Luke Bryan can't stop fiddling with his hat. "I just got a haircut and the sumbitch still doesn't fit," he says, struggling to get the fresh-out-of-the-box cap, part of his 32 Bridge line for outdoor outfitters Cabela's, shaped just right. Riding in an SUV in Nashville, Bryan, country's most popular — and most polarizing — artist is en route to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to give a private tour of his Dirt Road Diary exhibit to a pair of radio contest winners.
Current hat problems aside, the 39-year-old Bryan, flying high on the release of his fifth album Kill the Lights, which beat out Dr. Dre's Compton to debut at Number One on the Billboard 200 last month, doesn't have a superstar-sized head. Over the course of an afternoon spent with the singer, he remains down-to-earth and approachable — even while juggling a tour of his life at the museum, setting up a grooming appointment for his hunting dog and preparing for an appearance at that evening's ACM Honors ceremony. In the elevator with the museum staff, he asks how his collection has been performing and deadpans that he's going to bring over some underwear to add to the exhibit. During the walk-through, he breaks away from trailing security to sign a young fan's poster and makes small talk with others. At one point, he turns to the envious throng of other museum patrons who have gathered and jokes, "For five bucks you can get the private tour too. Pay me!"
Bryan is much more guarded interacting with the media, perhaps burned-out by the interminable "bro country" questions. He is likely also gun-shy following the backlash to an interview earlier this summer about country's revered outlaw movement. Bryan appeared critical of his predecessors and the comments got blown out of proportion, prompting him to call Waylon Jennings' widow Jessi Colter to apologize. On the drive across town, he asks warily, "So how long are you gracing us with your presence?" and is reluctant to even talk about a recent fly-fishing trip.
By the time he strides into the Hall of Fame, though, he has thawed. He brightens at the mention of longtime guitarist Michael Carter's chance at a CMA Musician of the Year nomination. Despite having a new album out — one that sold 345,000 total copies its first week, no less — questions about music, and the players and songwriters he surrounds himself with, can often take a backseat to wife and kid queries. He and his spouse Caroline Boyer, the parents to two boys Bo and Tate, made headlines when they took in the three children of Bryan's brother-in-law, who died unexpectedly last year. It was the third tragic death in the entertainer's immediate family. Sister Kelly, the mother of Bryan's two nieces and nephew, died in 2007; brother Chris was killed in a car accident in 1996.
Yet somehow, Bryan hasn't collapsed under the weight of all that tragedy. Instead, he's persevered, leading with an unfailing, blinding smile. It's his armor, the shield that protects him as he navigates handsy fans — one strict rule at his backstage meet-and-greets is no grabbing of the butt — online haters and media scrutiny.
It serves him well — you can't think of Luke Bryan without picturing that disarming, goofy grin. But his obligation at the museum complete, Bryan allows his face to relax. He walks back to the waiting SUV, which will return him to his management's offices on Music Row to sit for an interview with Rolling Stone Country, and jumps in the front seat. Dressed in black jeans and a paper-thin Buffalo David Britton T-shirt that reads "Malibu Beach," he's eager to get out of his boots.
But first he reflects on the admittedly weird experience of just seeing his life — from kindergarten photos to the $3,000 suit he was wearing when Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley threw him in a pool after the ACM Awards — behind glass.
"I remember moving to town and I'd drive the 440 loop and you'd see the Grand Ole Opry advertisements for who's there this week or a big billboard for what artist's album is coming out. I thought, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to be on that kind of stuff some day,'" Bryan says. "Now this many years in my career, I've gotten to see my name around town — and the exhibit. Stuff like that makes it pretty surreal."
Let's start by rewinding eight years to your debut album. Tell us about the guy who made I'll Stay Me.
It was just a funny time in my life. Getting this thing rocking and going. . . When you start thinking about how difficult it is even to just get noticed in a label. When you're the new act that just got signed, and there are so many acts before you and you're just trying to navigate how to do something to get people to turn their heads and give you a little love. When you get to the point where you have a hit, and we had a hit with "All My Friends Say," [but] a lot of people don't remember "We Rode in Trucks" was my second single and it died at like [Number] 35. It just broke my heart. . . But at that point, I was just naïve enough, green enough, gullible enough and everything you needed to be to just be good to people and stay positive and outwork everybody. I remember everywhere I turned around me, there was an artist that everybody was talking about. Not just on my label. "This is the next big thing." . . . You'd hear of an act, they'd get signed and then they'd have a single out and it was a hit. Then I'd be doing a guitar pull with them or something, and I remember wishing I had all that buzz around me. But it just wasn't working that way.
