By Brian Ives
Lee Brice is an easy going guy who laughs often and is up-front about his opinions, so when I sat down with him at rooftop bar at a hotel in New York City for an interview, it was hard to know when our pre-interview banter ended and the actual interview started; luckily, the tape was rolling the whole time. The subject of “bro-country” came up and while that particular term is a sore spot — understandably — to many solo male country artists, Brice was ready to take it head on. We also spoke about his classic “I Don’t Dance,” his love of a good ballad and some upcoming projects he’s working on.
I often hear people complain about bro-country, and there’s this idea that all country music has to be like Hank Williams. You never hear that criticism in rock music: “You don’t sound like Chuck Berry!”
Well, that’s the truth, and music’s always going to evolve. They label it “bro-country,” I don’t even understand what that means! I just know that music evolves. Some people like to just hang on to the roots of country, and do a classic country album, like Sturgill Simpson, or my buddy Jamey Johnson. That’s what moves them. And it moves me too!
When I’m making a record, I pull from Alan Jackson and Vince Gill and Garth Brooks and Alabama and Randy Travis and Kenny Rogers. And then I say, “Do my songs stand up to their songs?” But as far as the production and the sound of it, I still love steel guitar and I still put it on my records. But music’s gonna evolve. As long as someone like Luke Bryan — who’s my buddy — or Florida Georgia Line, or whoever… as long as they love what they’re doing, then I say, more power to you, you do whatever the hell you want to do. That’s what rock and roll is: do whatever the hell you want to do! Anyway, Johnny Cash didn’t sound like any other country music before him, neither did Waylon Jennings! They were rock and roll!
When critics hate something, they really hate it. I once wrote a thing about Phil Collins – who critics tend to hate – called “Phil Collins Did Not Kick Your Dog.” It’s like, yeah, you may have heard him a few too many times on TV or in a bar, but it’s not actually mandatory that you listen to him if you really don’t like the guy’s music!
[Laughs] There are a lot of people that love Phil Collins! Reviews are pretty tough sometimes. I put my heart, soul, blood, tears and guts into this body of work. That’s what I do. For somebody to slam it hard for no reason… like, I didn’t ask you to compare me to other people!
What bothers me the most about people talking s–t about a record is, they don’t point out how talented those people are.
I saw John Mayer play guitar for the Grateful Dead, they improvise all night…
… You’ve got to be good to do that!
I wanted to ask you about your song “I Don’t Dance.” I imagine it’s not easy to write a romantic song like that.
I grew up with gospel music. The ballads were kind of what I was drawn to. Even when I got into rock and roll, my favorite Guns N Roses song was “November Rain.” In country it was Vince Gill. But I love Whitney Houston and Brian McKnight and Boyz II Men. I mean, I am this tough, crazy, football guy, but that’s truly where my roots lie.
“I Don’t Dance” is my favorite song that I’ve written – when I started writing songs, my dream was write a song for my girl and get it on the radio for everybody to hear. That was what my dream was. Coming up through the ranks of country music, I’ve been blessed with success and it’s been awesome, but I never really did write something and sing it and have it be on the radio and have it be about my girl. That was my first. It was the truth, it was from a real place. This is why I started doing this: to write “I Don’t Dance.”
It really seems to resonate with guys.
They get it! A “guy’s guy” gets it.
I know you’ve written for other people. If your recording career didn’t work out, would you have been cool with being a songwriter?
I love writing the songs, producing the songs, and bringing them to life on stage. I’m always trying to get better at all three. But for a while, I was just writing songs in Nashville. That’s a good life. You wake up, write some songs, have a beer with your buddies. It’s an awesome life… other than the fact that if you’re not getting cuts on people’s records, you’re not making money.
You have a song on a Garth Brooks record (“More Than a Memory” from The Ultimate Hits ), I’m sure you would have paid your rent forever on that one.
That was such a big deal for me. Other than gospel music, he’s my biggest influence, hands down. He did that song before I was famous; at that time, my first single was just coming out. But I never got to see him perform it, because I was always on the road. Then, a few months ago, I was outside of Boston doing a show on Friday night and Garth did a show Saturday night and I went. I made a few calls to get into the “meet and greet,” just like a fan! I’d heard that some nights he sings “More Than A Memory,” sometimes he doesn’t. So I go to the meet and greet and he asks, “How’s work going? How’s touring?” “Ah, it’s good, we’re hittin’ it hard.” And then he says, “Speaking of work, you feel like working tonight?” And I think “No way is he asking what I think he’s asking!” And he says, “You want to come sing ‘Memory’ with me tonight?” So I did! I’ve still never heard him singing it onstage, without me there. But he’s always been really special to me.
I’m guessing you’ve got to be thinking about the next record.
I’m producing some stuff that I’m looking to wrap up.
You’re producing for other people?
Yeah, this group American Young, it’s a girl-guy duo. The guy, Jon is a co-producer of mine, he produced my last two records.
And I’m producing my younger brother Lewis, he’s killing it. He came to town and I said, “I’m not doing anything for you: you’ve got to do it yourself.” But he made his own contacts, got his own co-writes, he toured the country in a van, he’s done it. And he came with some songs that blew my mind and then I said, “OK, let’s do it, let’s make a record.” So I’m feeling a bit behind on my record. But one of the hardest parts for me of the recording process is figuring out what songs I need to do. I might have it down to 20 songs now, and I’ve got to get it down to 15.
Do you have a date you’re looking to?
I’m probably going to look to have a sort of finished product a couple of months into 2016.