He owns a signature smile, has an infectiously upbeat personality, values his outdoor time and goes the extra mile to set an example for his kids. He repeatedly hits the top of the charts with songs about backwoods lifestyles and the intensity of love, and he sings ‘em like he means it no matter where his performances take him- farms, arenas, beaches of Mexico or sold-out NFL stadiums.
Add all of Luke Bryan’s attributes together and you have what makes you a country superstar.
In fact, he’s one of the most significant ambassadors for a genre that dominates heartland America. Both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music have proclaimed him Entertainer of the Year twice, the Nashville Songwriters Association International named him the Artist/Songwriter of the Year for 2017, CMT has hailed him one of its five Artists of the Year six different times and the ACM’s tapped him as their award show host for five-consecutive years. He kicked-off 2017 as the National Anthem performer for Super Bowl LI and in 2018 joined Lionel Richie and Katie Perry at the judges table for ABC’s American Idol, The show will premiere its second season this March.
All told, Bryan has won more than 40 major awards and racked up 21 career #1 singles, 11 of which he co-wrote, this decade as a solo artist or as part of a musical event. In the 10 years since Capitol Nashville released his breakthrough debut single, “All My Friends Say,” Bryan has accrued 3 Billion music streams, 12 million album certifications from the Recording Industry Association of America and 40 million track certifications, giving Bryan more certified digital singles than any other country artist. Luke was the most-streamed country artist 2012 – 2016.
When his co-penned single “Fast” hit the top spot Bryan became the only artist in the 27-year history of the Billboard Country Airplay chart to garner six No. 1 singles from an album. His Kill The Lights album beats his own history as tailgates & tanlines generated five No. 1 singles.
With the release What Makes You Country, Bryan introduces 15 more songs that represent the wide-ranging approach he’s applied to his music. First single “Light It Up” applies suspenseful production and reckless drums to cell phone obsession, “Bad Lovers” leans on quivering R&B inflections to convey a can’t-quit relationship, and #1 hit “Most People Are Good” uses a rolling folk treatment to unpack a series of reassuring bites of wisdom, and the title track bonds country with Southern rock while celebrating the values behind his superstardom.
It’s a mix of sounds, irresistible hooks and ever-changing attitudes, all delivered with a keen believability that’s become a hallmark of his performances.
“I always want to have a rollercoaster of emotions through the albums,” Bryan says.
He recorded the basic tracks for What Makes You Country in three separate sessions in the spring and summer of 2017, paying homage through the lyrics to some of his influential musical predecessors: Alabama, Ronnie Milsap and Alan Jackson. The album contains three #1 singles so far.
They’re appropriate signposts for the title track to What Makes You Country, a Bryan-penned title that recognizes the inherent diversity in both the sound of country music and those who live out its themes.
“So many people have a country background, whether it was camping a couple of times a year or driving out to the country and riding horses and stuff like that,” Bryan notes. “You get frustrated with the stereotypes out there and the nitpicking about what defines you as country and not country. My thing is there’s room for everybody to be country and come to the party. Come join in and just be happy about the little things in your life that make you country – or the lot of things in your life that make you country.”
Bryan’s own background establishes him firmly as a country soul. He grew up the son of a fertilizer salesman and peanut farmer in tiny Leesburg, Georgia, fishing in the Flint River and singing at the First Baptist Church.
“I was brought up saying ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir,’ ‘yes ma’am, ‘no ma’am’ – hopefully with manners –and raised with a work ethic and raised in the outdoors, fishing and hunting and playing sports,” he says. “Church on Sundays as much as we could, but just enjoying life and living life in a small town.”
He’s documented elements of that life in previous songs – including “Rain Is A Good Thing,” “Kick The Dust Up,” “Country Man” and “Huntin’, Fishin’ And Lovin’ Every Day” – and it’s a big part of What Makes You Country, too. The peanut dust in the title track, the plastic fishing worm in “Hooked On It” and the winding backroads in “Driving This Thing” are all direct from his upbringing.
Bryan majored in business administration at Georgia Southern University and played clubs on the side, and he learned how to rev up a crowd even before he ventured to Nashville. But he did his homework on other parts of the biz, too, particularly the songwriting. He got good enough at it that when he took an unfinished song to a meeting with Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Murrah (“Don’t Rock The Jukebox,” “I’m In A Hurry And Don’t Know Why”), he was offered a publishing contract on the spot.
“When I was able to impress a Hall of Fame songwriter to sign me with a song that I wrote by myself, I felt like that I had a little bit of a chance,” Bryan reflects. “And then, obviously, writing ‘Good Directions,’ and Billy Currington recording it and having a #1 hit, it kind of solidified and validated me even more.”
Once his recording career took off, Bryan continued to book days in his crowded calendar when he could still mine that writing talent. He’s composed such essential titles in his artistic catalog as the insightful “Fast,” the intimate “Strip It Down,” the rockin’ “I See You” and the anthem “I Don’t Want This Night To End.”
Tellingly, all of those songs went to #1. But Bryan also leans on the best writers in Nashville for material that helps show his personality. The Cole Swindell and Michael Carter-penned “Roller Coaster” ties in with Bryan’s series of Panama City-inspired Spring Break albums, the Dallas Davidson/Ashley Gorley composition “Play It Again” uses music to make a personal connection, and the Chris Stapleton and Jim Beavers song “Drink A Beer” speaks to Bryan’s friends and family members that have moved on.
“Everything we do proceeds from that song collection,” says Bryan’s co-producer, Jeff Stevens, who’s also written hits for George Strait, Alabama and Tim McGraw. “Luke believes that the songs that go on an album are the most important decisions – business decisions and artistic decisions – that he can make. They’re not light decisions.”
Indeed, as Bryan has sold out such large, iconic venues as New York’s Madison Square Garden, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Cleveland’s Progressive Field and New England’s Gillette Stadium and played 13 more stadiums during his 2018 tour- “What Make You Country Tour XL Stadium Sized.” He’s had 15,000-40,000 fans singing along to a relentless parade of hits; songs with catchy melodies and usually-bristling tempos, but they’re also songs that have helped forge a relationship with an audience that knows and understands him.
Bryan pulls back the curtain on his fascination with creating that material in the new album’s “Land Of A Million Songs,” a songwriter-centric lyric that combs the addictive pursuit of the perfect rhyme.
“Nashville is probably the land of 10 million songs when you look at the history and the heroes,” Bryan says. “I think about Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and all these guys when I hear this song, struggling, paving the way for somebody like me.”
The standard they set is part of what drives Bryan to put the material at the forefront of his career. The things he now sings about in his songs – the work ethic in “The Only Way I Know,” the small-town passion in “That’s My Kind Of Night” or the steamy summer excursion in “Drunk On You” – are what connect today’s generation of fans to Bryan.
What Makes You Country continues in that spirit, exploring themes that fit his audience as well as they suit Bryan. “Light It Up” (co-written by Old Dominion guitarist Brad Tursi) taps into cultural FOMO (fear of missing out), “Out Of Nowhere” explores the unpredictable nature of life, “Pick It Up” expresses every parents wish for their kids, and “Win Life” encapsulates an underdog’s successful credo.
Bryan knows a thing or two about the underdog finding success. He’s ascended from son-of-a-peanut farmer to Entertainer of the Year by honing in on a way of life that’s familiar to millions of working-class music fans.
He knows what makes you country, and he’s got what makes a country superstar.