It’s been a whirlwind of changes in his life and it’s often a nomadic lifestyle as a Canadian country music troubadour but Chad Brownlee wouldn’t have it any other way.
Brownlee, now 32, had talents as a young hockey player and a musician growing up in Kelowna but he also had that all-important inner drive to achieve, the motivation to be better than he was the day before. He diligently practiced and honed his skills.
As a teenaged hockey defenceman he played two years with the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers before he was selected by Vancouver in the sixth round of the of the 2003 National Hockey League draft. At the same time coaches at Minnesota State offered him a scholarship that would allow him to continue his schooling while preparing for a shot at professional hockey, and he enjoyed four good seasons on the Mavericks team as captain.
He earned a degree in psychology and he met his future bride when he started dating a Maverick women’s golfer from Red Wing, Minn., named Katie Mettling.
His interest in music also grew as he started writing and playing songs. In his last year with the Mavericks, he wrote an ode in memory of Anthony Ford, a young local youth hockey player who lost his battle with leukemia at the age of nine. The song, entitled “The Hero I See”, resulted in Chad being nominated for an NCAA hockey humanitarian award. It also inspired him to keep active as a philanthropist to this day.
After graduating from MSU, he went to camp with the Canucks and his guitar was along for the ride. It was still there with him months later when he was riding the bus as a member of the Idaho Steelheads of the East Coast Hockey League. However, his style of play in hockey was painfully difficult due to serious shoulder injuries and major surgery so he reluctantly packed it in after that season with the Steelheads.
He came back to B.C., working in Vancouver and became a regular at open mic nights. After a few months of the harried Vancouver life Chad and Katie settled in the rural tranquility of Langley, first in Willoughby and for the past three years in Glen Valley.
“We have an acre in the country and it’s a release from the hustle and bustle of the road,” he told The Star. “I live the life of a gypsy… I am away so much, five-six months of the year on the road.”
Not only has the couple’s Langley retreat kept Brownlee grounded and stable, it also provided him with the right connections at the right time to launch his music career.
“I had made my EP (extended play disc) and my engineer Alex ‘Condor’ Aligizakis said I had a country voice and should meet another Langley guy, Mitch Merrett, who already had a ten year career in the business. So the three of us sat down and had a long conversation at Earl’s (restaurant) and Mitch and I hit it off. He took a chance on me and took me to the top 20 in Canada.”
Merrett became Brownlee’s mentor, working as his guitarist, manager and producer of his self-titled debut album in 2010. He also took Brownlee to Nashville to hone his songwriting chops alongside writers such as Patricia Conroy, an experience which he says was “overwhelming at first.”
“The speed at which they come up with ideas, how they communicate with listeners; they are very proficient. Before meeting them I was methodical, more metaphorical with my writing. It came to me slowly but they helped me finish it.
“The trick is to not fight it, but put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I adapted and evolved — I still have one foot in each door, I like to leave some things to the imagination in my lyrics but I found a good balance.”
Merrett also introduced Brownlee to Mike Denney, who had founded MDM Recordings Inc. in Toronto just the year before. MDM has become an award-winning global operation, providing a music label and distributor (in partnership with Universal Canada), artist management and music publishing, and Brownlee has become one of its star signings.
“I was so lucky, the timing was everything. My albums first came out when there was no Brett Kissel, Dallas Smith, Jason Blaine happening. Today it’s become open season, with intense competition.”
Brownlee’s second album, 2012’s “Love Me or Leave Me” was another breakthrough, netting him a Juno Award nomination for country album of the year — Johnny Reid won that award. However, his third album “The Fighters” and his newest release “Hearts on Fire” continue to win him awards and the hearts of fan across Canada.
“Hearts on Fire” was released this past April and is nominated for the album and video of the year at the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs), set for September.
“Being considered the album of the year is special for me,” said Brownlee. “We spent a lot of time making that record, making great music. Erik Dylan (a Nashville-based songwriter) wrote that song (“Hearts on Fire”) and I fell in love with it and asked him if I could do it. I write 70-80% of the songs on my albums but the best song wins.”
Before the CCMAs in September Brownlee hits the road, or rather the skies, for a series of concerts from Penticton to Ontario.
“June to September is the busy tour season in Canada, playing festivals, usually on weekends so I’m home for three-four days of the week. There is a lot of space between places in Canada. We rack up a lot of Aeroplan miles.
“And in the fall, winter and spring I split my time between touring and writing. I did my first tour as a headliner in March of 2015, and that’s intense, 23 to 26 shows in a month, a whirlwind tour.”
Brownlee also puts a lot of time and effort into charitable work. Every year he partners with the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation, sharing the joy of music with young campers and leading music workshops across the country. He’s also contributed to the Boys of Fall Golf Tournament at Langley’s Redwoods for the past four years, which raised over $100,000 for the JR Country Basics for Babies cause last year.
He doesn’t get as much time to follow hockey these days but still skates with the Canucks alumni, and he keeps fit too.
“My dogs keep me active — I run, do yoga, work out. Keeping active is the key.”
Brownlee’s website is located at chadbrownlee.com and his songs are available on iTunes.