With his café au lait skin tone, tatted-up arms and Abercrombie & Fitch-model cheekbones, Kane Brown is not what the typical country artist—or country fan—looks like. But let him sing, and it’s dramatically evident that the soft-spoken Cherokee/African-American/Caucasian 23-year-old from Northwest Georgia possesses the strongest classic-country baritone since Randy Travis ignited the late-’80s new-traditionalist movement while inciting young people to embrace country. Like Travis, then a singles artist purveying a style of country it was assumed no one wanted, according to the conventional wisdom, Kane Brown is an outsider rewiring the inside of how music careers come alive beyond the tried-and-true equation: hit singles + good tour = new star.

Raised on country, migrating to R&B in junior high, then returning to country for the win at his 11th-grade talent show—performing Chris Young’s “Getting You Home”—Brown landed on something. With a true soul undertow, the videos he posted on YouTube—covers of Georgia boys Brantley Gilbert, Alan Jackson, and Billy Currington, as well as George Strait and Lee Brice, and his own originals—racked up millions of views. His iTunes downloads started coming in at #1, as he kept dropping a new song every three or four weeks. And his social-media presence was fluid and flawless, reflecting what constitutes a modern-day coming of age.

As Sony Nashville head Randy Goodman marvels about his unlikely breakout, “Kane is already a hard-ticket seller, who’s doing huge numbers of downloads and streaming without major radio play. Because of the power of his social media, we’re going back to fill in the places where most people usually start. It’s crazy, but looking at the numbers, Kane is connecting in a way most new artists just don’t.”

Like Merle Haggard before him, real life—neither an idealized Hallmark version nor frat-party black hole, but the rough stuff from the margins—fuels his songs. “Learning” stares down wetting the bed, child neglect, poor-kid clothes and being fostered by his grandparents to figure out where forgiveness comes from, while the gold-certified “Used to Love You Sober” taps a vein of reckoning in today’s harder-partying world. Because this kid is not candy-coating it, today’s young adults have someone who speaks their truth; he’s the antithesis of a brokered party-centric newcomer sanitized for the grown-ups’ protection.

“I saw Kane pretty much the same way everybody else did for the first time: on social media,” remembers Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell. “He came across a feed, and I couldn’t believe the numbers I was seeing. What he was doing in that first clip was so simple: playing and singing, not produced at all. But he was connecting with an astronomical number of people.

“I had to do a little digging to figure out if those numbers were authentic. Then he posted again, and BOOM!—same type of response, again, and again. The shortest way to explain it is I was amazed at the connectivity.”

O’Connell put the country ’n’ urban vocalist (who can rhyme when it’s called for) on 2016’s Florida Georgia Line tour. Brown did so well, he’s opening for Jason Aldean on his 2017 tour. He followed the FGL run with his own Monster Tour. By then, the momentum was full-throttle.

Long before there was a record deal, there were dates. As WME Nashville co-head Rob Beckham points out, “He played 85 sold-out shows—between 600-2,500 capacity—before he ever signed a record deal, and it’s grown. He’s young. He’s wholly of his generation. When the fans look at him, check his socials out, they completely relate to what he’s communicating. He is them.”

Beckham makes a good point. In this melting-pot nation, Brown is definitive. Fans and insiders are buzzing about the young man who’s found an audience without any of the usual delivery systems.

Spotify Global Head of Country Music John Marks enthuses, “Kane Brown’s music has impacted our audience in a substantial way. While his voice is as traditional as they come, his unique approach to reaching his fans has spurred an affinity for him that supersedes the norms for a new artist. Spend time with Kane and you realize his passion for what he does seeps into every move he makes. It’s why all those fans online and supporters in the industry can’t help but root for him to succeed.”

Beckham concurs. “People connect with this music. They’re seeking it out. They go looking for it, and that’s why Kane’s the biggest debut the format has had since Sam Hunt. And he can sell out the Texas Club in Baton Rouge, which is hardcore redneck, or pull 4,000 people—hard tickets—at [Fort Worth’s] Billy Bob’s in a storm. I can’t imagine how big he’s going to be when terrestrial radio catches up. It’s beyond anything in the format right now. He’s got charisma, passion, that voice and looks—and he writes songs that people want to hear.”

“It’s only a matter of time before radio kicks in,” Goodman asserts, “because we build these artists from an organic place to create believers. See the show, watch the response, look at the socials. Whenever a radio partner comes out to a show, they see what’s so special, and they invest in a meaningful way for the long haul. And that’s the thing about Kane—the long haul. ‘Used to Love You Sober’ got some airplay and made it to the Top 30. Sonically it wasn’t what it could’ve been, coming off his Facebook page, basically, and it went gold. That’s how Kane connects with people. This is where the consumer is so far ahead of us.”

Like Eric Church touring rock clubs, Brown connects outside the lines—but right in the sweet spot. He knows where the people are, and he writes songs that capture their imaginations. Producer Dann Huff, known for Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts, surrounds him with modern touches like phased banjos, loops and that staccato beat that combine to sweep the listener up.

“It’s amazing to see him go into a market with no meaningful airplay and do 2,000-4,000 tickets,” Goodman offers. “People are flocking to these venues, and the merch numbers are those of an arena headliner, which is unbelievable for where he is.”

Whether it’s the sweeping desire of “Hometown,” not a nostalgic paean but the desire to make the folks back there proud, or “What Ifs,” a duet with former classmate and American Idol alum Lauren Alaina that circles the faltering phases of young love, Kane Brown is unapologetically who he is. And that’s the key.

“He has great instincts,” Goodman confirms. “He understands his world and his fans. I think he could be a stadium headliner with a few breaks and radio play. His hardcore fans are women; they skew younger. When radio catches up, the sky’s the limit.”