The cheering began the moment the 500 members of Luke Bryan’s fan club fortunate enough to land free tickets to their idol’s CMA Music Fest fan party saw him poke his head out from behind a curtain and wave. Instead of making a beeline for his microphone, he strolled across the back of the stage and disappeared behind another curtain just long enough to tease the audience. Then, to the great delight of fans filling the CMA Theater inside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, he walked out grinning. That’s the sort of affably playful rapport Bryan has with his audience.
Once he was finally seated on his stool, flanked by members of his band, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year noodled on his guitar for a moment, making sure he could hear himself in the monitors, asked his tour manager to bring him a guitar strap and joked that this was a “very formal” affair. Really, though, the informality and intimacy of event was the appeal: a chance to see Bryan perform an acoustic set and banter with audience members at close enough range that stadium-style Jumbotrons were completely unnecessary.
Bryan sang stripped-down versions of hits such as “I See You,” “Play It Again” and “Kick the Dust Up,” along with his reflective new single “Fast,” and suggested everybody in the room buy 500 copies each of his upcoming album as stocking stuffers in order to help him reach a quarter-million in sales right out of the gate. (You’d think sales talk might bring down the morning’s congenial vibe, but the fans responded to the lighthearted suggestion with the enthusiasm of campaign supporters rallying behind the candidate they desperately want to win.)
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As the fans in attendance, the majority of whom were women of a wide variety of ages, shouted out questions between songs, Bryan fielded them with goofy aplomb. Any plans to put on a concert in Brooklyn soon? No, but he does have a date on the books in a town in New York state with “farm” in its name. (FarmBorough) Was his wife, Caroline, there with him? No, she was at a tennis tournament.
When Bryan’s set closer, “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” turned into a singalong, he egged on the spontaneous singers with a flirtatious, tigerish growl. Before disappearing backstage, he grabbed a cell phone and snapped several selfies capturing the throng of fans who’d rushed down front. Everybody in the theater came away with a drawstring goody bag containing a shot glass, a beer bottle coozie, an autographed CD insert, neon knockoffs of Wayfarer sunglasses and a pass to tour his Dirt Road Diary exhibit upstairs.
Those who made use of the pass found an array of artifacts that illustrate the persona they’d just encountered: a little league jersey and baseball glove; Bryan’s first guitar and song lyrics; t-shirts from his college frat party band; a banner announcing his spring break shows; a compound bow, shotgun and fishing reel; at least half a dozen pairs of the famously snug-fitting designer jeans he’s worn, and wiggled in, on stage; and a slew of major trophies and plaques. Those are hallmarks of the way Bryan mixes work and play, which is a big part of what’s won him all those fans in the first place. When he sings, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” he doesn’t take himself too seriously to “shake it” too.