Knitting Factory Presents
Lee Brice, Tim Montana and The Shrednecks
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Lee Brice is a craftsman, the kind whose boundless desire to hone his skills and relentless pursuit of perfection are matched only by his humility about the entire process. His latest album, ‘I Don't Dance,’ is a showcase for his painstaking approach to writing and recording, with his distinctive fingerprints clearly emblazoned on every element of the album.
Released Sept. 9, 2014, ‘I Don’t Dance’ debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and #5 on the Billboard 200, setting the stage for Brice’s meteoric rise in the country music world.
He celebrated the album's massive release week with performances on the Today Show and Letterman. He also teamed up with Luke Bryan for two sold-out shows in New York: a performance at Madison Square Garden, where Today Show host Hoda Kotb surprised Brice onstage with a career milestone plaque recognizing "I Don't Dance" as the year's fastest platinum-certified country single, and an historic concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the venue's first-ever country concert.
At the 2015 Academy of Country Music Awards, he was awarded two trophies in the “Single Record Of The Year” category as both artist and producer of “I Don’t Dance.” Two weeks later, he was invited to perform “Drinking Class” on NBC’s” The Voice.” The track not only went #1 that week but was certified RIAA Gold, marking his second RIAA certification in less than six months.
In January, Lee had a surreal moment when Garth Brooks invited him onstage in Boston to share vocals on “More Than A Memory,” “Getting to sing that song with Garth - my first number one as a songwriter - was a "bucket list" moment for sure,” shares Brice. He checked another item off his bucket list when he sold out his first headlining show at the historic Ryman Auditorium where he was met with six standing ovations over his 50 minute set. While Brice is now known as reliable chart-topping Nashville hit-maker, there was a time when he was only recognized for his work behind the scenes.
"I had success as a writer before I had success as an artist," says Brice, "so there's a misconception that I was a songwriter first and then started to sing my own songs later. But all along, I've really always been writing for myself. When I started writing songs at ten years old, it was because I wanted to sing them, and when I came to Nashville, I came to be a songwriter and a singer. It's all one thing to me."
After relocating from his native South Carolina to Music City, the former Clemson lineman dove headfirst into his craft, writing on his own and with a slew of talented musicians he fell in with. He found early success, with songs picked up by established artists like Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw. Though they may have been sung by other artists, those songs were stories from deep within Lee's own heart.
"'More Than A Memory' was a very personal song for me," he says of his breakout 2007 track. "I was thinking about keeping it for myself when Garth Brooks called, and that changed the whole dynamic."
It changed a whole lot of things. Brooks' recording of the track was the first single in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart to debut at #1. Lee's stock skyrocketed in Nashville, and that same year, he signed with Curb Records and began laying the groundwork for his inexorable rise as a solo artist.
He released his debut album, ‘Love Like Crazy,’ in 2009. The title track reached #3 on the Billboard Country chart and set a record as the longest-charting song in its history. In 2012, he topped his own success with ‘Hard 2 Love,’ an album that went Gold and featured three #1 Country singles, including "I Drive Your Truck," which won Song of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards. The record earned raves from NPR to Country Weekly and found the New York Times hailing him as "a sensitive macho man," a compliment that perfectly encapsulates both sides of Brice's persona. Hard 2 Love also garnered Lee his late-night debut, a stirring performance of "I Drive Your Truck" on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
"On my first record, I had all these ideas and sounds I didn't know how to get out of me," Brice remembers, crediting frequent collaborator Doug Johnson with helping him learn some of the early ropes of recording. "On Hard 2 Love, I stepped out and tried things in the studio; if they didn’t work they didn’t work, but often times those experiments and ideas became the basis of some of my favorite songs."
Brice took it a step further on 'I Don't Dance,' relishing the role of producer with a flair for experimentation as yet another way to mold and shape his songs to match the sounds he'd been chasing in his head.
"I wanted to have control over every drumbeat, every lick of the bass part," he explains of his meticulous approach in the studio. "It was a lot of really sitting down and thinking about every little piece that goes into it."
Rather than approach the record as a whole entity, Brice listened to what each song called for and played to its strengths, allowing the warmth and presence of his personality to form the cohesive thread that binds them all together. On the lighthearted summer anthem “Girls In Bikinis,” he built the track entirely from the ground up, playing every single instrument himself. The searing “Sirens,” on the other hand, was cut live and loud in the studio, with raw electric guitars and a banjo part that captured Brice's first time playing the instrument.
Other tracks grew out of drum loops and studio experiments, inspired in part by his love of recent albums from Bruno Mars and Eminem. Live-show-moment “Drinking Class,” one of three songs on the album not written by Brice, taught him a valuable lesson about hearing what the music calls for.
"We had ideas to put a lot of electronic sounds in it," he explains, "but after we cut it, I had a feeling that this is really a song about the working class, and it needed those sounds, like a sledgehammer hitting a railroad tie – stomps, claps and hums. I changed everything about it to get it back to its roots. Sometimes you gotta go to a lot of the wrong places to get to the right places, and that's not wasted time. It’s part of the process."