And then "We Rode in Trucks" failed.
I had thought that based on how successful "We Rode in Trucks" was to my fans I had gotten playing down in Georgia, [that it] was going to take me over the top. It didn't. And it was a really, really volatile point in my career. I still wish "We Rode in Trucks" would have been a hit. . . It's funny, because at the time, Taylor Swift was really blowing up then. And she had put "Teardrops on My Guitar" out and that took her over the edge. I thought "We Rode in Trucks" was going to be my "Teardrops on My Guitar." It was a tough blow. The day I got the call that "We Rode in Trucks" had died, it was a scary time.
"On 'Country Girl (Shake It For Me)' I put my foot down, and it was really scary for the label."
You followed up with Doin' My Thing in 2009.
The thing that stands out the most with Doin' My Thing was I had written "Someone Else Calling You Baby" and four other songs that I went in to play for the label as first singles. And this was hugely important, this sophomore album. And [Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO] Mike Dungan called me into his office and said, "You don't have your first single." I was maybe more devastated at that than I was when "We Rode in Trucks" died. Because I thought in my mind I had it. It wasn't like, "This isn't good enough," but it was like, "Go back to the drawing board." . . . What was so devastating [about] pulling back the reins was we had a timeline planned: Luke turns in the first five or six songs, the label picks one, the single comes out in March. But when Dungan did that. . . that just throws your whole mojo off. You're out on the road playing everything you can play, and you don't have a new single to push for four or five months.
We came back in the studio and I recorded "Rain Is a Good Thing" and "Do I" at the next session. I played it for Dungan and everyone at the label, and we decided to go with "Do I," which is totally not your typical decision to lead with a ballad. We were just scared about it. But we put "Do I" out and 45 weeks later it went to Number One and it was my first Number One. . . . And "Rain Is a Good Thing" comes out and, man, that was . . . really starting to feel good about this thing. Then we put "Someone Else Calling You Baby" out and it went to Number One and there's three in a row. It was just so fun for me to get some hits out there. . . . But I still really didn't know how to sing in a studio at that time. I didn't know how to go in and really dictate what I want as an artist. I knew how to write the songs, how to get them to that point, but I didn't know how to pick and choose and stand up for what I believe in. It was just about, "try to get some hits."
Was the label rejecting Doin' My Thing's first possible single more of a volatile moment in your career than "We Rode in Trucks" stalling then?
Yeah, that was the most volatile, as far as me feeling the walls closing in on me in the music business. 'Cause you walk in and you're all excited about the future and you're trying to put a right-at-average or subpar start — I guess it wasn't subpar, but nobody was going crazy about it, and nobody was ready to write me off . . . . It was a big emotional toll. It was tough.
There was little doubt that you were on the right path when Tailgates & Tanlines came out in 2011, especially with progressive single "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)."
Everything started coming together. On "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)" I put my foot down, and it was really scary for the label. . . . I just felt in my heart that this was going to be something fun at least. We put it out, and most people don't realize that "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" didn't go to Number One. It ended my little three-in-a-row Number One string.
But it defined you.
When you have songs that have so much polarity, where people either love them or hate them, the people that love them will kill for you over them, and the people that hate them will tolerate you until the next thing you do that they love. But "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" was the first time I had the most adds at country radio. I had like 34, 35 adds that week. Country radio just started playing it right off the bat. They were ready to throw it out there for people to hear and enjoy. And me and my wife sat down and we just kind of cried on the floor, 'cause it finally felt like all the hard work was starting to come together. We started feeling confident. It felt fun. This was the type of record I wanted to have out. I knew that when people heard "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" that they were just going to have a blast. And that's what I wanted to be selling, that type of fun.
Yet "Crash My Party," the title track to your next album, wasn't as much of a "fun" song as its title implied. Was that intentional to keep fans — and critics — guessing?
