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