"Panama City" is another track that took a circuitous journey to its final destination on the new album. Written by his good friend Chris Thompkins, the track first caught Brice's ear a decade ago when he heard a stripped-down arrangement of it on one of Thompkins' work tapes.
"I couldn’t imagine it being any different than what I heard on the work tape," says Brice. "I wanted to do it live because I didn't want to give myself the option of redoing vocals or piano or bringing in background singers later. The engineers at Ocean Way Studios [in Nashville] painstakingly disassembled its baby grand piano in order to move it from its booth into the main room – which is an old church. We took our headphones off, turned off the click tracks -- no drums. It's like they did 50 years ago. We played it four times and the last time was perfect. I took it off the board exactly the way we recorded it and mastered it, and it's my favorite track on the record by far."
Perhaps the most personal song on the album, though, is the title track, which Brice wrote for the first dance at his May 2013 wedding. As with so much of his work, the lyrics are inspired by his undying love for his wife, Sara, but they resonate with a huge audience. Top wedding website The Knot recently selected it for the "Dream Wedding" they threw for a pair of Boston Marathon bombing survivors.
"Of all the songs I’ve written, it’s my favorite," says Lee, "and I don’t know that that'll ever change."
The earnestness in his voice tells you he means it, but with a craftsman like Brice, it's hard to imagine he's not already dreaming of his next chance to get into the studio and top it.
One thing that’s true about America no matter where you go: Hard work eventually pays off. Just ask Tim Montana and The Shrednecks, who recently commenced a springtime run as the opening act for their fellow mostly bearded rock compatriots ZZ Top (with a few headlining gigs of their own smattered in along the way for good measure). “I’ve been told I’m open and I’m vulnerable, but I’m just authentic,” Montana observes. “I’ve also been told ‘no’ all my life, but I’ve got thick skin. I’ll keep trucking. You’re not going to stop me. Tell me I can’t, and I will.”
It’s easy to see why Montana’s music connects with so many people far and wide. From the rip-roaring, swamp-rockin’ vibe of “Fifty Fifty” (which also features ZZ Top major domo Billy F. Gibbons on guitar) to the head-turning, fist-pumping stomp of “Gravel Road” to the down-home patriotic values checklist for “Things That I Love,” it’s clear this Big Sky Country native has only just begun. Of the latter track, Montana says, “It’s probably my favorite song I’ve written. That’s the story of my life right there.”
Montana’s passion for pursuing his sacred sonic mission has not gone unnoticed by his fellow musicians. “Tim is the real thing,” says Gibbons, who’s co-written quite a few tunes with the man, including the heady, good times fan favorite “Weed and Whiskey” and the self-explanatory “This Beard Came Here to Party.” (More on the pull of “This Beard” in a bit.) “He’s a little bit country with lots of hard rocks — or maybe he’s a rocker in touch with some serious country roots.”
A prime example of a “no” having fueled the country-rocking singer/songwriter’s creative spark came during a meeting where, as Montana recalls, “one label executive told me I might find a hit someday, but there’s no way I was going to write it on my own. That was on a New Year’s Eve. Instead of going out to all the parties, I skipped them, and went, ‘I’m going to write a song on my own, and it’s going to be great.’ And then I wrote ‘Low Class.’ Well, I don’t know if that song’s great, but it’s pretty good.” (Tim is being his naturally humble self here, but the fact is, the honky-tonkin’ manifesto deemed as being “Low Class” is a pretty damn great song.)
Montana’s path to musical salvation was no easy road to hoe. “I grew up living off the grid in a trailer in remote Montana,” Tim recounts. “We didn’t have TV, and we didn’t have electricity — we had lanterns and candles. But at the early age of 6, I got a guitar, and that was my only escape.”
Music was not exactly a priority in the Montana household. “My parents didn’t really like music,” Tim admits. “Music was not played throughout the house. We’d have to run a wire from our pickup truck to this little tiny radio, but it would only play Rush Limbaugh in every room.”
To get his own regular audio fix, Montana had to improvise. “I just gravitated towards music,” he observes. “I got CDs from the pawnshop my stepdad ran at the time, and I had a battery-operated CD player that I’d fire up so I could listen to a lot of ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Charlie Daniels Band.”
Soon, his guitar became his best friend. “I used to have to sneak my guitar out because my stepdad was against me playing music,” Montana acknowledges. “It was the only thing I did for fun, and I wasn’t allowed to take it to school. I remember my mom would create a diversion, and I’d open the back window of our trailer, drop my guitar into a snowbank, walk outside, and sneak it to school. One time, I ended up winning a talent show. And that was trouble, because it made the newspaper, and I was so freaked out he was going to read about it: ‘You won the talent show, and you’re not allowed to play music at school!’”
After spending some time on the West Coast caring for animals and going to music school in Los Angeles, Tim eventually landed in Nashville, but his Big Sky roots paid off in a big way when a certain music-loving talk show host by the name of David Letterman heard him play at a rodeo in Choteau, Montana in 2007. A year later, Montana got a personal invite from Dave himself to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman in New York. “It was really premature in my career, and I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he admits. “I was just a guy from Montana singing songs, and I got this huge platform. It’s my one shot, so I sang a song about my hometown called ‘Butte America.’ It got me in the newspapers in Montana and I went, ‘Wow, I made a headline! I met Dave there! I’m gonna go back and play some shows!’”