As an artist, I want to have songs that my fans can count on. That is what was so amazing about a George Strait type of career. When you bought a George Strait album, you knew you had some stuff on that album that you could truly count on. I want to do that with fans too: have stuff that they know they can count on, but you still have to spice it up. You can't ever get complacent with not trying to stretch the boundaries. "That's My Kind of Night" was the moment to go out there and do something a little funky and crazy. Was it a rocket science piece of music? No. Was it "I like it, I love it, I want some more of it?" Yeah. When I think about "It's alright to be little bitty" [sings Alan Jackson's 1996 hit "Little Bitty," written by Tom T. Hall], these are little ditty songs, and you have to have those in my opinion. You have to have the songs in country that people don't have to think about; and then you have to have the songs that changes their lives. That's what "Drink a Beer" did for me. That was the most critical song in my career. . . . [It was] something that they thought was going to be so cliché, so typical me, and then it wasn't. That opened up a whole realm of ways to go and things that we don't have to be scared about. Even with this new album [Kill the Lights], it's like, we don't sweat getting deep.
Were you surprised at the backlash to "That's My Kind of Night"? It became such a topic of discussion in Nashville and the country music community, with Zac Brown criticizing it as "the worst song I've ever heard" during a 2013 interview.
Well, the backlash of it. . . that was probably Zac saying that. But Zac and I moved on from it. It's old news. But whatever happens around what people say in Nashville, when I go out on stage and I watch people literally just having an absolute blast, and when I watch a six-year-old kid with a cowboy hat on in Dallas, Texas, and they are from a cowboy mentality; then I go to southern California and they're singing, "That's My Kind of Night." That's all the vindication. . . that's all I need.
The people I want to appeal to, they're not coming to analyze it from top to bottom. They have to analyze their daily life. Every day. From the time their alarm clock goes off until the time they go to bed; they want to go to my show and not analyze anything, and not overthink. They just want to hop on the ride and leave and go, "That was a blast." That's how you have to take "That's My Kind of Night," "Kick the Dust Up," "Rain Is a Good Thing." That's your moment to look for your beer under your seat and drink it and dance with whoever you came with.
Are you aware that Kill the Lights is the first album cover on which you aren't smiling? Is that representative of you releasing a more mature album?
That is funny. People have said that. I've had people critique me because my teeth are too white. It's like, "Well, do you want my teeth to be rotten out?" I don't get it. I got lucky. They're my teeth. They're not fake. I didn't go pick them out of a brochure. I don't strategically plan out music on an album until I am seven or eight songs in, and when I get the seven or eight, then that last seven or eight, I can really hone in, and go, "Well, I don't have my moment for my hunting people or I don't have my moment for my girls to get out there and party. Or I don't have my love song." Then you can really start fine-tuning the album. The same with the artwork. It's another aspect of where you get smarter about all phases of this business. When we shot Tailgates & Tanlines, we did a photo shoot, 14 hours, and by the time I got done with the photo shoot, I was ill, didn't enjoy it, hated it. With Kill the Lights, we did four or five mini setups, because my attention span is about three hours a day on something like that. The cover shot was me out on the road. When we start looking at the covers, we don't go, "Ooh, this is going to be the one where I'm not smiling." We go, "I like that image; throw it up there."
Your current single "Strip It Down" ranks among your best recorded vocals. Did you try something different?
We've gotten smarter about vocals. On I'll Stay Me, I did not know how to sing in a studio. I would wake up in the morning, and drive out 40 minutes to a studio, step up to the mic and try to sing. And my producer at the time would go, "You sound like crap today. Go home." Now, I wake up in the morning, and I know exactly that this is going to be a world class day of singing . . . or I can wake up, drink a cup of coffee, call my producer and go, "It ain't going to happen today." You have to understand too, [I was] doing these first three albums while doing 260 shows a year.
Dustin Lynch is out with me on the road now. I love seeing him on a Thursday. I'm like, "What have you been doing since I left you on Saturday?" And he's playing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Probably Sunday too. And then he's out with me. I remember how tough that was. It's fun watching new acts now, having gone through it. . . . "Strip It Down" is the first time I've used that type of character singing. I go back and listen to my heroes, and part of being a recording artist is developing a character for each song. I've gotten a little better at that.
What's touring like these days? Is it one big party or are you in the bunk after the show?
