Cross Country: Genre-Bending New Star BRELAND Hits the Road

Is BRELAND genreless or is he multigenre? Does he fit into every box or none? Is he       melding styles into a stew or is he grabbing the best parts of all of them like he’s at
a buffet?

The 27-year-old offers his answer in the title of his debut solo album, released Sept. 9: Cross Country.

To him, it’s not just a couple of words to slap on a label or the title of its lead single which features Mickey Guyton. It’s not even just a genre. It’s an ethos.

 PLUM SPOT: BRELAND performs in Costa Mesa, Calif., Sept. 2, 2021.
Photo by Anna Lee

Yes, there are elements of hip-hop, soul and R&B in BRELAND’s country songs. But incorporating elements of Black music into country isn’t new. It’s as old as the style itself. Country started as the music of the Southern subaltern: Scotch-Irish instrumentation from people scraping a life in the hardscrabble Appalachians mixed with sacred music — from their own churches and from the Black church — with elements of the earliest blues. Lead Belly’s early recordings of “In The Pines” influenced countless hillbilly artists. Jimmie Rodgers was born in the Mississippi Delta and learned the blues from Black gandy dancers. Bob Wills’ Texas swing wouldn’t have swung nearly as much if it hadn’t borrowed from jazz and boogie.

It goes on and on — Ray Charles, Nelly, the Nappy Roots, Florida Georgia Line.

“I am part of that history,” BRELAND tells Pollstar. “People who understand music and how it has developed know country music has undeniable ties to Black music and Black culture. I don’t think what I’m doing is revolutionary.”

Maybe it’s not revolutionary. Maybe it’s evolutionary.

Maybe it’s time to deconstruct country music into its elements and reconstruct it into something new. Or maybe it’s time to dismiss the notion of genre altogether. BRELAND may be the man to show us how.

Born in New Jersey, BRELAND grew up in a house full of music. His parents were singing ministers and gospel permeated his life. He was 14 before he started listening to secular music and unbound by any preconceived notions of what he, as a Black teenager from the northeast, was “supposed” to listen to, he listened to everything.

“I’m someone who has always liked different genres. A lot of my favorite music is genreless,” he says. “There’s a wave of artistry that has challenged the notion of genre. Post [Malone] draws from country, R&B and rock and hip-hop. Doja [Cat] is rapping and she’s also singing. You can’t put it in a box.” 

All that consumption and absorption fed BRELAND’s prolific gift for songwriting.

After graduating from Georgetown, he moved to Atlanta, sold software during the day and wrote songs and taught himself to produce at night. He had songs placed with R&B artists Trey Songz and YK Osiris.

And he kept writing. Thousands and thousands of songs. By his estimation, more than 2,000 of them in five years.

In September 2019, he wrote “My Truck,” a paean to truck culture in rural America. With its amalgam of country and trap, he struggled to find a placement for it, so he posted it on Instagram hoping for 500 views.

AIMING FOR THE STARS: BRELAND performs at C2C in London March 11, 2022.   | Photo by Matthew Cuzen

The song exploded on social media and through the magic of the internet, found its way to Bad Realm Records, a joint venture between Atlantic and digital marketer and entrepreneurial prodigy Antonio Chavez. One of his employees — “an employee who is also my brother,” Chavez says — found the song on TikTok.

“I said ‘This is something.’ I instantly messaged BRELAND,” Chavez says. “He replied so fast, almost instantly. Boom, we jump on the phone. Maybe five or 10 minutes after I hear the song I’m on the phone with BRELAND.”

Coincidence, fate or whatever, it turned out BRELAND was flying to LA the next day.

“So the next day I meet him. The crazy thing is he comes
into the Atlantic offices with (Atlantic Vice-President of A&R) Ian Hunter and we’re in Ian’s office in downtown LA and BRELAND said ‘I stayed up all night and created this entire EP for you guys.’ He plays this EP and it was incredible,” Chavez recalls, still amazed three years later.

Chavez and Hunter took Breland to meet Kevin Weaver, Atlantic’s West Coast President.

“We ended up spending like three hours with BRELAND. He played a ton of music and I fell in love with everything about him. He was so witty, so articulate, such a clear point of view, but open to suggestions and ideas and input,” Weaver says.

And all the analytics that drive so much of the music business went out the window. Weaver knew this was a unique talent.

“At that point, I had this gut feeling that I needed to do this with him,” he says. “I smacked my hand down and looked straight at him, and said ‘I’m 1000 percent going to do this with you. I want you to be a partner with me and Atlantic and let’s figure this out.”

“My Truck,” released as a single off Breland’s self-titled EP, went beyond viral internet sensation. It charted and it opened doors and drew attention from across country music.
Not bad for a guy from Jersey who was writing R&B songs.

BRELAND peppers the names of artists he admires throughout the conversation — Sam Hunt, Lady A, Nelly — and notes they all do different interpretations within the broad country model. He admires artists who, like him, didn’t come from backgrounds or places that are stereotypically country.

“I loved seeing people like Keith Urban, Shania Twain, the people you don’t expect being able to win doing so. They don’t have conventional entry points in the format,” he says.