And while his Late Show performance indeed went well, it didn’t launch Montana to the next level. “I came off thinking I’m going to get all these calls from people, but that didn’t really happen,” he says. “So I had to keep working at it. I had to put out another record.”
Montana poured himself into his songwriting, which ultimately led to a worldwide publishing deal with the Spirit Music Group. And his honest work ethic finally paid off while he was in a Nashville studio working with noted producer Marshall Altman (Eric Paslay, Frankie Ballard, Marc Broussard). Montana’s fortunes turned due to the emergence of “This Beard Came Here to Party,” a song about the fun-leaning inclinations of having lengthy facial hair (that’s right!). “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Tim recalls. “It was September 11, 2013, and my mom called; she had just beaten breast cancer. A few minutes later, the studio door opens, and Billy Gibbons walks in with a guitar, and I’m like, ‘Holy … This is a really cool day!’ We ended up writing the song together, and we recorded it right on the spot. It was the first time I ever met him. He played guitar on it, and then he left. I kind of assumed that was the last time I was going to see him. And I went, ‘You know what? That was awesome. And if that’s all I get from that, then I’m grateful and happy. It was really cool I got to do that.’”
Due to some forward thinking behind the scenes, the song got into the hands of the Boston Red Sox, who made “This Beard” the team’s unofficial theme song in the midst of their successful 2013 World Series campaign. “It was immediate,” Montana grins. “It just happened so fast, and I wasn’t even ready! It was just a rough mix, but overnight, I was sent tickets to go sing The National Anthem at Fenway Park. At that point, before I got that call, I thought I knew The National Anthem, but I didn’t — and there was no way I was notgoing to know it! To this day, I can sing The National Anthem wherever, whenever — but that was scary.”
And who knows, “This Beard” may still have some additional growth in it yet. “Someone else could use it,” Montana concurs. “I think it’s a song that’s going to keep coming back. I mean, I don’t know if anybody else is aspiring to write beard songs,” he laughs. (You know, “This Beard” just might fit perfectly with any NHL team that has a “no shave” policy during an upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs run…)
Montana has a deep connection with the military, and not just because he wanted to be a Navy SEAL growing up. (A severe leg injury prevented him from pursuing that particular dream.) In the “small world” column, the first DJ to play “Butte America” on country radio station 92.5 KAAR FM in Butte, Montana just happened to be Tom O’Neill, the brother of former Navy SEAL Team 6 member Rob O’Neill, the man who shot and killed international terrorist Osama Bin Laden during a raid mission in 2011. “I heard Tom announce 9/11 on the radio, and a few years later, he began sending my CDs to Rob over in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tim notes. “Wherever Rob happened to be, he sent him my music. At the time, I had no idea who he was other than he’s Tom’s brother, he’s from Butte, and he’s a Navy SEAL. As soon as he got out of the military, he called me and he goes, ‘You’ve been sending me music for years, and now I want to help you.’ He comes back from doing what he did, and thanks me for the music I was sending him! It’s one of those weird full-circle things.”
Montana was also deeply moved by the movie American Sniper, the heroic yet tragic story of the late former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. “It really got me,” he says. “Why did he have to die like that after doing all these huge things? How do you make sense of that? On the Internet, I saw there was going to be a Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit and Auction [May 1-3, 2015, in Fort Worth, Texas], and I just called the number and volunteered to play. I offered to show up to play for free, because I wanted to be involved and do something to help out.”
Tim also helped out with his idea to, in conjunction with guitar manufacturer Gibson, design a custom Chris Kyle Commemorative Les Paul Standard Special for the auction, meticulously making sure the guitar included the signature skull logo and American flag motif Kyle’s SEAL Team used in Iraq. The guitar sold for a whopping $117,500, and the proceeds went to Kyle’s Guardians for Heroes Foundation “to buy gym equipment and help returning soldiers with PTSD,” Montana confirms. “Later on, I got with Chris’ guys, and they’re all good dudes. I don’t know exactly what they go through, but I have a good idea about it, and I just try to help. They’re courageous, brave Americans. I was honored to hang out with those guys.”
Montana and his band have worked damn hard to get The Shrednecks where they are today, and he feels there’s nowhere to go but up. “I want people to know I’m the type of guy who grew up with nothing,” he notes. “I worked my ass off and got shut down and told ‘no’ so many times, but I pushed through, and I want to inspire people. If I can do it, you can do it.”
Ultimately, Montana’s music is the kind that connects with what the country is feeling — especially right now. “It’s real,” he says. “This music sounds like America. I think I encompass blue-collar, hard-working people. I support our soldiers and our veterans, and I like our freedom.”
You know, when you listen to Tim Montana and The Shrednecks, you’re not really in a Red State or a Blue State — you’re in a Red, White, and Blue State. Tim’s music serves as the soundtrack for each and every one of us — and that’s a thing we all can love.