NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As a kid, Kane Brown and his mother used to sing together as pretend "American Idol" contestants.
But when Brown actually tried out for the show years later, he kept getting rejected or stereotyped.
"They told me they didn't need another Scotty McCreery," Brown said. "I tried out for 'X Factor' and they put me in a boy band and I ended up quitting."
So the 23-year-old singer from the Tennessee-Georgia border near Chattanooga turned to Facebook to find an audience for iPhone videos of himself singing covers of songs like "Check Yes or No," by George Strait, a video that's been viewed 11 million times.
"I had like 3,000 friends on Facebook," Brown said. "I felt like if they thought I was good enough, they would at least help me share my videos a little bit. One day it went viral."
Brown turned those popular Facebook videos into a dedicated fan base that propelled him to a No. 1 debut on Billboard Top Country Albums chart in December. He had the best country debut in two years in a genre where fans still primarily discover new artists through the radio. He's had three songs in the top 5 of Billboard's Country Digital Songs Sales, but he's only had one song crack the Top 40 for country airplay.
Showcasing his deep baritone voice, Brown's revealing self-titled album is mostly autobiographical with songs about his deep love for his grandparents, his struggles with racism and growing up without a lot of money. One of the standout tracks on the album, "Learning," starts off with his experience of being beaten as a child by a stepdad.
"I was honestly nervous about even putting it on the album, but it had such a personal message to me," Brown said. "I just want to help kids that are going through bullying or racism."
Like many social media stars, Brown is engaged with his fans online, often responding to fans' comments, or asking them to share videos and increasing his reach. But as a kid in middle school, he was too shy to sing in public until a close friend convinced him to show off his vocal skills in chorus.
"I got him to stay after class one day, and I got him to sing "I Can Only Imagine," for me and our teacher," said Lauren Alaina, who later went on to take the runner-up spot on the 10th season of "American Idol." ''And the whole rest of the year they had us sing together."
Alaina and Brown got to sing together again years later on the song "What Ifs" on Brown's new record.
"I think it's cool because he got found through Facebook and online and I got found on 'American Idol,' and those aren't the traditional ways to get a record deal," Alaina said.
Brown's DIY success led him to open for Florida Georgia Line, one of country's biggest tours, and now he's on his own headlining tour. And no one is prouder than his first duet partner.
"My mom texted me and said, "I'm glad you won't have to struggle like we used to have to,'" Brown said. "And that meant a lot to me."
Follow Kristin M. Hall at Twitter.com/kmhall