Sam Hunt told BRELAND’s manager, WHY&HOW’s Bruce Kalmick, that once people heard BRELAND his phone would ring off the hook. Hunt was right (and had the foresight to book time with BRELAND before anyone else; the pair spent three weeks together, writing 12 songs).

URBAN COWBOYS: BRELAND and Keith Urban behind the scenes during the video shoot for “Throw It Back.”   | Photo by Alaina Mullins

BRELAND booked collaborations with Urban (the two were joined by Nile Rodgers of Chic; a lesson in just how inclusive the music can be). 

And who else wanted to meet him?

“Garth Brooks, Lady A, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson,” Kalmick says. Not a bad list. “He learned how to be a country artist.”

Everyone on BRELAND’s team — label, management, agent — is more than happy to let him be him. He’s an artist who can open for soulish power-poppers Fitz & The Tantrums and soft rock king Josh Groban (April 7-9, 2022, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, selling 15,592 tickets and grossing more than $1.4 million), and appear on the third line for the first day of Stagecoach. He fits everywhere and he can win any audience.

“You’re up against the traditional molds of conformity,” Weaver says. “You’re having to break down the walls where they appear. The benefit is the ability to work with someone who is mentally creative and doing stuff that nobody else in any genre is doing.”

Matt Stubbs, part of the team at WHY&HOW, sees it the same way.

“We are strategic with what we are implementing for him. His music is for everybody,” he says. “The challenge is what makes it fun. There’s nobody doing what he’s doing.”

His senior team at WME —Kevin Shivers, Becky Gardenhire, Chris Hrovat — says no matter the crowd, BRELAND wins it.

“There’ll be young fans who listen to pop or hip hop,” Hrovat says. “Or older fans who listen to traditional country. He has a way of spotting them and bringing them into this journey.”

Shivers, who comes from a hip-hop background and grew up in Texas and, thus, grew up with country music, too, said he was always looking for an artist like BRELAND and knew immediately he’d found the right guy.

“He has a way with crowds that everybody buys in,” he says. “He’s blending the genres and he tries to bring people together.”

And it truly is all kinds of people, Gardenhire says. 

“My 12-year-old is into all genres. … that’s who’s showing up to BRELAND shows,” she says. “We tell these clubs, think about how you’re advertising. Don’t just stick to one format. It’s not just a country fan. There’s so many fans across every demographic.”

To BRELAND, it just makes sense.

“There are a bunch of people who come to BRELAND who don’t listen to any other country music. There are a bunch of people who listen to Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen
and I’m as non-country as they go. There’s a bridge being built between those worlds
and the gospel world and the R&B worlds,” he says. “I could have an R&B fan and a hip-hop fan and a country fan all relating to the same song. That makes for a really interesting dynamic.”

And BRELAND sees a deeper connection between hip-hop and country than simply rapping over a Shania Twain sample (though he does do that). It’s not superficial. It’s meaningful.

“They are rooted in the same types of stories, the same sounds and the same exact towns. You look at country artists who grew up in eastern Alabama and north Georgia. They were listening to Ludacris and Outkast. These are strong cultural ties,” he says. “Both
are people telling stories about their experiences, trying to put on for their hometown or their hood. Falling in and out of love. Trying to pursue their dreams. The stories are the same stories.”

No, BRELAND doesn’t look like a stereotypical country artist. Nor does he sound like one (he rightly notes that Chris Stapleton, lauded as a leading light in preserving traditional country music, is a soul singer; anyone who’s heard his cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” would agree).

“The fact is he’s a Black artist in country music. He gets that,” Kalmick says. “What separates him from Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown and Darius Rucker is that they sound like country artists, so that bridge is shorter. He has a very different tone. He’s a gospel singer. But from a social perspective, he understood the assignment.”

There’s no question country music, like the country that birthed it, struggles with race. Wallen had a brief fall after being videoed using a slur, but it didn’t affect his record or ticket sales. If anything, those numbers improved. There are few if any Black executives in the country music industry. Up and coming Black artists aren’t given prime opening spots on the major tours.

BRELAND says that’s where the change needs to come.

“Country music is built on being on the road. There’s a lot of discovery that happens on the road and the audience being exposed to new talent. If that new talent doesn’t include everyone, those artists of color, it makes it so much harder to build and come back to those markets,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of steps and effort being made institutionally. I’m seeing it from a streaming perspective. … There’s different mediums where Black country artists are winning, but only four can headline a tour successfully. I would love to see some of the bigger acts playing amphitheaters and arenas and stadiums take a chance on their first of three for someone of color with undeniable talent.”

BRELAND is hitting the road for a headlining tour this winter. After that? Kalmick says he can be on TV, he could make an animated series about his life. He could write more essays, like the one he penned for CMT about Wallen and talking honestly about race in country. 

“He’s a five-tool player,” he says. “He’s the future, the present and the past all in one.”

Weaver, Shivers and Kalmick all told Pollstar different versions of the same thought: “When he walks in a room, he makes it a better place.”

And the room he’s walked into is country music. Get ready.