By John Benson
It wasn’t too long ago that Lee Brice was still an unproven musician playing honky tonks, some of which were in Northeast Ohio.
Today, the country artist seems a million miles away as an opener for Luke Bryan on what is easily the biggest tour of the summer. The bill comes through the area for two shows, tonight and Friday, at Blossom Music Center.
Even though Brice appears to be on the fast track to Music City stardom, he recently won Academy of Country Music Song of the Year for the tearjerker “I Drive Your Truck,” the South Carolina native looks back to his early days with fondness.
While some artists detest the grind of playing one club after another, Brice said it was an education that’s still paying dividends today.
“We built our fanbase from the ground up having to prove ourselves,” said Brice, calling from a New York City taxicab. “We just kept doing that and I kept writing songs and I dug in deeper into these records. I think I’m figuring out now that if you get the right song, you get the right moment, and you prove it on the stage, then it’s just going to come. It just takes work.”
“It’s been a lot of work but also a lot of fun. Also, I’ve been able to make these last two albums on my own, which proved to me you have to be yourself as an artist, and you can’t let the label tell you what to be or do.”
Brice landed in Nashville more than a decade ago, but it would take nearly five years before he started to make inroads as a songwriter with credits including co-writing Garth Brooks’ No. 1 comeback single “More Than A Memory,” as well as Tim McGraw’s “Still” and Jason Aldean’s “Not Every Man Lives.”
Then in 2009, he watched the title track from his debut album, “Love Like Crazy,” reach No. 3 on the Billboard Country chart becoming the longest-charting song in its history. His follow-up effort was 2012’s gold release “Hard 2 Love” and its three No. 1 country singles, including the title track, “I Drive Your Truck” and “A Woman Like You.”
Next up for Brice is his highly- anticipated third album, “I Don’t Dance,” which is due out next month. Already the title track — about his wife, Sara, a Youngstown native — is sniffing the top of the charts. The album includes 16 tracks, with Lee acting as the main producer and playing more than 80 percent the instruments, including banjo, drums and lead guitar.
“I wanted it to be like true me, everything I always wanted to get out of me musically, which is not just the typical country sound,” Brice said. “Similar to, like, Bruno Mars, I was able to bring in the classic sounds of all the music I listened to and also bring in some new sounds I wanted to play around with and have fun with. I wanted to just be me — that is a country boy from South Carolina who also liked rock ’n’ roll, blues, R&B and soul.”
Album standouts include the R&B and pedal-steel-friendly “Good Man,” the live-sounding “Panama City,” the Foo Fighters-esque “Always the Only One.”
Brice admits playing on the packed Bryan tour has him itching for the next year in his career, which invariably could find him headlining large amphitheaters sooner than later.
“We were recently at Madison Square Garden for the first time,” Brice said. “I came out and it was filled to the rim when I hit the stage. That makes me jump and sing harder and run faster and get crazier and let it all loose. I feel like I’m champing at the bit for the next year to get out on my own. So, that’s what I want to do. That’s the goal.”