A Conversation With Country Megastar Luke Bryan

Interview by Simon Glickman

Luke Bryan is one of the biggest stars in country, having sold more than 7.6 million albums (nearly 2.5m of those for his 2013 set, Crash My Party) and close to 30 million tracks, and selling out enormo-domes throughout the Land of the Free. He’s won just about every major award the genre has to offer, including the CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year Awards (the latter twice), a CMT Performance of the Year and assorted trophies for Favorite Country Male Artist, Top Country Album, Vocal Event and plenty more besides. His latest single, “Kick the Dust Up” (currently hovering around the Top 15 at iTunes) is the first taste from his forthcoming full-length, due on 8/7.

The Leesburg, GA, native, a peanut farmer’s son, made his way to Nashville at age 19; he released his first solo set in 2007 and scored hits with “I’ll Stay Me,” “We Rode in Trucks” and “Country Man.” A boatload of smashes ensued, including “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” “Drunk on You,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Crash My Party,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” “Drink a Beer,” “Play It Again,” “Roller Coaster” and “I See You.” In addition to his regular full-length albums, Bryan has released regular Spring Break sets that sell very briskly indeed.

Like many of his contemporaries, Bryan loves all kinds of music and incorporates hip-hop, rock and pop elements. He works the crowd and shakes his booty, leaving the reserve typically embraced by country males in the dust—and his fans love him for it. But for a sex-symbol star, he has a remarkably wholesome, cheerful vibe, says “dadgum” without irony and generally does his mega-selling thing with a minimum of fuss. He also, as you’ll see, devotes considerable resources to charity. But his philanthropic impulses were sorely tested when he spoke with us.

These shows you’re doing now must be mind-blowing. They’re so big.

Yeah, man. Touring, for me, is pretty dadgum amazing.

For you, is that the peak of your music experience?

Well, I moved to Nashville to do a lot of things that would expedite or facilitate me getting to do big live shows. I’ve always been a fan of getting on stage and doing a show. That’s how I did it years before I moved to Nashville, and I’m still doing it that way to this day. So that’s where the rubber meets the road for me.

Just getting in front of people and having these moments, and that spontaneous experience...

Yeah, that’s what it’s always been all about for me. I mean, I love the studio and the writing process and all that, but like I said, whatever drives people to the live shows.

Was there a show you saw when you were young that really knocked you on your butt, and made you think, “I gotta do that”?

Well, Reba [McEntire] used to come to my hometown quite a bit, and she defined what a live show should be. She was really amazing. My town was so small; Reba was one that sticks out. Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart came through back in the day, but I just always tried to dream as big as I could, and certainly, when I lived in Nashville, I tried to make my shows something spectacular for the fans to enjoy.

Having had those experiences when you were young, do you remember the first song you wrote when you realized, “This is a thing I need to do”?

Well, my first song was a song that I wrote for church. I wrote it and got to perform it for my congregation, and it was certainly a first step in me loving to perform. It was called “The Day He Turned Me Around,” and I can’t necessarily remember the shakedown of it all.

It’s a good title.

Yeah, It was good.

I thought we could talk about the upcoming album and the process of working on it.

I feel like we’ve outdone ourselves again, that it’s better than Crash My Party. It’s got a little something for everybody. Obviously, Kick The Dust Up is a big ol’ uptempo that we like to do live, but man, I’ve got love songs, songs that stir your emotions, fun dance songs, and songs about being country. I feel like we covered a lot of our bases and put together a really solid album.

Country is such a dynamic form right now, and it seems like you and a lot of your fellow artists who are leading the charge have been sampling and absorbing music from all over and doing your own thing with it.

Well, I think it’s a part of the whole evolutionary process of music and how the stereotypes all come down. People’s playlists have country, rock, rap, everything—it’s just about whether they like the song or not.

Some people get bent out of shape about where country music may or may not be heading. I just try to go with my gut and use my instinct on stuff I like. When I sing something, it’s going to be pretty dadgum country just by the way I sing.

I think the vocals are the thing that make a record identifiably country right now. It may or may not have banjos, mandolins or pedal steel, but you can tell from the singer.

