Brett Young has checked a lot of boxes off his bucket list over the past year.
Number-one single, check. (Four of them actually.)
Platinum-selling album, check.
Academy of Country Music award, check. (New Male Vocalist of the Year.)
Play Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, check.
Write a song with your idol, check. (Gavin DeGraw)
Get engaged, check.
Buy a house, check.
Although he’s made a major splash in music, the 37-year-old Southern California native had originally hoped to play professional baseball and even went to Ole Miss on a baseball scholarship. An elbow injury put an end to that dream — but opened up another door for this minister’s son.
“Tommy John surgery is really common in baseball these days, and you can come back from it,” he said, “but the timing made me miss my junior and senior years of college. Baseball had just kind of burned itself out for me at that point. I would have had to go to walk-on tryouts at that point for pro teams and it felt like beating my head against the wall, so I started following the Dave Matthews Band and Gavin DeGraw around the country and slowly realized I wanted to play and sing. And Gavin’s record made me realize I wanted to write as well.”
He spent the next 11 years as a self-described “starving artist” in Los Angeles before making the jump to Nashville where he signed with Big Machine Label Group. He released his eponymous album in 2016, writing 11 of the 12 tracks, and his distinct West Coast-meets-country sound quickly caught the attention of country radio and fans. That album spawned four top-charting singles — “Sleep Without You,” “Like I Loved You,” “In Case You Didn’t Know” and “Mercy” — and has since been certified platinum.
He said because he grew up listening to country music — Tim McGraw, Diamond Rio, Shenandoah, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks — his sound didn’t change much when he made the move east to Nashville.
“I was one of the few Southern California kids I knew who listened to country music,” he said. “So when I moved to Nashville, the only thing that really changed was production. The songwriting and the songs didn’t change.”
He credits his producer, however, with helping him break through. “You give anything to Dann Huff and he can turn it into a masterpiece,” Young said. “He heard me playing — just me and my guitar — and he had a vision for the record, and that’s what everybody heard. He really is a genius. He changed my life.”
On Dec. 7, Young will team up with Huff again to release his second album, “Ticket to L.A.” Young is also credited as a cowriter on all 13 songs and the first single, “Here Tonight,” is already getting some solid airplay. To promote the album, he’s pounding the pavement and was recently in New York to record a performance for Front and Center at Opry City Stage where he wowed the crowd with a rousing, yet intimate, performance, sprinkling in some new music in with his hits.
Although he’s getting used to it, listening to the crowd sing every word to his songs is still a head-shaking moment for him.
“One thing I always try to do is manage my expectations to avoid being let down,” he said, “but even if I had let myself believe and go for it, I don’t think I would have assumed four platinum singles, one of them three times platinum, a platinum album — I mean that would have felt really lofty to me. So every bit of it has been kind of shocking. I’m not mad about it though,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Much like the first, the second offers fans an intimate glimpse inside the singer’s life. And because he just recently got engaged to longtime girlfriend Taylor Mills, it’s definitely got a happy bent.
“I don’t think it’s any more or less personal than the first record, but it reflects me being in a different place in my life,” he said. “The first record was heartbreak and the second is happily ever after, so it’s different stages, but kind of the same approach. But it’d be a terrible record if we put out 13 songs about how happy I was. There’s definitely a little something for everybody.”
What has connected Young to his fans is his willingness to lay it all out there in his music. One cut on the new album, “Chapters,” was cowritten with DeGraw, who is also a guest vocalist on the cut, and talks about his childhood, the shattering of his baseball dreams and his move into music.
“The song with Gavin is the first time we really dove into my life,” he said. “We started with my childhood and worked our way all the way up to music.”
On both albums, Young exhibits “openness, honesty and vulnerability. I think that the best way for people to be able to relate to your music is if you leave it all out there,” he said. “If you’re holding back, what do you expect from a listener? But if you’re being real, it kind of makes them feel comfortable to open up and feel that, too. And I think that’s where the connection to music happens.”
For 14 or so years, he’s felt connected to DeGraw, who he saw in concert 13 times after his album “Chariot” came out. Young went to meet-and-greets, but one day after a show at the Greek Theater in L.A., Young “did the whole 3 a.m. thing, leaving the club and going to Mel’s Diner on Sunset. We’re sitting at a patio table and Gavin comes walking down Sunset. And I had the audacity to just yell: ‘Hey, I literally quit my job to pursue music because of your record.’” DeGraw stopped, sat down with Young and spent 20 minutes giving him advice on the music industry.
They met again in Hawaii later that year and have been friends since. Even so, Young “never wanted to mix business with pleasure and have him worry about what my intentions were. So it wasn’t until this year with us both living in Nashville and spending a lot of time together that I finally casually brought up writing together,” Young said. “His only stipulation was that if we were going to write a song together, it needed to be my song, my story. And the fact that he sang in the third verse just made even more sense. I got to check two boxes with that: I got to write a song with him and be on a record with him, it’s pretty special.”
Something else that’ll be special are his upcoming nuptials. Although he’s keeping the date and location under wraps, it’ll be sometime this fall in Southern California. He’s on tour with Thomas Rhett, but when that ends, he’ll turn his attention to Mills and his next chapter.
While he was on the media tour in New York, Mills had to move into the new home they bought in Nashville without him. But he’s not worried. “Taylor and I met 10 years ago, so we’ve been a fixture in each other’s lives for a really long time,” he said. “She went to school for design so there’s a woman’s touch, but it’s not girly. It has a vibe and a style to it — far better than anything I could ever put into it. She makes a house feel like a home for sure.”
Then it’s back on the road for a CMT Tour starting Nov. 16 with Tyler Rich and Rachel Wammack. “The album releases Dec. 7, but we play all the way through Dec. 28,” he said. “It was important to me to be out playing the new songs the month the record came out. We’ll take a little bit of January and then 2019 is already filling up really fast. It’ll be a busy first year of married life, but we’re looking forward to it.”
In addition to his music, Young is also the newly inked face of William Rast, another project he wasn’t quite expecting. He said he was in New York meeting with One Jeanswear Group chief Jack Gross about possibly working together on something at the same time they found out William Rast cofounder Justin Timberlake was too busy to continue doing photo shoots for the label.
“They needed somebody who was available enough to be their new face of the brand,” he said. “I’m a crazy Justin Timberlake fan so it was a no-brainer for me.”
Does that mean there’s a collaboration with Timberlake in his future? “If you have his phone number, let me know. I would love to put Justin on a record,” he said.
That aside, the William Rast aesthetic also fits his personal style, which he described as “Southern California, probably to a fault. I’m jeans, tennis shoes, flip-flops, T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball hats. Comfort is first for me and I think when people are comfortable, they look happy and when they look happy, they look better.”
And Young is nothing if not happy.
“This has already become something much bigger than I would have ever dreamed,” he said. And looking ahead, “I want to stay out of the way of it and hope it keeps going. For me, it was never about celebrity or wealth, it was always about doing something I love and have that put food on the table. I’m getting married this year and we’re really excited to start a family, so for me, the responsibility is to continue to take good enough care of the music that I can pay the bills for a long time.”