Brett Young: How a Baseball Injury Led Him to Country Music

By Brian Ives 

Brett Young spent most of his life preparing for a career in Major League Baseball; it was a path that took him to the pitcher’s mound at California State University in Fresno. And that was where his baseball career abruptly ended.

“I blew out my right elbow, opening night of my junior year at Fresno State,” Young tells Radio.com. “I was in the bullpen warming up, and it couldn’t have been worse timing: it was about five minutes before start time. I knew I was done. They had to start the game 40 minutes late, they had to warm up another pitcher.”

That was the last time he was on the baseball diamond. “It wasn’t just at that point that I thought that I might have a future [in baseball]. It was kind of what I was told my whole life. Or was groomed for. I played from when I was four years old to when I hurt my elbow at twenty-one. It was a strange thing to wrap my head around, that that wasn’t going to be my future anymore.”

He knew that a nine-to-five lifestyle wouldn’t work for him; luckily, it was around that time that he discovered singer Gavin DeGraw’s debut album, 2003’s Chariot. “I fell in love with his songwriting,” Young recalls. “Coming out of baseball, I needed to find somewhere else to put my [energy]. I felt like I had all this creative energy, that I needed to put somewhere and I knew I wasn’t going to get a desk job; I’m way too ADD for that. And I had to choose whether or not I was going to sulk around and be depressed about this elbow injury and the fact that I couldn’t play baseball anymore. Or if I was going to get excited about something else. And I really just enjoyed [DeGraw’s] songwriting. So I just picked up my guitar and started writing. It was a really quick transition out of baseball, but it was strange to take 21, 22 years of your life and go, ‘OK, that chapter’s closed, let’s move on.'”

He became a massive Gavin DeGraw fan: “I just said ‘I’m going to go to any [of his] shows that I can,’ and I ended up going to thirteen shows that year. The second or third one, he did the Hollywood Bowl with Avril Lavigne. I took my cousins, I said ‘You guys gotta hear this guy, you have to!'”

“And this is very ‘Gavin,'” he continues. “He would always stand out [in the audience] and listen to the opening act. Very unassuming, no bodyguard, not behind a rope, he would just go out and listen. And if people spotted him and wanted pictures, he was very gracious and he’d take pictures. And we spotted him. So I walked up to him and tried to be all sly, ‘My cousins would like a picture with you.’ Really, I’m the crazy superfan.”

“Later that night, we’re sitting at Mel’s Diner on Sunset [Boulevard] at three o’clock in the morning, and he comes walking down the street. [I said,] ‘I gotta talk to this guy!’ So I called him out and we sat out on the patio. At the time, I was about to make my first record. It was a five song EP. I was about to go into the studio, I’d never recorded before. I said, ‘Because of you, I started writing songs, and because of that, I’m making a record this month.’ And he stopped everything that he was doing and he spent about twenty minutes going, ‘Hey, these are the important things, if you’re on a budget: make sure you have a good microphone…’ Like, he started talking me through some of the basics. And he didn’t have to spend twenty, twenty-five minutes with me at three in the morning.”

He met DeGraw again, just a few months later: “Fast forward to the end of the year, I’m in Honolulu to see U2, Pearl Jam and Green Day play at the Aloha Bowl. I get there and I find out that Gavin’s playing the Honolulu Marathon the same weekend. [The show] was only for runners and their families, but I wasn’t gonna have that. So me and my buddy snuck into soundcheck. And this guy walks in, the promoter of the show, I think he intended to kick us out, but instead we had a conversation and he figured out a way for us to buy tickets. So I go to the show, and Gavin’s out listening to Jake [Shimabukuro] the ukulele player that was opening. I walk up to Gavin and tap him on the shoulder and he says, ‘Mel’s on Sunset.’ He remembered [me]! He goes, ‘I hate Hawaii, I don’t know why. I’m here for four days, where are you staying? Let’s have a beer.’ And we did. I hung out with him, I got to meet his parents, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s been nothing but a great friend and mentor.”

At that point in time, Young was living in L.A., and another famous friend he made was former Pussycat Dolls leader Nicole Scherzinger. “Nicole was one of the first people I met,” he says. “She had just broken off her engagement with Nick [Hexum], the singer of 311. When I met her, she was just reintroducing herself to the world again. We became really close, really fast. She called me ‘Big Brother Brett.’ She ended up being like my sister. We had a whole crew. We met these guys who were in a boy band, called NLT [which featured future Glee cast member Kevin McHale], we just had this fun crew who hung out four or five nights a week.”

Related: Brett Young: A Hopeless Romantic with a ‘Caliville’ Sound

He says that watching his friends’ careers has led him to manage his expectations; NLT’s career never took off, and Scherzinger, for all of her fame, endured delayed record releases. “Managing my expectations has always been my thing: to make sure the highs aren’t too high, and the lows aren’t too low. It’s not so much that [Scherzinger] gave me advice, but I got to watch her career, I learned a ton from that. It’s been a really great friendship for me.”

Eventually, though, he realized that he wasn’t going to become a star by staying in L.A. “Country music, for me, was a passion as a listener way before it was a career path for me,” he explains. “Back in the ’90s, when I heard Tim McGraw’s ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ for the first time, I realized that’s the music that I’m most passionate about. Growing up in southern California, there isn’t really — or there wasn’t — really a country music scene. It was just starting to get popular. Most musicians were more [like] singer/songwriters; just a bunch of dudes with guitars. And I did that forever, and I don’t know if I even thought about committing to a genre, of if I thought that that was the genre: ‘singer/songwriter.’ But meanwhile, all I was listening to was country music.”

“It wasn’t until about three years ago… I hadn’t signed a deal yet, and I was still living in L.A., I met a guy that became my personal investor. We just started having conversations: ‘Hey, you only listen to country music, you’re pretty much writing country songs anyway because your songs are so story-driven, why don’t we take a trip to Nashville?’ And we took a trip to Nashville and we made a record at Blackbird [Studio] in Nashville independently. And all the people I met on that trip made me realize that, not only do I want to make country music, but I want to be living in Nashville and working with these people. It was a slower process than I wish it would have been, because I spent about eight years wandering around L.A., not realizing that I wasn’t really committing to one specific genre. The second we did put two and two together and realized it was country music [that I should have been doing] all along, it all happened pretty fast.”

Brett Young’s self-titled debut country album, including “Sleep Without You” and “In Case You Didn’t Know,” is out now. Never miss a Brett Young concert date with Eventful.

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