I think that’s the defining thing. It’s a different formula these days. I like a big energetic live show, and I like to make that happen and drink a beer. There are songs that lend themselves to being extremely country, and there are songs that twist things a little and really may not be considered country. It’s evolved to where that can happen. I’m happy to be a part of this generation of country. Is it what it used to be? Are any genres of music what they used to be?

The party energy of the form right now, with all those hip-hop and rock influences, is so infectious.

Well, yeah. I think that people who want Merle, Willie and Waylon just need to buy Merle, Willie and Waylon. I’ve never been a “Those were the good old days” kind of guy. I’m not big on looking back on the past. I’m not an outlaw country singer. I don’t do cocaine and run around. So I’m not going to sing outlaw country. I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers—and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know. I don’t know about laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs. I don’t really want to do that.

There’s plenty of room for people to like Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Jason Aldean. We don’t all need to be the same. Sam Hunt is a different kind of country artist; he has his crowd, just like Eric and Jason do.

I think that’s actually really healthy; every fan liking every country artist equally wouldn’t be an optimal scenario.

No, it wouldn’t. It’s a sign of how healthy it is right now, musically. If everybody thinks that over a 20-year career that they’re going to like every song I put out, that’s a little weird. All of my heroes put out an occasional song that I wasn’t that crazy about, and you know what? When they put out one that I was crazy about again, I loved it.

Tell me a bit about your writing process and how it’s changed over the years.

My process is still the same. I just try to continue to think of ideas and jot them down, think about them, and work on them, and try to give them to my songwriter buddies in a room and write and try to come up with a great idea that can turn into a great song. If I can write 30, 40, 50 songs before each album and pick the best 14, I feel like my albums will stand alone. That’s always been my process.

Forty songs before each album?

Well, I like to try to do that. I wouldn’t say I’m the guy that can write 10 songs and they’re all going to be life-changing.

I was just thinking about having that much output, even if they don’t all make it on the record. That’s a fulltime gig right there.

Yeah. I’m out on the road and trying to write a song today. That’s what this business entails, in my opinion. You gotta pony up and write some music.

Can you think of a couple examples where you were on the tour bus or out somewhere and it was like, “Ping! There’s a song”?

Oh God, that’s 95% of how my songs are getting written when I’m out on the road. I’ve got a guitar hanging here in my front lounge, and at any moment I’ll pick it up and mess with an idea. That’s where it all starts.

You studied business administration in school. I’m wondering how, if at all, that has informed your approach to your career and if you could say a little bit about the business side of running your career.

Just because you go to school and get a degree, it doesn’t mean you’re a businessman or woman. I think that going to school, getting into the work place and learning by trial and error is the only way to truly define how good you are at it.

If you’re not a good person to work for, then you’re stacking the deck against yourself right off the bat. I’ve just always tried to be a positive, good employer and hear what people are happy about and not happy about, and go from there. I’m a few years into my career, and I don’t sweat the small stuff as much as I used to; I’m glad about that. It’s nice to be able to focus on what’s important, and try to keep a good mentality out here.

When you were first in business for yourself as an artist, you first got a publishing deal. Can you tell me how that happened? I know you moved to Nashville; how did it come about?

I just got to Music Row and just started networking and writing as much as I could. I worked my way up the ranks. I was mature enough to understand what to do—and what not to do—and I finally met some songwriters who got me in the door at a publishing company, and I had the songs to facilitate a deal. Did I make some mistakes? Yeah, but I got the deal, and it happened. There you go. I was off and running in the music business.

So who signed you?

Roger Murrah at Murrah Music. It was a small firm.

How long was it from when you were essentially pitching your songs to other people to when you first had your own project together?

That was all happening at the same time. I was building the writing and the credibility and all the while moving the artist stuff down the road too.

I wanted to give you a chance to say a little bit about some of your charity work.

As a country artist, you always lean towards St. Jude’s, naturally; we’ve been affiliated with the Shriners through the years and we meet a Make A Wish kid at almost every show. My wife and I have a foundation that we’re building up, and at some point it’s going to become more visible in helping children. Any charity that helps children, and obviously veterans, we’re all about it. My wife and I are excited about what we’ve planned for our foundation through the years.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

No, man; I’m good. Just loving life. You know, my new album comes out on August 7, and I’m ready to pump it up and continue rocking on down the road.

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