Lee Brice loomed large on the gridiron, and now he’s making becoming an even bigger star in country music. The South Carolina native and one-time long snapper for Clemson University garnered a nomination in the CMT Music Awards’ USA WEEKEND Breakthrough Video of the Year category for his song Love Like Crazy (directed by Eric Welch), and released his first studio record a year ago after spending a decade in Nashville as a songwriter. (He co-wrote the hit More Than a Memory for Garth Brooks.) Brice is also quite the family man, too — I caught up with the 6-foot-3, 240-pound singer while he was visiting his little boy Takoda up in Youngstown, Ohio, who lives with his mom. “He’s almost 3 and he’s at that age right now where he’s soaking in everything, so I’ve gotta be around,” says Brice, who’s touring with Willie Nelson this summer and 2010 Breakthrough winner Luke Bryan in the fall. “He needs Daddy and it’s so awesome to be with him and see him growing up. It really is an unbelievable experience.” We talked about his Glee-ish high school experience, football and his favorite country videos, so read below for the interview. Also, check out the video for Love Like Crazy and if you dig it, or any of the other nominees, be sure to vote at CMT.com.
Describe your concept for the video. Did you work with Eric on an idea?
With some of the lines written in that song, we could have done a vibe that was really literal. I just wanted to stay away from the cheese factor. We brainstormed about how we could keep it away from that, but still give it what it needed to represent the song. Man, I had been listening to Bruce Springsteen lately, and I really wanted to do something cool and rock ’n’ roll like that. So basically I said, “Hey, man, let’s do a video like Springsteen would do with this song. He would make this song way cool.” We both clicked right then – we wanted to do a lot of black, make it real gritty. He had the ideas for some of the locations, like downtown L.A. like on Sunset Boulevard at night. And I wanted to show both sides of me: I’m a country boy with my backward baseball cap and all, but I’m also a grown man and kind of a rock n roller. All of it combined. I wanted to show a new side of me, and I think it turned out great.
So is the backwards baseball cap the new cowboy hat in Nashville these days?
I’m from South Carolina so I’m flip-flops and a backwards cap. That’s what I’ve always been. I was raised picking corn and raising chickens. To me, there’s such a difference between a cowboy and a plowboy, really. So I wasn’t going to come town and try to wear a cowboy hat. I felt like I could just do what I did, and probably before anybody even wore a hat, I was wearing it. It didn’t have as much exposure, but that’s what I did and I wasn’t going to change it. I’m still not. I might go with no hat, sometimes, but that’s me. Whenever I’m going out or doing whatever, I’m gonna have my cap on. That’s a big part of who I am and how I was raised, so that’s how I’ll stay. I’ve gotta keep that image going.
You didn’t write Love Like Crazy yourself, but when you sing it, do you think about somebody in particular?
With my songs, I feel like I’m good at what I do for me. I don’t normally look outside a whole lot — I always look, but a lot of times it’s hard to find a song that’s as me as something I would write. But when I heard Love Like Crazy, I immediately thought about my grandparents because they were that way. I felt a connection with the song on top of the fact that it just sounded like a big ol’ smash. I grew up singing those big notes like in gospel music and listening to Edwin McCain, Travis Tritt and even Garth hitting those big long notes. When I heard that song, it made sense to me and it still does even when I sing it now.
As a kid what was your first love: music or football?
Music. My first memory being alive was crawling up on my grandma’s piano stool and playing for hours. They didn’t even have to watch me – I was just on the piano tinkering around. I was drawn to it and I was drawn to music. Of course, my daddy played football and he was a star in high school and got recruited to play college football, so that was something at an early age I drew to as well. Basically growing up, they were hand in hand. Football was something I was good at and I loved doing and I was proud of. Music was something that was in my bones — it’s a bigger, deeper part of me. So when football was over, it was OK. But music will never be over. It’s who I am. It was really probably even first, and it’ll be last.
So were you like one of the kids in Glee, doing music and football?
[Laughs] No, I played football. It was funny, until my sophomore year of high school, other than my family, nobody really knew that I did music. I had been writing songs since I was 10 years old, and when I was in middle school and high school, I’d always lock myself in my room or my bathroom or the stairwell and just write songs and sing songs and play my guitar. My sophomore year, I did a talent contest and I won it, and then I won it three years in a row. People started realized that I was that guy, but I never did chorus or anything like that. Actually, they did convince me to go to chorus my senior year, when I didn’t have any other classes and I was just goofing off, so it was cool to go in there and learn that. It was kind of funny, I got the solo on I Believe I Can Fly at one of my high school things. [Laughs] And everybody was like, Why in the world is Lee up there doing that?!” But it was cool. I was still the jock kid, but I ended up getting “Most Talented” in my high school senior year, which was kind of random for the athletic person that I was.
