Lee Brice is a man whose time has come. On his stunning sophomore album, Hard 2 Love (Curb Records), the four-time Academy of Country Music nominee demonstrates a new maturity and patience, both in his songwriting and vocals.
“I made my first album, Love Like Crazy, over six years,” explains the South Carolina native, lifting his trademark turned-around ball cap and rubbing his forehead. “It didn’t feel like a cohesive record, but more like a lot of different songs. And six years later, I’ve grown as an artist and a writer.
“Everything on the new album is very pertinent to who I am right now and where I am in my life. I have some very personal stuff on there, and I had to be really honest with it. Hopefully, folks will see that.”
Certainly radio listeners are already aware of “A Woman Like You,” a married couple’s starkly honest meditation on love and devotion. Immediately upon release, the mid-tempo ballad became iTunes’ number five most-purchased song and sold more than 30,000 copies a week. Not bad for a first single off an album. “It’s moving faster than anything I’ve ever had,” Brice says with a smile in his warm, familiar baritone. “It’s just so real.”
As “A Woman Like You” suggests, Brice presents himself throughout the album as a man who fully knows who he is and steps up to own it. He co-produced every track, bringing in friends Kyle Jacobs, Jon Stone, Doug Johnson and Matt McClure to share production duties on various cuts.
“At 32, I’m growing up, and I’ve done a lot more singing, not just in the studio but live. I’ve done about 200 shows a year for the last five years, and I realized that you can move people and peel their faces back without necessarily screaming at them. I’m just learning there is a patience that you gain with experience and I’m trying to dig in. You could be a great singer or performer, but it’s the whole package that makes an artist. It starts with the music that’s out there.”
As co-writer of eight of the thirteen tracks on Hard 2 Love, Brice has aimed for strong melodies and smart, emotional storytelling that aims straight for the heart of the human condition: the bluesy sigh of “See About a Girl;” the tailgate reverie of “Parking Lot Party;” the bittersweet tug of love in “Seven Days A Thousand Times;” and the down-on-your-knees gratitude of “One More Day.”
Much of Brice’s new self-awareness comes from his engagement to longtime girlfriend Sara Reeveley. The two have a son, Takoda, “a Mini-Me...a Mini-Lee,” as his father describes him, chuckling.
“The last year and a half opened my eyes to really how amazing Sara is,” Brice explains. “But I had to be ready, and something just happened over the last six months. I realized just how much I miss her. I used to love being on the road, but now I want to get home to see her. And I can’t stand being away from Takoda. He needs his daddy. I’ve gotten to the point where my family means everything to me. I just bought my first house and my goal is for us to spend next Christmas there together.”
While Sara and Takoda are the inspiration for some of the most memorable songs on the album, Brice’s writing has been lauded in industry circles for some time now. Early credits include “Still” for Tim McGraw, “Not Every Man Lives” for Jason Aldean and “Crazy Days” and “What it Takes” for Adam Gregory. “Crazy Girl,” which Brice co-wrote with Liz Rose, and which was a number one hit for the Eli Young Band, was recently nominated for an ACM award in the prestigious “Song of the Year” category. “Crazy Girl” was Billboard’s number one country song for 2011.
Yet the amiable and (at six-foot-three) imposing artist had already made history twice. Garth Brooks’ “More Than A Memory,” which Brice co-wrote with Billy Montana and Kyle Jacobs, became the first song on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart to debut at number one. Then, the title track off of his own album, Love Like Crazy, was named Billboard's most played country song of 2010. It still holds the record for the longest-charting song in the history of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Writing since he was literally a child growing up in Sumter, S.C., Brice was fascinated by music. By age seven, he’d balance himself at his Aunt Henrietta’s upright piano to plunk out gospel tunes and make up his own melodies. Filled with the joy and power of music, he performed first for his family and then at church.
In high school, the sounds of such country artists as Garth Brooks, Hank Williams, Jr., Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys and Vince Gill vied with pop icons Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur for his attention. Though he soaked up the varied styles, it was Brooks’ story-driven songs that most moved him and influenced his own original music. His classmates took notice: For three years running, he captured the high school talent pageants, while also distinguishing himself as an All-Conference football player.
Still, Brice might have gone on to become a civil engineer had a football injury not derailed him at Clemson University. Recuperating from surgery on his arm, he reevaluated his life goals and dreams: It was music, not engineering that drove him.
Recalling a spring break in Nashville when producer Doug Johnson promised to help him should he move to town, he left school and packed his bags. Johnson made good on his offer, later arranging a writing deal for him with Curb Music Publishing.
The first year, Brice co-wrote some 150 songs. With his knack for inhabiting and not just delivering a song, the buzz around town was that Brice was a talent on the rise. His tours with Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson and Luke Bryan bore that out.
And yet it’s only now that it has all come together... big nominations, large tours, first house, a wedding in the wings, and Hard 2 Love, the album on which Lee Brice finally gets to say, “Here’s who I am, in all sides of my personality. I hope you’ll like me.” Chances are, you already know the answer.