Early in my career, there's no way for your voice to feel good when you're doing 280 shows. . . . So now my deal is I don’t worry about it anymore. I'm pretty schedule-oriented on the road, to where I try to sleep in until 9 or 10. . . I do a lot of business on the phone all day and talk a little too much, but I've learned that if I feel it getting a little tired, I'll pull it back. . . . But I get off stage, right in the shower and shower for like 15 minutes, just chill out, have a couple vodka drinks. I visit with anyone that wants to sit around and visit, and whoever wants to come up on the bus, and about 1 o'clock hit the sack and start it over. Nothing too crazy. You start running out and hitting bars and talking over house bands, you're not going to do good the next day.
Your personal life is fairly public. Are you ever conflicted over how much to share, especially since taking in your sister's children?
This day and age, entertainers, famous people in general, their lives are a lot more . . . the transparency of everything has really hit. I was at Tate's, my son's scrimmage baseball game, and I'm out helping coach and it's dusty and I got dirt all over me, and I look behind the backstop and there are 12 people videoing me on their cellphones. That is unfortunate. At any moment, I can roll, do five flips out on the field, trip and fall — so that is a little unfortunate, but it is the reality. But I think transparency is good for fans. And then when you talk about what's happened in my personal life, with all the loss in my family, our modus operandi of all that is to help people at the end of the day. If they can understand they're not alone in challenges, and if I can smile through it, maybe they can.
How is it coming off the road now, with such a large family?
Every day when I'm home, me and Caroline get in bed around 10 p.m. and it looks like we have done a triathlon. It truly is. We did the San Francisco show and flew through the night. I landed about 6, and at 6:30 it was going full speed until 10:30 Sunday night. And Caroline is in the midst of it every day, and she's jockeying, and her sister helps and our nanny. It's kind of a village. But it challenges every day and you learn and learn. You try to get through it every day.
Do you ever reflect on how your family tragedies have dovetailed with your success?
That's just been the frustrating part about my venture in music. It seems like, gosh, every time we are climbing out of something like that, the rug gets pulled out from under our family again. It's going on 20 years. My brother passed away in '96 and about time we got over — when we were coming up for air, and my mother was starting to really heal more — then my sister passes away. We feel that whole cycle. And I've got this music career skyrocketing through all of that.
With my brother-in-law, his thing was coming to Vegas for awards shows. . . he's been at the ACMs for the past four or five years. And him not there [this year]. . . it's stuff like that. It's so dadgum frustrating. Even my brother, who probably I've talked about the least through all of these tragedies, he would have been the guy who would have been completely immersed in everything that's been going on in my career. He'd be in my organization. No one was more excited for me to come to Nashville than him. . . . It's a complicated thing. My boys, they ask questions. They're forced to have to figure out things that a seven and a five-year-old shouldn't figure.
On a lighter note, we conducted a readers' poll recently of your 10 Best Songs, and fans picked "Drink a Beer" and "Do I" as Numbers One and Two, respectively. You're portrayed as the party hip-shaking guy, but it's the ballads that the fans are relating to. Does that surprise you?
Eight times out of 10 at my VIP performances that I do before every show, if I offer up to the crowd, "What do you want me to play?" a lot of times they want "Do I." I think that's just a testament to country music fans really loving that meat of an amazingly touching song. It still has to be the cornerstone of what sets Nashville apart as a special place for music, rather than just fluff. And that tells the story. I think my career is so exciting, and I'm so excited about it, because I can give the light fluff and then go down that path of those [heavier songs] . . . like, on this album, "To the Moon and Back" and even "Scarecrows." I'm excited to constantly dabble in that type of music, that type of version of me, [and it's] as exciting as I am being known as the party guy.
There is so much vitriol online directed at what a lot of pop-country artists in Nashville are doing today, you included. How do you navigate that?
My frustration in some of that stuff is when you see a big long article about a show and they never reference what the fans were doing. It's like, "Well, you were watching me, picking me apart, but did you ever turn around and watch the fans? What were they doing? You came here with a one-sided opinion and you backed all of that up." [Laughs] I've never wanted to get wrapped up in the whole critiquing thing, but maybe I have a little more this year, because the bigger you get, the more you get forced to defend yourself from time to time. But I think I'm kind of out of that phase too. At the end of the day, I just got to watch the fans.
I've learned that you can have a five-minute interview and it can turn into a complete nightmare or you can have an hour-long interview and one topic of that can become the headline that is so unbelievably. . . it's just always disappointing to me. Because I'm very engaged with whatever I do, whether I'm talking to some woodworker building my house, or a fan, or an interview, I'm engaged to do it. The same way I am on stage. I am giving it my all and when that's not necessarily recognized, when it's the menial things that are showed [it's frustrating].
