Kane Brown’s “Heaven” is expected to be named the most-played song of 2018 at country radio when those stats are released shortly. It’s certainly the biggest pure country single of the year — the “pure” in that phrase being meant to indicate that there’s an asterisk, in the form of “Meant to Be.” The latter song did phenomenally for Florida Georgia Line but obviously benefitted from the co-billing of Bebe Rexha and crossover success in the pop format. “Heaven,” though, is the only song to feature solely a country artist and be worked solely in the country format to make the Variety/Buzz Angle Music top 30 for 2018 — a hell of an accomplishment, in a year when hip-hop singles accounted for two thirds of that year-end consumption chart.
“Heaven” was only the second hit single of Brown’s still-young career. And it’s largely because of it that when his sophomore album was released in October, he was already considered easily one of country’s half-dozen or so hottest artists. In putting together our annual Hitmakers issue, Variety spoke with a number of the song’s collaborators to find out what went into the single that cemented him as a star.
The happy clouds of a perfect storm were gathering when “Heaven” came out as an album track in October 2017. After some early stiffs after he signed with Sony Nashville, he had a song peaking at No. 1 — “What Ifs,” a duet with Lauren Alaina. And it was right at that point that the label put out a deluxe reissue of his debut album with four fresh tracks, including “Heaven.” A different team might have worried that having new material in the marketplace would distract from the single that was peaking at the time, but Brown’s advisors thought: the more, the merrier. And it paid off: Brown set a record by topping all five Billboard country charts in one week — four of them with “What Ifs,” but a fifth, digital song sales, with the hot-off-the-presses “Heaven.” It didn’t require a lot of research to determine what the follow-up should be to “What Ifs” at radio.
“We knew wanted to put more music out,” says Martha Earls, Brown’s manager. “Kane’s debut album did so well, but he likes to super serve his fan base and over put music out. As a matter of fact, it’s the reason he didn’t qualify for a Grammy, because we like to release too much music and apparently you can’t be a new artist if you release too much music,” she says, with a pointed ironic cough. “But anyway, that’s another story for another day.” (Before his smash debut album, Brown had released two modest-selling EPs, one independently and one through Sony, and under the Recording Academy’s more stringent new rules, that weirdly disqualified him as a freshman.) “From the day we released it, it was evident that the fans wanted it” as a single, Earls says — even though they had to wait a few weeks for “What Ifs” to die down before meeting that need.
“Heaven” officially made the switch from album track to single in November 2017, and made it to the top of the country airplay charts almost exactly six months later, in May. Although it doesn’t show up on the chart anymore, it’s still huge as a recurrent. “As we were choosing our lead single off the new record (“Experiment,” his just-released sophomore album), we were forced to come with ‘Lose It,’ which is an up-tempo, because we knew the tail on ‘Heaven’ was so long that there was no way we could put another ballad out,” Earls says, “when every radio station is still playing Heaven in power.” Not that they have any regrets over being “forced” to put out “Lose It” as a contrast to “Heaven”: that current single just became a country airplay No. 1, too.
There was no attempt to cross it over… although, in some of the most important, unseen ways, it crossed over. “We played around with: Do you do a (re)mix of it, or not do a mix of it? Do you try to get pop radio to play it? What’s interesting is that we never really went after that. The timing didn’t feel right. But what’s crazy is in this new world order, it almost doesn’t matter. The modern listener has a playlist that has ‘Heaven’ by Kane Brown and the next song is Cardi B and then the next song is Maroon 5. The song definitely has a reach past the country format. But so does Kane — he’s a country singer, but a cultural crossover.”
What does Earls mean by that? “A lot of people say, ‘I won’t listen to country but I listen to Kane Brown.’ And then I think for other people, he could do an album of George Strait cover songs and they would still be like, ‘Oh, he’s not country,’ because of his image,” says the manager. “He’s such an interesting cross of people. I mean, he’s biracial, yet he grew up country. He has this deep, low voice that, if you close your eyes, lives in the world of Josh Turner and Chris Young. Yet we did MSG (Madison Square Garden) the other night and he goes out on stage in Yeezys and a Gucci sweatshirt hoodie. That’s just what he wears, you know? With who he is as a person, how he looks, his demeanor, his vibe, his diversity, his honesty— I think he’s a great ambassador for the country format, because he’s not laced up tight in a belt buckle and hat, and he’s kind of like, ‘Hey, you can be whoever you want to be and you can still listen to country music.’”
