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THE GRAMMY CONVERSATIONS: BRETT YOUNG

Brett Young got sucked into the tour of a Scottish cathedral, and he’s late calling. All that history and ceremony appeals to the writer of “Sleep Without You” and the platinum-certified “In Case You Didn’t Know,” whose music deals with personal excavation. Releasing several indie projects before finding a home with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine, the former baseball player/youth-worship leader is an unlikely voice in today’s hard-rocking country. His acute sensitivity sets him up as a postmodern Vince Gill, long on introspection and a sweetness that’s not cloying—and Country radio is all in on this veteran of L.A.’s Hotel Café. Young’s kind of country has people talking, even about the possibility of a Best New Artist Grammy nomination.

You’ve got some definite Grammy buzz happening. How does that feel?
You talk about the CMAs and ACMs, and they’re huge honors, but I grew up playing music in L.A. We all watched the charts, where only maybe three country songs make it onto the Hot 100. To be in that company? C’mon.You grew up playing baseball.At 5, I was playing organized ball. But it seemed like every guy in my grade was learning to play guitar, and it was difficult for me. So I liked the challenge, wanting to play well enough to do it in front of people. 

How did you start playing out?
I didn’t decide, I got thrown—almost tricked—into it. A friend in high school who was a senior said, “I need you to learn these six songs and back me up.” It was 775 people, and I was terrible. And—to be honest—it wasn’t just people, it was my peers. The next week, I thought I was backing him up, and he didn’t show. So I had to lead the service, play and sing. I got through it, backed him up a few more times, then when he graduated, I just stepped in. 

It’s a long way from worship-leading to honky-tonks.
I went on to play college baseball, and it wasn’t a Christian school. I was looking.

And you started writing songs?
In 2003, when Gavin DeGraw’s Chariot came out, it really struck me. He said some of the things that had been said before, but he didn’t say any of it the same way those other 400 people had. I remember thinking, “If I were a songwriter, that’s exactly what I’d want to write.” I was drawing from personal situations, things I’d really felt, and I was really good at pulling people into that. But as time went on, I realized they were basically all the same thing.

‘‘I grew up playing music in L.A. We all watched the charts, where only maybe three country songs make it onto the Hot 100. To be in that company? C’mon.’’

Is that where country comes in?
I grew up on MotownSam CookeB.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling.” In 1993, I found Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl,” and it brought me in. I was listening to Diamond Rio and Shenandoah and realized they weren’t just telling a story, there was emotion underneath. It stuck with me.  

You were leading a double life.
At places like Hotel Café, they can be pretty brutal. I got made fun of a lot when I did country covers. I’d maybe steal them away with an Oasis cover, then try my luck.

But you got through it, and then some.
It’s slow growth. It took me six months to even be in a room with other writers and be myself. I found out I didn’t know how to write tempo, or say anything sweet without being cheesy. I was insecure and scared. As men, we’re taught to be tough, so you go in the writing rooms clammed up. But I found if I kept it very raw and stripped down, I could go deeper and say more.

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