You had a freak arm injury in college that cut your football career short. Did you really miss it, or did you move right into music and not even bat an eye?
Yeah, I didn’t really bat an eye. In high school, I was a stud and I went both ways and I was all-everything and it was so fun to be at that level, and then when I went to college, it’s just such a job. It really is. If you are still a big-time stud in college, it can still be really worth your while, and that was one of my big goals, to play football for Clemson growing up. When I did that, it was like, OK, I met that goal. I hurt my elbow, I knew I was going to be doing music my whole life even though I was in my third year of civil engineering — which I just had a feeling of “I do not want to do this” — and it was actually nice. I was like, “OK, football’s over. Now I can just say, ‘The heck with it.’ Throw my stuff into the car and just take off to Nashville.” And that’s what I did. I love to watch football and I love to think about football and I miss football, but I don’t miss it to the point of any kind of regret. I enjoyed it very much when I was doing it, and now I’m just enjoying my life and what I’m doing now.
Are you a Tennessee Titans fan?
Yeah, I’m a Titans fan. I’ve been here 10 years. Really, until my junior year of high school in South Carolina, we never had any professional team. The Carolina Panthers didn’t come along till then. I was a Panthers fan because we finally got a team, but I went and played at Clemson and it was all about Clemson and then I was in Nashville. I’m as much of a Titans fan as I am a Panthers fan.
Once you got to Nashville, was being a performer always the goal or were you happy as a songwriter?
Oh yeah, performing was always where I was going to be. Even my producer, whenever we got signed and we got a publishing deal going — which is basically paying your bills writing songs — it was all inclusive and a production thing: OK, you’re gonna write for a few years, get to know who you are, figure out who you want to be, and then we’re gonna go and get a deal and do that. That was all in the plan. I just happened to get a little success at that first, so people get the perception that I was a songwriter first. Really, that’s not necessarily true. My whole life, I was writing songs to sing them, not writing them to write them like when I was a kid.
You’re a pretty big presence on stage. Are you one of the bigger guys in country music, size-wise?
There are some big guys. Toby Keith’s a big guy, and Keith Anderson was a football player. Jarrod Niemann was a wrestler — he’s not as tall as me, but he’s built. And there are a couple of tall ones — Trace Adkins and those guys tower over us. But yeah, I’m probably one of the bigger guys. James Otto, you kidding me, he could be on the offensive line for the Titans right now! [Laughs]
What you need to do at one of these country fan fests is get a big football game together and see what happens.
[Laughs] Yeah! That would be awesome!
I bet people might actually watch that.
I think they would. I think I could get a good team up, too, probably. Even [Kenny] Chesney was an athlete, man. Chesney’s a smaller guy, but he was a football player.
It must be hard to go on the road away from your little boy. Do you Skype or find other ways to keep in touch?
Oh yeah, we Skype. His mama sends me probably 10 pictures a day. We’re on the phone all the time and Skyping all the time. We do the best we can, and if I can’t come up here, we plan on them meeting me in Nashville or meeting me in South Carolina. It’s really a great relationship and his mama’s wonderful. It’s a good thing.
Do you have an all-time favorite country video?
You know what, I’ve never thought of that before. I could see Garth Brooks videos in my head like The Red Strokes — that stuff never leaves your mind — but one of my favorite songs, believe it or not, is Anything But Mine, that Chesney song. I love that video because I think he filmed half of it at Myrtle Beach where I grew up at the Pavilion. The Pavilion is gone now at Myrtle Beach, they tore it down finally, and I just hate that they did that. That whole song and vibe just gets me, because I grew up on the beach and with those summer things.
Did you have a country idol growing up?
It was Garth Brooks, by far. Not even close. I was 10, 11, 12 years old and Garth Brooks was just coming out and popping. I was like, “I want to be that guy.” It wasn’t just that he was the biggest thing in the world — it was that his songs and his videos and the way he carried himself and the things he did and how he did it, it was amazing. Think about the Red Strokes, with that paint flying everywhere. That was just huge. It’s almost like nobody even goes that far today these days. That was an inspiration then and still is now.
Was that a special moment, co-writing a hit song for your idol?
Yeah, I had been writing in town for a while. The song was special to me, first of all, because it was the song I had been needing to write for this girl. I had been writing song after song for years trying to get over my college sweetheart. And then Garth Brooks hears it and calls me. It was like a dream, really, and to this day I wonder if it really happened to me or not sometimes. [Laughs]
Well, Garth played football, too, so maybe he can coach your team.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe he can. And maybe he can play! He’s about my size actually. You wouldn’t think it, but we were standing side by side when he had a party for us when we had More Than a Memory out. I stood up right beside him, and he’s as big as I am. He could probably bust some heads, too.