Luke Bryan on 'frat-boy music,' the Confederate flag and why he hangs 'on to the positive' after overcoming loss

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On a hot July afternoon, the scene backstage at Luke Bryan's show in Northern Virginia feels like a verse from one of his good-times-fueled hits. The country superstar, 39, is happily tossing a football across a parking lot behind the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Bristow. It's the first night of a two-night stand, which means things are going to heat up after the show. "We'll have a fun little atmosphere, call some food trucks to come out," says Bryan with a dollop of South Georgia drawl. "Our whiskey bill is the highest in all of North American touring, I promise you."

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Bryan is, by many measures, the planet's ­biggest country star, riding a five-year hot streak where he has released three No. 1 Billboard 200 albums, dominated country radio and topped the country-touring heap, grossing more than $60 million in 2014, according to Billboard Boxscore. He could easily afford to hop on a private jet home (he lives with his family on a 100-acre ranch outside of Nashville when he's not at his beach place on the Florida Panhandle), but that's not his style. He'll be crashing on his bus, which is stocked with industrial-sized bottles of Crown Royal and Grey Goose and a TV tuned to fishing shows. "Fishing, outdoors, sports; that's about it," the singer says, switching the set off. "My damn ADD, I'd be watching a ­f---ing Evinrude [boat motor] commercial."

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Luke Bryan on 'frat-boy music,' the Confederate flag and why he hangs 'on to the positive' after overcoming loss
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Luke Bryan poses in the press room at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
Luke Bryan performs at the CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Luke Bryan performs onstage at the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards at Music City Center on December 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Recording artist Luke Bryan, winner of the Male Vocalist of the Year award, poses in the press room during the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards at Music City Center on December 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artists Luke Bryan (L) and Taylor Swift attend the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 08: Country singer Luke Bryan Performs On ABC's 'Good Morning America' at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on August 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/FilmMagic)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 10: Luke Bryan performs in concert at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, August 10, 2014. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
CLARKSTON, MI - JUNE 19: Luke Bryan performs in support of his 'That's My Kind of Night Tour' at DTE Energy Music Theater on June 19, 2014 in Clarkston, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer/songwriter Luke Bryan (R) and Caroline Boyer attend the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/AMA2014/FilmMagic)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 05: Luke Bryan speaks in the press room with his award for Entertainer of the Year during the 48th annual CMA awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 5, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 05: Luke Bryan performs during the 48th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 5, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: (L-R) Dustin Lynch and Luke Bryan attend the 62nd annual BMI Country awards on November 4, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)
CONCORD, CA - OCTOBER 17: Luke Bryan performs during the 'That's My Kind of Night' tour at the Concord Pavilion on October 17, 2014 in Concord, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - SEPTEMBER 18: Luke Bryan performs in concert at the AT&T Center on September 18, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 14: Luke Bryan performs at Barclays Center on September 14, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 14: Luke Bryan performs at Barclays Center on September 14, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0121 -- Pictured: Musical guest Luke Bryan performs on September 10, 2014 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Luke Bryan performs onstage at Fashion Rocks 2014 presented by Three Lions Entertainment at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on September 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Three Lions Entertainment)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Luke Bryan poses in the press room at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 1: Luke Bryan and his wife Caroline Boyer Bryan attend Day 8 of the 2014 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 08: Amy Robach, Connie Britton, Luke Bryan filming the season finale of 'Nashville' after his apperance on ABC-Tv's 'Good Morning America' on August 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 05: Luke Bryan attends a press conference at the 2014 CMA Festival on June 5, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
Luke Bryan poses in the press room with the awards for entertainer of the year and vocal event of the year at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, April 19, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)
FILE - In this June 10, 2015 file photo, Luke Bryan arrives at the CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville, Tenn. Bryan is launching a new mobile app with interactive features, exclusive content and live-streaming for fans. The multiplatinum singer with more than 4 million Twitter followers told The Associated Press that the app, available July 24, 2015, on iTunes and Google Play, will be another way for him to connect to his fans online. (Photo by Sanford Myers/Invision/AP, File)
Lionel Richie, left, and Luke Bryan react as they are announced winners of the award for CMT performance of the year for “Oh No/All Night Long” (from 2013 CMT artists of the year) at the CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, June 4, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP)
Luke Bryan poses for a portrait at Audio Productions on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Donn Jones/Invision/AP)
FILE - This April 1, 2012 file photo shows country singer Luke Bryan at the 47th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. Bryan is joining Blake Shelton to co-host the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards. The Academy announced Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, this year’s show will be held April 7. Bryan replaces Reba McEntire, who served as host for more than a decade before stepping aside to concentrate on her new sit-com “Malibu Country.” (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, file)
In this July 12, 2011 photo, country music artist Luke Bryan poses for a photo in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Donn Jones)
Luke Bryan performs at the 2011 CMT Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn. on Wednesday, June 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Luke Bryan poses with the top new artist award backstage at the 45th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on Sunday, April 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
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Sprawling on a sofa in a blue T-shirt, shorts and black Nikes, Bryan has the baked-in tan of a man who spends a lot of time with a fishing pole in his hands. In a few hours, he'll blast through a couple of dozen singalong hits (from his 2013 smash "That's My Kind of Night" to high-energy covers of Maroon 5 and Taio Cruz) for 25,000 fans. "I always say, if I ever get to 25 No. 1s, I'd try to do all 25," he says. "'I wouldn't want one person not to hear their favorite."