As for how the song came about, Sony Nashville’s EVP of A&R, Jim Catino explains, “It was written on a songwriter retreat that I put together with Kane’s Publisher, Kent Earls” (the head of Universal Publishing Nashville — and, yes, there is a relation: Kent is Brown’s manager’s husband). “We provided some direction to the writers invited what Kane was looking for with his new project” — the deluxe reissue — “and Shy Carter, Matt McGinn and Lindsay Rimes wrote the song as part of that trip.”
McGinn recalls that, before the lakeside retreat, a few of the assembled writers “spent all day driving around listening to his record as it was. “It felt like it was lacking a straight-up, directly-talking-to the-girl, having-the-moment love song,” says the songwriter. “It felt like he needed something almost in a (John) Mayer vibe… Everything on the radio at that point was very almost aggressive. And we thought that it would be well suited for him to be vulnerable and sweet, and it would poke through and be something special and different.”
Continues McGinn, “I came in with that title and had kind of the musical idea, and before Shy got there, Lindsay and I kind of put down the guitar part and built a basic loop and then started riffing on that. It was my first time working with Shy, but once he got there, he was super on board to work on it, and in about two hours we were almost done with it. At some point Kane came down and was like, ‘Oh, hell, yeah! This is it.’ We were like, ‘Do you want to jump in?’ He’s like ‘Nah, man, I’m working on The One upstairs!’ And I guess (that other song) was not the one. Anyway, it was kind of a random group of guys to come up with something, but obviously it worked out well. And I love what (producer) Dann (Huff) did with it. He’s the best of the best. On our demo, it was a little more electric-driven, kind of a little more R&B, and Dann made it more acoustic and organic, which was obviously the right call.”
Shy Carter has his own recollections of the writing session. “Matt McGinn said he had a cold idea, and it was a cold idea, boy!” he laughs. “He started singing the chorus, and it went really high, and then it was like, Kane’s gonna come low on the verse. Okay, I thought, we’ll come loaded versatile!… Everybody was just enjoying it and nobody was going, ‘Oh my God, this is about to go triple plaaaaaaatinum, baby.’ But it was a perfect storm. We’ve got some more, too.”
Carter co-wrote a key song on Brown’s debut, “Learning,” and, like McGinn, he has some songs on Brown’s new album, “Experiment,” including one he has particular predictions for. The engaged singer “just shot his wedding video to a song called ‘Good as You,’ one of the new songs we wrote, and that’s going to be a stupid smash, man.”
Carter recognized Brown’s potential early on, as a game-changer in all kinds of ways. “I hunted him down, thank God. One of my good friends knew Martha Earls, and I was like, what’s up with this Kane Brown dude? Because I saw some similarities between us. I’ve been down here doing this (in Nashville), putting roots down here, man, for a while, and I saw what about to happen. I said, I don’t want I don’t want to let it happen and not be a part of it.”
Adds Carter, “My brother was like, ‘Look at this dude.’ He had his hat on low and I said, ‘Okay, he’s got some black in him!’ You know, I’m mixed, too. And it’s just a cold world, man. I thought it was going to be a struggle for him, but I know that there’s finally a bit of a change in country music. You can hear it in our song ‘Learning’ — he’s been through so much, so that’s why I think people get behind him and root for him. I learned so much about him that day writing that song and he became like a brother to me, and I wanted to see him do good.”
For all that high-mindedness about social change in country music, Carter is just as much about integrating the groove. “Part of the change that I was talking about is bringing elements of real R&B music into country,” Carter says, “and real soul comes from going through pain, and I think that’s Kane is doing. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what attracted me to country music, because I realized that it was soul music.”
Says Earls, “Kane just is who he is, and that’s what’s so fun about this new record. He has songs on there like ‘Short Skirt Weather’ or ‘Homesick’ that are these very traditional country instruments. We just hired a fiddle player we’re taking out on the road. But then he also has this retro-soulful, almost Al Green sort of thing. He can pull off anything like that because all of that is who he is.”