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Childhood dreams of music coming true for Lee Brice

Childhood dreams of music coming true for Lee Brice
Special Features Editor
Generally speaking, 10-year-old boys’ dreams of the future are notoriously ungrounded in reality.
Lee Brice’s were the ex-ception.
“I started writing songs at about 10. I’d been playing the piano and the guitar from about as far back as I can remember and when I was 10, I was writing full songs. I’ve never stopped,” says the hit writer and entertainer who came to Nashville 10 years ago. One of his hard-driving compositions from his youthful 17th year — “Carolina Boys” — just ended up on his “Love Like Crazy” CD.
Folks who knew him in Sumter, S.C., where he grew up and where his parents still live, may not have expected that his dreams would carry the boy all the way to Music City, but most of his friends and family and neighbors have been supportive through the years.
“There may be some people in my home town who can’t imagine anybody getting out. Maybe they’re the most surprised because it’s a difficult thing — to do something besides what’s expected,” says this member of the trio of creative entertainers who took part in Tuesday’s Songwriters Night at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Union City.
The three were in town to help their friend, Portis Tanner, raise funds for Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Tennessee. Tanner, a Union Citian who was once involved with the recording industry in Nashville and who now works in the family business in his hometown, serves on the BGCNWT board of directors.
Brice, along with friends and “sometimes” co-writers Rob Hatch and Lance Miller, was successful to the tune of $15,000 for the organization.
His most unusual source of inspiration, Brice recalls, was most likely the smell of a skunk. It was an odor he encountered as he was making the move to college at Clemson University, where he studied civil engineering for four years. There was a long-term romance associated with his undergraduate days as well, and the two impressions — skunk and young love — somehow got sort of mixed up together and influenced at least one song. He won’t say precisely how. He certainly won’t tell which one.
“There’s a little bit of personal stuff in everything I write,” he admits. “Some songs have more. Some things are made up. But there’s a piece of me in every song, even if it’s something I wouldn’t sing myself.”
He owns up to the fact that he “kinda” had to apologize to his brother, who is also a Nashville entertainer, when he used his sibling’s story as the basis for his “Upper Middle Class White Trash” hit.
The boy from the South Carolina midlands got a little piano training from his musically-inclined aunt when he was 5 or 6, he says, and his parents always sang, with the whole family harmonizing in church. His love of country music drew him to the guitar and along the way he dabbled in drums and bass.
“Whatever makes music, I like to play around on it.”
His first recorded composition was a rock and roll song and he’s penned more of that, plus rhythm and blues, “folk” tunes, blues numbers and, of course, country. In college, he knocked out several gospel songs and says he’ll be writing more of those.
He never knows what may trip the creative button in his heart and mind.
“It could be a mood, or a melody or a guitar riff or an idea. As long as it’s cool enough, you can bring the rest of the stuff to it,” he explains.
When he’s writing, he tends to hear the finished product in his head, not just the slimmed down basics, but if another artist picks up the song and decides to make it his own, the writer loses control over how that song will ultimately sound. “They can record it exactly as they see fit,” he says.
Sometimes, another writer will bring a song to him and Brice takes it on the road.
Such was the case with “Love Like Crazy,” his mega-hit which broke the record for the longest “Hot Country Songs” chart run (he set a new standard at 55 weeks) in September 2010, after garnering attention as the slowest climber in the Top Ten in the chart’s history.
The song was the fourth single of his recording career and became the title track from his studio album. It was written by Tim James and Doug Johnson and they approached Brice about recording it. He agreed because, he says, it reminded him of the 50-year-plus marriage of his grandparents.
A solo writer before he came to Nashville, he’s enjoyed his forays into shared musical penmanship. Hatch and Miller, who have solo and shared hits of their own, have collaborated with him in the past.
He recalls the night Hatch phoned to say he had a title, “When Whiskey Use to Burn,” but no song. He invited his friend over to work on the proposition, reeling him in with the promise of a meal from his famous kitchen.
“I was roaming around outside trying to find the melody while Rob was cooking dinner. And after we ate, we wrote that song. It’s a good thing — writing together. Two heads are better than one and, for the most part, you write better songs. But sometimes there is a song that’s just personal to me and I write by myself. For the most part, though, I like  it  (teaming up on a song.)”
Occasionally, Brice says, the idea for a song will remind him of a particular artist and he gears the work toward that person. “Sometimes it works, but sometimes you end up loving the song for yourself, or someone else takes it.”
When he first hit the big city, the South Carolina native who had worked a little at being an electrician and a camp counselor and even at digging ditches had to find somebody to “believe in me.”
When that happens, he says, “they give you a deal. They give you a salary in hopes that a song will make them some money. If one gets picked up, you get paid accordingly every time it’s sold or played on the air.”
Now that he’s an established talent, he doesn’t have to worry about pitching his songs to anyone.
“That’s what your publisher does,” he explains, but if he has a special interest in seeing a song go to a particular person, he might get involved.
Some of his songs have made it to the big screen and that’s been a thrill all its own — a high he’s hoping to repeat.
As Brice takes his show on the road, he delivers a program heavy with his own compositions, but he also pulls in favorites from Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr. and — occasionally — something from Jimi Hendrix.
It’s the stuff that’s pure Brice that his fans come for, however.
And that’s what folks in a  small town in northwest Tennessee got Tuesday night from a boy from another small town in the midlands of South Carolina.
The end result of a 10-year-old’s youthful dreams.
Published in The Messenger 1.12.12