From sold-out ‘Spring Break’ tours to rocking the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan is country’s next poster boy

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

It’s unseasonably chilly for the first day of spring, a fact Luke Bryan notes as he chit-chats with the photographer while ensconced in a Nashville studio for his Billboard cover shoot. He picks up a pair of dice and tumbles them, puts his baseball cap on, turns it backward and then picks up a guitar and begins singing Tracy Lawrence’s 1993 hit “Alibis.” It’s obvious sitting still for a photo shoot is hard for the Georgia native—and not smiling in every shot is even harder.

That restless energy is serving Bryan well these days as his career has shifted into high gear. And he certainly has a lot to smile about. His March 5 release, “Spring Break . . . Here to Party,” the first full-length physical album from his five-year “Spring Break” series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time atop the all-genre chart. It has sold 210,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

BRYAN + BILLBOARD

“It’s all a dream. All I ever wanted to be is a big ol’ country star and I cannot believe it’s happened. It’s the time of my life and I’m loving every day."

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Every date on the 21-city first leg of Bryan’s Dirt Road Diaries tour sold out. His recent headline appearance at the famed Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo attracted 75,242 fans, the second-largest crowd in the event’s history, and he’s prepping to co-host the 48th annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards with Blake Shelton on April 7 in Las Vegas. Bryan is nominated for four awards—vocal event, male vocalist, entertainer and album for “Tailgates & Tanlines.”

 

“It’s all a dream. All I ever wanted to be is a big ol’ country star and I cannot believe it’s happened,” he says in his Southern drawl. “It’s the time of my life and I’m loving every day.”

“Luke simply has that elusive ‘it’ factor,” says Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN). “He is a ramped-up Elvis. His stage performance and persona are ex-traordinary. His genuineness and sincerity are evident in everything he does. And most important, his songs are right in the pocket. This one is going to be a force for a long time.”

A native of Leesburg, Ga., Bryan honed his skills in local clubs before moving to Nashville in 2001. His first success came as a songwriter, penning songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, who took Bryan’s “Good Directions” to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Bryan landed a deal with Capitol Records and his 2007 debut single, “All My Friends Say,” peaked at No. 5 on Hot Country Songs and his first album, “I’ll Stay Me,” hit No. 2 on Top Country Albums. Since then, he’s placed 18 titles on Hot Country Songs, among them the No. 1s “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and “Drunk on You.” The latter two are from Bryan’s third studio album, “Tailgates & Tanlines,” which arrived in August 2011 and spent four weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums. It has sold 1.9 million copies, debuted and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and was the eighth-biggest-selling album of 2012 overall. It moved 1.1 million copies last year, finishing at No. 2 on Billboard’s year-end country tally. Bryan came in at No. 3 on the country artist list.

“Of all the artists that I know or have been associated with, he is as adept as any, if not the best, at recognizing a hit song,” KRTY San Jose, Calif., GM Nate Deaton says. “I know Jeff Stevens, his producer, is a big part of that as well, but Luke has an uncanny ability to hear a hit in a work tape.”

Deaton says that ability to identify hits coupled with the success of his first two records and his strong live show created a “perfect storm” to set up his third album. “Tailgates & Tanlines” was a game-changer for Bryan. “[The singles] took me to another place: ‘Country Girl Shake It for Me’ did one thing, but when we came out with ‘I Don’t Want This Night to End,’ it sent it to a whole other level,” Bryan says. “It was my third studio album and I had learned a lot from the previous two. I had been getting better as a singer in the studio and it just came together with the right songs, the right overall vibe, and then the name of the album says so much. That title embodies everything that we’re about.”

Bryan’s frat boy/farm boy persona is key to his appeal and the label has been smart to use that to cultivate a young, active fan base. “When we first signed Luke, he was playing packed college clubs around Georgia and the fans knew the words to every song,” UMGN senior VP of marketing Cindy Mabe says. “None of these songs were on the radio. They were just songs he had written, and those fans were always important to the vision we had for Luke. The young college kids taught us that if we wanted to keep them, we’d have to figure a way to keep them engaged, and that was by releasing music targeted toward them faster and more deliberate. That was the birth of the “Spring Break” tour and EP.”

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

LUKE BRYAN + BILLBOARD

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