From his gospel-singing roots in rural South Carolina and a stint on Division 1 Clemson’s football team to his workmanlike songwriting sessions in Nashville, emerging country star Lee Brice talks about his early influences, his music and what life is like these days for one of, if not the hardest working performer in country music today.
GUITAR WORLD: What do you feel were your first music successes that compelled you to pursue music?
When I was 6 or 7 is when I actually got up in front of the church and sang and played "Oh How I Love Jesus." I had been playing on my own and learned a few chords and the direction of how to play, so I had known before that well enough to play with both hands and learned to actually play the piano and sing. That was when I felt like I was addicted.
In high school you entered some talent contests, and you had success there, winning three years straight with original material.
Yeah, I had been writing songs since I was a small kid, like 8, 9, 10 years old. And so here I am 15 and in high school and I had been writing songs my whole life. I brought my guitar in at that time and I knew then that music was a part of me and that’s what I was supposed to do.
Do you prefer performing live or studio work?
Well, they both have their magic, although I have to say I prefer live. It’s weird and maybe I just haven’t done it yet, but I almost feel like you cannot capture what you can do live in the studio. I mean you can maybe sound a little better and take your time, but when I’m singing live to an audience and I’m in that moment, there’s a connection that’s hard to come by when you’re in the studio.
You just finished Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour. How did that go?
Oh man, every night it was so cool to be out there with Willie. Willie Nelson is not just a star or a headliner, he’s a legend. There were also a couple of my friends and peers out there that I grew up with, so it was great to be out there every night on stage. It was a learning experience and on top of that just a fun, magical time all summer.
We know that when you first arrived in Nashville you had regular, daily writing sessions set up. Can you give us some insight into what your writing process is today?
I was about 10 when I started to write. I would sit down if I was inspired to write or I would sit down and play, and that would inspire me. But when you go to Nashville and start co-writing, you start doing it as a job and the more you do it the better you get. You know if you build houses for 30 years you’re better than you were the day you started. You know the ins and outs, you know all the nuances.
Every day you can write a song but some days there is just some magic in the air and something special about the catch; other days you write all day on a song line or idea. Yesterday, a friend of mine, Joe Leathers and I took about a three-minute bike ride to the beach and we put together a whole song idea in our head on the way there. Five minutes later, we had a song written. You never know how songwriting will go, which is why it’s so awesome, it gives you something to play with and work with every day.
How did your song "More Than a Memory" performed by Garth Brooks come about?
That was so special, man. I literally woke up in the middle of the night on the first radio tour on the bus and I was feeling the way I always felt about this old girl that I had known and never got over. She was kind of the love of my life. Eight years later here I am on the bus in the middle of the night writing down on a piece of paper just thoughts and feelings I had for her. Almost like a letter to her, really. I remember just getting sleepy and chastising myself about being up at 4 in the morning writing somebody a letter you’re never going to send. She’s just a memory. So I wrote a verse down and started that chorus. That was how that came about. It’s a special song that came from a real place.
That was a sweet story; it’s going to give me a different perspective when I listen to that song.
I have really been writing songs for that girl even since I’ve been in Nashville. Every time I sat down at one of those co-writes, every day, sometimes two or three times a day with a different writer, she was always on my mind and inspired me. Everyone around Nashville knew her name. I would talk about her all the time, and it was like I was trying to write a song to get over her. So I wrote song after song inspired by her, then I wrote "More Than a Memory." That was the song I needed to get over her.
Do you think that she’s heard that song?
Oh yeah, she heard it. The first time it came on the radio I happened to be opening up for Jo Dee Messina in Clemson, South Carolina, where I dated her for four years. I was back visiting my home town with a full band in an arena and she was in the front row at the concert. I sang her this song, “More than A Memory,” that had been on the radio all week and there she was. It was like a movie. So she heard it, yes she did.
I’ve seen you with acoustic and electrics. Which guitars are your favorite?
I’ve got two guitars that I love. I have my first Taylor that I worked for a whole summer for when I was 15. It’s a Taylor 310 acoustic, and I still play it now and write with it. I’ve written all these songs on it. It’s a special guitar to me, it’s been run over, crushed, kicked and beat up, but that’s the acoustic I love.
My good friend Joe Leathers knew I loved his guitars, one of which was this white '59 Tele with handmade pick guards on it. He just basically gave me that guitar, and it’s something that I play all the time and write songs on. And so that Taylor and the Tele are my two favorite guitars. They are really something special to me.
How has your first album, Love Like Crazy changed your life?
Well you know, I’ve been into music my whole life, so to be able to put an album together with some of that music was awesome. I had been on the road for a long time and worked it really hard, but to have a song like “Love Like Crazy” in your life and do what it did, it really does change your life. Everything from the money you’re paid to the people that are singing your song and how they sing it makes a difference.
When you have a song that has been played that many times for that many people and when they sing it they just scream it, and that’s what I’ve been searching for my whole life at every concert I’ve gone to. When I would go to hear Garth Brooks, we were singing at the top of our lungs to his songs, and that’s what people do to that song and it’s really cool. I actually didn’t write that song. I was lucky enough to hear it.
That’s a Doug Johnson song, isn’t it?
He brought me that song and said, "I just wrote it the other day, I think it's special." I heard it, and it made me think of my own life and my grandparents, so I connected with it and it made me feel as though I had written the song myself.
Are you still working with Doug Johnson?
I am. The whole 10 years I’ve been in Nashville, we’ve been working together. We’re actually doing some new music now and I’ve got some special stuff in the works and I’m really excited about it.
Anything you can talk about?
Well, I’ll tell you one thing in particular with him. I think I’m going to record a track, which is preproduction now. When I first got to town I was writing with Doug a lot that summer and now we have an idea for a string quartet for "Beautiful You" and perform it live with a film crew in a church within a studio in Nashville. It’s a special song, so we’re going to treat it special. Also I’m on the Luke Bryan CMT Tour and I will be all fall, plus we’re starting to look at a new record, so that’s where I’m at in the next year.
What do you do when not performing or writing music?
Well, nothing. Right now that’s all I do. I’m on the road 250 days a year. I’m on the road more than that, actually. That’s how many shows I do. When I’m not on the road, I’m writing. If I’m not writing I’m washing my clothes to get back out on the road.