photo credit: Chase Lauer

Country music’s Golden Boy, Lee Brice, has figured a few things out on his way up the Billboard charts

Country singer Lee Brice has performed at the Grand Ole Opry, collaborated with his boyhood idol, Garth Brooks, and written a string of hits as long as the neck on his battered old Gibson acoustic guitar.

But Brice’s biggest achievement has nothing to do with music. He says he’s most proud of raising kids who are happy as ants at a picnic whenever they’re outdoors, without an iPad anywhere in sight.

“I thought to myself ‘Yes! This is awesome!” Brice says of the time he discovered his boys Takoda, 10, and Ryker, 4, hard at work digging a big hole in the ground, just for the heck of it, at the family’s farm outside Nashville. “There’s something about exploring the outdoors and hunting and fishing that’s always been a huge part of who I am. I want my kids to be like that, too — to be outside, not thinking about a computer or a phone or a remote control.”

Brice had plenty of practice living his life unplugged. Long before he wrote Brooks’ No. 1 hit “More Than a Memory” and became one of Nashville’s busiest songwriters, little Lee was a dreamy country kid living on a dirt road on the outskirts of Sumter, South Carolina. When he wasn’t creeping through the swamps on hunting trips with his dad and his younger brother, Brice was busy singing alongside his gospel-music loving parents, listening to music on his bedroom alarm-clock radio, and writing songs.

At age 11, inspiration struck. He sat at the piano and merged his two great loves – hunting and music – into “God Gives Every Man One Great Hound,” a song about his father’s hunting dog, Train.

“My daddy heard it and started cryin’ his eyeballs out,” Brice says. “I’m still proud of those early songs. Even at 11, I took songwriting seriously.”

He listened obsessively to everyone from George Strait to Guns N’ Roses to Whitney Houston. But the transformative musical event of his teen years came in 1997, when he saw Garth Brooks tear up the stage at the North Charleston Coliseum. “It was my first real concert, and I just knew at that moment it was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” says the 39-year-old Brice.

He landed a football scholarship at Clemson University, but when an injury sidelined his career as a long-snapper, he says “it was a sign from God that now I had to do what I was really meant to do.” So he dropped out of college, moved to Nashville, and fell under the wing of veteran producer-songwriter Doug Johnson, who quickly recognized Brice’s talent.

Lee Brice with his guitar.

“The first time I heard Lee, it was obvious he has music in every fiber of his being,” Johnson says. “His passion is inspiring. He’s a great writer, great singer, great performer and a good guy as well.”

Brice’s career took off slowly as he gradually started co-writing tunes for everyone from Jason Aldean to alt-rockers Sister Hazel. Finally, 2007 marked the big moment he’d been waiting for: Brooks recorded Brice’s “More than a Memory” and it shot straight to the top of the Billboard country charts in its first week, the first time a song had ever done that. “It was like I was dreaming,” Brice says, still sounding tongue-tied a decade later. “Here comes Garth Brooks, with my song I wrote about my college girlfriend, and it debuts at Number 1. It was like ‘This is surreal!’ ”

The ensuing attention helped Brice jump-start his own long-simmering recording career. In 2010, he released his debut album, Love Like Crazy, and the title track broke another Billboard record by spending 57 weeks on the country singles chart, the longest stretch in chart history.

Since then, his career has been a whirlwind of touring, recording his own albums (his fourth, Lee Brice, came out in late 2017) and writing and co-writing songs for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill and Blake Shelton.

In 2011, Brice took home the ACM Award for song of the year, for “Crazy Girl,” the monster hit he co-wrote for the Eli Young Band. But he’s also racked up plenty of his own hits, including “I Don’t Dance,” a semi-autobiographical ballad about a macho dude who finds himself changing after falling in love.

Brice’s lyrics tend to be witty, sweet and a bit philosophic. While he name-checks God in many of his songs, he also questions his own devotion in the recent tune “What Keeps You Up At Night,” singing “I believe in God with all my heart / Sometimes I doubt and wonder, and I know that’d break my mamma’s heart.”

“I grew up in the church, but I’ve had struggles,” Brice says. “That song is me being honest and putting my true heart on my sleeve, hopefully in a positive way. My mother is old school, where everything is right or wrong, black or white. But I think there are a lot of gray areas. I think it’s OK to doubt.”

Like most country artists, Brice has sung or written his fair share of drinking songs, including “Buzz Back Girl,” a hit for Jerrod Niemann, and his own hits “Parking Lot Party” and “Drinking Class,” a song about blue-collar workers getting loud, rowdy and tipsy.

“Partying it up became a big part of that scene, and there were times when drinking had a very negative effect on me. But I’ve learned from those moments.”

Brice admits to having an up-and-down relationship with alcohol. As a teenager, he resisted peer pressure to drink, explaining “I was like, ‘If my daddy catches me with a beer in my hand before I’m 21, I’m dead meat.’ ” But it was a different story when he turned legal. Brice spent much of 20s performing in bars where fans and friends offered to buy him drinks after the show – invitations he seldom turned down.

“Partying it up became a big part of that scene, and there were times when drinking had a very negative effect on me. But I’ve learned from those moments,” he says. “Now, when I get offstage, I go straight to my bus, put my P.J.s on, and go to work in the studio I’ve built on my bus. When I get home to my family, I can’t be worn out and hung over. I’ve got three kids, they deserve all of me, and so does my wife. It’s a completely different life now.”

“There’s something about exploring the outdoors and hunting and fishing that’s always been a huge part of who I am. I want my kids to be like that, too”

Today, as he inches closer and closer to 40, he wouldn’t trade his life for anything. He calls his wife Sara Reeveley “an amazing women” (that’s her in the video to “Rumor”) and he gushes about his 1-year-old daughter, Trulee. “I’m just crazy over this little girl,” he says. “She’s got me wrapped all around her.”

When Trulee is old enough, Brice hopes to take her arrowhead hunting – a favorite past-time for him and his sons – and introduce her to the joys of outdoor living, just as his father did for him. “Hunting and fishing and exploring the woods teaches you at young age about so many things,” he says. “It teaches you about safety and how to focus and pay attention. Our family didn’t have much growing up, but I learned a ton from the outdoors. It’s in a lot of the songs I write, because it’s a big part of my life. It’s who I am.”

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