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 s