to decide whether he’s a writer or a performer,’ and I get crazy,” he said. “Is that like how the Beatles had to either write or play? Or Keith Urban? Is Brad Paisley a writer or a player? It baffles me. Lee Brice will put on a show like Bruce Springsteen, dripping with sweat and giving his heart and soul as a performer. And at the same time, he’s a writer. Lee is a full artist, as most great artists are.”
With Hard 2 Love, Brice believes he’s found 13 songs that represent himself and his life accurately. Five of them he didn’t write, but these play a key role in what he sees as the album’s likely success.
“I was able to make a really honest record,” he explained. “I write a lot of songs. The best song wins. I don’t care how good you are, but I think anyone is a fool who doesn’t go around Nashville and listen to songs. There are brilliant songwriters in this town. I found five songs that I thought fit this record better than all the other ones I’d written.”
Unlike his debut album, Hard 2 Love was assembled from tracks that connected deeply with the artist. For Love Like Crazy, the strategy was for Brice to keep bringing in potential singles and not finalizing the selection until everyone felt confident that they had a Top 20 single on the list.
“I had an album that was discombobulated,” he admitted. “For the new one, I wanted to change some things musically, so not only did I work with Doug Johnson, the producer I’ve always worked with, who I love, but I also branched out and ended up cutting the rest of the record with two of my best friends — Kyle Jacobs and Jon Stone.”
For Brice, the first single, ‘A Woman Like You’ (written by Johnny Bulford, Phil Barton and Stone), was a no-brainer from the first time he heard it. “I heard that song, went straight into my little home studio and put an acoustic vocal of me singing it down,” he said. “It was like magic. I played it for the label and they flipped out. We had a lot of options, but I knew that it was a song that every girl wanted to hear and that every guy wanted to say. I felt like we couldn’t lose with it.”
“Lee actually sent me a text that I saved on my phone that read, ‘Trust me, Adrian. This is the song that’s going to blow my career up. Please believe in me and trust me and help me get this song as our single,’” said Michaels. “He campaigned for it and we couldn’t agree more.”
Good thing, too: “A Woman Like You” gave Brice his first No. 1 single and, in mid April, was certified Gold.
Like that first single, the opening and title track doesn’t include Brice among its writer credits. Still, Michaels insists, “‘Hard to Love’ fits, to me, what is the Lee Brice magic: a lyric a woman wants to hear, sung strong enough that a guy doesn’t mind hearing it.”
Billy Montana, John Ozier and Ben Glover wrote “Hard to Love” as if they were subconsciously tailoring it to fit Brice. “We were on a writing retreat,” Brice recalled. “Ben and Billy, both really great friends of mine, and John Ozier were writing in a group without me. They really were channeling me! It’s an almost autobiographical song. It’s very true. As soon as I heard it, I was like, ‘I’m cutting that.’”
Structured as an admission from the singer that he recognizes the sacrifices of the person who loves him as he lists his shortcomings, “Hard to Love” is obviously directed toward his longtime girlfriend Sara Reeveley, to whom he proposed in January. The presence of his family can be sensed in much of this album, including that of their son Takoda, whom the performer calls “the biggest part of my heart.”
“Sara and Takoda changed my life completely — even musically,” Brice insisted. “My priorities have changed. My life is music. This isn’t just a job. It takes over your whole life. Now, I’ve got to be able to do both. A lot of things are changing. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I’m in a good place.”
This integration of the personal and professional is best heard on the final track, “One More Day” (Brice and Reg Smith), a love song to fiancée and son. “I was a single man out rocking,” Brice said. “I felt more comfortable on the bus; if I came home, I’d get stir-crazy. But now I’ve got my little boy at home, growing up too fast. And for Sara, it’s me saying, ‘I do understand how hard this is on you. I know how much you sacrifice. I’m coming home soon, baby.’”
This song of longing ends with a special appearance by Takoda, asking when Daddy is coming home. “I didn’t care what made the album, that was going to be on it, even if I had to fight tooth and nail,” Brice said. “I can’t hardly listen to it without choking up.”
Sara’s influence permeates several of the romantic songs on Hard 2 Love, but her actual voice appears on “See About a Girl” (Brice, Phillip Lammonds and Jacobs). The song tells the tale of a man who ends boys’ night out early to get home to his “girl.” It ends with a real-life phone call to the soon-to-be Mrs. Brice.
All these elements add up to a clear picture of who Brice is nowadays. Equally important in some quarters, it also makes it easier for his promotions staff to do its job. “It makes your path so much clearer,” Michaels affirmed. “With Lee, we can see the next 24 months of how things should flow and what we should do. It’s a wonderful sight. Before it was like, ‘We hope this works. If it does, maybe this next one might.’ Or, ‘if this one doesn’t work, maybe they’ll give me something else.’ We’re looking at a body of work that I’ve never been more proud of. It is an amazing piece of work, not just singles.
“There’s still a ways to go on Lee,” he acknowledged. “We’ve got him his No. 1, that’s for sure. I honestly feel that from the day he handed in this record, the next two years of his life got a whole lot easier.”
On the Web: www.LeeBrice.com
On Twitter: @LeeBrice
By Erin Duvall
Photo Credit: Eric Welch
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.