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