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Bryan's fifth album, Kill the Lights (out Aug. 7), should move him closer to that magic number. (His current tally? 11 Country Radio airplay No. 1s.) The disc melds arena-rock crunch, hip-hop beats, EDM effects and fiddles and banjo -- all in service of hooks and melodies crafted by teams of Nashville's hit-making-est songwriters. Bryan, who got his start as a Music City writer, worked on about half.

"There's no lyric that would be too country for Luke, but there's also no melody that would necessarily be too pop," says songwriter Ashley Gorley, who worked on Bryan hits including "That's My Kind of Night" and the new album's title track. "Even if a song has more of a hip-hop vibe, the story is still going to be something that he's lived out."

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Bryan has the easy charm you'd expect from a state-champ quarterback -- which isn't lost on the many women here in Virginia, including a bunch of daughter-mom duos. "My nieces, who are as country as they get, listen to everything," says Bryan. "If you think your 16-year-old bumpkin kid isn't doing the same, you're quite naive. They've got Florida Georgia Line, [Eric] Church, [Jason] Derulo, [Justin] Timberlake. And you hope you're in their playlist."

He's aware that some critics label his songs simplistic or same-y. "I've heard people say I do 'frat-boy music,' " he says dismissively. But Bryan comes by his anthems honestly. In ­college at Georgia Southern University, he ran wild with his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers, leading bands that got the girls shaking. And even now, as a family man pushing 40 -- he met his wife, Caroline, in college -- he can still sell a tune like "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." "At some point, me singing about frat party themes is just not going to be realistic," he says. "But if I look like a weird old dude up onstage, I'll be the first one to come to that realization."

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Bryan grew up working on his family's peanut farm in Leesburg, Ga. After college he moved to Nashville and cut his teeth as a Music Row songwriter. He scored his own first hit in 2007 with "All My Friends Say," an ode to hard ­partying and the inevitable aftermath.

Given that his fans hail from everywhere, from the Deep South to New York (he has sold out Madison Square Garden), Bryan's uniquely placed to weigh in on a contentious issue: the Confederate flag. "We're sitting here on the day the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriages," he says, sounding surprised but not displeased. "Where I grew up, I never understood the Confederate flag to be a negative thing. But if the Ku Klux Klan is going to walk around and turn the Confederate flag into their deal ..." He pauses, and shakes his head. "It's become a symbol of racism to a majority of people. And we live in a country where we have to listen to people's opinions and work it out."

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You wouldn't know it from his songs, but Bryan has experienced more than his share of loss. When he was 19, his brother died in a car accident. In 2007, he lost his older sister to undetermined causes and, in 2014, her husband to a possible heart attack. He and his wife are raising his nephew and two nieces with their three sons. "You don't want to sound like you love having them so much that you're glad it's the situation," says Bryan. "But we're honored to be doing what we feel was the right thing."

Things don't stay somber for long around Bryan, who still can't quite believe all of his success happened at all. "So many people get record deals in Nashville, and they don't ever get an album," he says, shaking his head again. "So I just hang on to the positive and wake up everyday grinding."

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.

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