Do you ever think about what your legacy will be?
It's such a tough question. There has been an important person in my life, and I won't say who, and he did bring up that term: "Well, what do you think about your legacy?" I never really thought about it, to tell you the truth. I don't think you can think about it. At the end of the day your legacy will be who you were. When I met Lionel Richie, everything about his legacy was vindicated when I met him. He left you [thinking] your five minutes with Lionel Richie is about the coolest thing ever. So if my legacy is I circled this globe and traveled this world and everybody I came in contact with at the end of the day, they're like, "That's a cool-ass dude. That's somebody I trust from A to Z. It's somebody that I know he believes in God, and he believes in this way of life and he tries to live it." Musically, I think if I do all that, it'll show in the music, and then people will be able to feel all that through the music — and that'll be my legacy.
Where do you want to take country music next?
It is so fun moving needles on stuff, and then it's so fun when you see the cats behind you moving the needles. Where I want to take it is always try to get creative with the fan experience. When we did Crash My Playa this year [Bryan's inaugural beachside concert at a resort on the Riviera Maya in Mexico] I left there going, 'Holy shit, I would have loved to have been 24 years old and all up in the middle of that. I probably would have never left Mexico." When I think about the feelings that I had at Tim McGraw shows or Chesney shows, and I think about those, that's what these people are feeling watching me, and it's really, really neat.
As far as where I want to take country music, I want to get everybody in on the party. I want Nashville to stay Nashville. I want publishing companies to have to sign 20 more writers to grow their publishing companies. . . There are so many aspects about the music business that are flawed and are trying to reinvent themselves, I want to get it to the reinvention and start there and take it up. . . . I think some people forget that, heck, I was doing the Broadway thing and I was walking up and down Music Row and dreaming of songwriting stuff as much as anybody. I think I've taken it as far as I can personally, as far as mental goals. My thing is to constantly push to do better and smarter and give the fans what they want. And then nurture and lead by example.
Who are some of those "cats behind you" that you are keeping an eye on?
I love Dustin Lynch, because I see so many aspects of Dustin that were me. Dustin is that guy that loves every day, he just loves being at the party, and by that I mean the game. He's just goofy and naïve enough like me that he'll be a superstar. [Laughs] And Thomas Rhett. And Sam Hunt has just jumped off the page, right off the bat. He's carved out a sound early in his career. . . . Obviously, Cole Swindell, with mine and his history. I'm excited for fans to hear his new stuff. And I will always in these opportunities reference Chris Stapleton as somebody that deserves the Grammy nominations of being a miraculous singer.
You've played stadiums this summer and a slew of amphitheaters. While it may not be the 250-plus shows you did in your early days, how long do you see yourself touring at this level?
I'm still holding on to the ride. I'm still going out there and capturing every opportunity. I don't turn down many opportunities because I'm all up in the middle of this. This is what I asked for. This is what I dreamed of. I wanted all of this, so let's keep on going and getting it. I can't imagine my life without going and hitting the stage.
You'll see 90 shows a year, 85 shows a year, 60 shows a year, then for a long time 50 shows a year and try to make some albums and stay creative and inventive with how you make albums. Will I announce some ginormous retirement? [Pauses] I may announce a noticeable slowdown of certain aspects of my career that will simply be derived from "I can't keep missing [my sons'] football games." You can't keep asking other people to deal with what Daddy does. . . . I can't be that selfish, where "I'm going here, you're coming with me or you won't see me." That's not going to work.
I think about my parents. Every time I go home, they're older, so I'm going fishing with my dad for a week and a half next year, and let my mama hop on the tour bus. My son Bo had a football game on a Saturday morning and I played Phillips Arena in [Atlanta] on Friday and Saturday. Midway Friday, I was like, "If I don't leave Friday night and take the bus to Nashville and see Bo's football game, I won't see one this year." So I told my bus driver, "When we get done with Phillips, we're taking the bus to Nashville, parking down the street from the football field, watching Bo, getting back on the bus and back to Phillips." And that'll be my one football game I see. It's stuff like that. But I know my love for the fan experience will never change. My love for being onstage and interacting with them. That's when I can't answer my cell phone; that's when nobody can get to me in a bothersome way. This is my world.