As a four-time Entertainer of the Year for the Country Music Association (twice) and the Academy of Country Music, (twice) Luke Bryan has achieved a rare place in the business, garnering the admiration of both his peers and the public. The industry voters for the Nashville-based CMA recognized him as one of the music industry’s few talents capable of filling a stadium on a regular basis. The fans, who pick the California-based ACM’s Entertainer, view him as a talented, good-natured guy who – when they see him at those stadium dates – is still one of them.
Part of his rise to prominence can be traced back to Bryan’s relatable work ethic. He’s passionate about his job, and about improving, which ultimately requires risk. With Kill the Lights, Bryan’s risks succeed as he alters his sound a bit by adding a new co-producer and delivers songs that display sides of him that have never been fully revealed before.
There’s a slow-jam sexy vibe to “Strip It On Down,” an uncharacteristically dark edge on “Razor Blade” and a first-ever duet with a female artist as Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild joins him on “Home Alone Tonight.” Then there’s “To The Moon And Back,” the first song he’s recorded that’s truly dedicated to Caroline, his wife of nine years.
“With ‘Do I’ (his first #1 single in 2009), I think all of our family thought we were getting a divorce,” he says with a chuckle. “People would call me and be like ‘Are y’all okay?’ So now that we have ‘To the Moon and Back,’ I think people will know that we’re pretty solid.”
Solid is the perfect word to describe Bryan’s remarkably swift ascent to the top of the country heap. He’s placed 16 singles in the No. 1 spot, sold 8 million albums, 30 million tracks and accrued back-to-back double-platinum albums, earning the title of Top Country Artist in the sales-generated Billboard Music Awards two years in a row. He performed for 1.7 million fans in 2014 and 1.5 million in 2015, sold out eleven football stadiums and has co-hosted the ACM Awards four times. He debuted his now Platinum selling Kill The Lights at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 and top Country Albums Charts, going on to become the best-selling country album of 2015 and the 10th biggest selling album on the all-genre Billboard Top 200 year-end list.
The stats clearly indicate that Luke Bryan’s career is a big deal, but as heady as those achievements are, there’s no appreciable distance between him and his fans – even when there are 50,000 of them clamoring for his attention. When he played those major venues in the summer of 2015, Bryan spent more time at the edge of the runways than he did with his band, essentially putting himself in the crowd’s world as much as he brought them in to his.
“My focus in life when I’m on stage is entertaining these fans,” Bryan explains. “If it’s my smile and my demeanor, if it’s my song that does it, if it’s me picking up a child out of the audience and letting them sing, it’s not being so premeditated that you can see it from a mile away. I mean my main thing is I’m a fan up there that just gets to sing. That’s kind of how I’ve always approached it.”
Indeed, Bryan was still something of a fan when he picked up his first Entertainer of the Year trophy. The presenter was Garth Brooks, and Bryan gushed during his acceptance speech that it was the first time he was meeting one of his idols, who just happened to have started his career at the same label – Capitol Nashville – that launched Bryan’s career. Whether it’s former touring buddy Jason Aldean; Florida Georgia Line, with whom Bryan has shared five awards for the collaboration “This Is How We Roll”; or Taylor Swift, who invited him to make a surprise appearance during her Red World Tour; Bryan remains one of the most popular artists in Nashville because he continues to be such a fan of his fellow acts.
That appreciation for his peers is part of what makes his rise to the top so perfect. There are moments in the middle of his concerts when he’s aware he now occupies the same pedestal his own idols held. He’s motivated to match the grace and ease that they demonstrated.
“You used to see girls singing Reba songs at beauty pageants and their head was about to pop off when they were hitting notes, but there’s Reba up there never sweating and never breaking stride,” Bryan says. “She’s just walking around being Reba, and that was what made her a whole other level of performer. I mean, sometimes I’ll be up there and I think about me being a kid watching Reba. You take all that and put it in your memory bank and try to learn a little bit from it.”
Learning is a key factor in Bryan’s rise from the son of a working-class Georgia peanut farmer to world-class entertainer. Before he ever arrived in Nashville, Bryan hustled to build an audience, playing bars and college parties on weekends, then investing his earnings in studio recordings that he’d press and give away at future shows. He learned how to perform, studied what kinds of songs moved a crowd and began to figure out how to achieve the best sounds in a studio.
His diligence got him in the door in Music City, and he continued to sharpen the skills that are now the foundation of his career. Bryan’s first major chart success came not as an artist, but as a songwriter, on the rural-themed Billy Currington love song “Good Directions.” The basic elements in its storyline – country lifestyle, neighborly behavior, positivity and successful relationships – are the building blocks of his own character. At each rung on the way up, he’d take a shot at something he didn’t know – or wasn’t initially good at – ultimately figuring out how to improve his skill set and to add in a new element without compromising his own persona. In concert, that meant fumbling – initially, anyway – on the piano as he improvised a big section of his show. In the studio, that meant playing with microphone techniques, better understanding how his voice works and being willing to leave the studio when the muse just wasn’t there.
“I was always pushing myself vocally to become a better recording artist,” he says. “Up until maybe Crash My Party and this album, I’ve always felt like a live singer. Now I feel like I’ve become an even more solid recording artist.”
Even with the risks in Kill the Lights, he is still solidly Luke Bryan. The lead single, “Kick The Dust Up,” leans on the farm-party theme that’s become central to his persona, though it throws in a neo-Middle Eastern earworm to shake things up just a bit. “Move” has a familiar dance quality, “Scarecrows” pledges allegiance to his small-town roots, and “Huntin,’ Fishin’ And Lovin’ Every Day” documents part of the lifestyle that connects him with his faithful heartland audience.
“I’m probably going to get that tattooed on my body at some point: ‘Huntin’ and fishin’ and lovin’ every day,’” he says with a laugh. “I can see the bumper stickers. I can see the window stickers. I can see the T-shirts. We’re going to do it live, whether it’s a single or not.”
But it’s the risks that define Kill the Lights. After making his first four albums with producer Jeff Stevens, Jeff’s son Jody Stevens – who became a go-to Nashville musician after working with young guns Cole Swindell and Thomas Rhett – joined the production team, adding sounds and attitude that bring an R&B undercurrent.
That’s not completely foreign to Bryan. He’s often weaved Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” into his live shows. He also earned a CMT Music Award for a performance with Lionel Richie and incorporated a beat box into the arc of his 2015 concerts.
Thus, Bryan approached the tracks on Kill the Lights with enthusiasm, progressing stylistically with a sound and a set of lyrical ideas that fit him well. It’s why the thumping “Way Way Back,” the house vibe of the title track and the soul-ballad quality of “Strip It Down” emerge as successful ventures. Bryan is – like the digital generation of fans that comes out to see him on those stadium dates – a fan of all sorts of music.
That he’s learned how to incorporate everything from ‘80s Alabama to ‘90s Metallica to 21st-century Maroon 5 into his influences is one of the things that’s connected him to that audience. He’s one of them, and he’s enormously grateful that his music resonates with them. That’s a big reason why Luke Bryan is a box-office king. And Entertainer of the Year.
“When I walk off the stage, I want to know I gave them my best,” Bryan says. “I feel like the people deserve that.”