Luke Bryan's 'Strip It Down' Uses Sex to Reconnect
The cotton sheets, the dirty dancing in private, the belt pulling loose from his jeans -- if you don't know what Luke Bryan's singing about in "Strip It Down," you're too young to have had "the talk" with Mom and Dad.
Sex represents an intimate connection to another human being. Its power helps draw couples together, and sometimes it's the glue that keeps them from drifting apart.
That's what's underneath "Strip It Down," an R&B-tinged slow jam that uses sexual surface imagery to portray a couple that's working to recapture a spark that has been dampened by the distractions and responsibilities of the world at large.
"We get busy in our lives," says Bryan. "Me and [wife] Caroline will be at dinner, and we'll be looking at our phones texting people. You know, sometimes you just have to strip it back, and I think everybody can relate to that."
"Strip It Down" found its way into the cosmos in fall 2014 as Bryan was preparing for what would become his Kill the Lights album. He brought songwriters Ross Copperman ("Lose My Mind," "Smoke") and Jon Nite ("Beachin'," "We Were Us") to his Middle Tennessee property for a first-time co-write, and they hit it off, cranking out a couple of uptempo songs in the morning and afternoon. Nite took note of the distractions in Bryan's life: He had to pause for an interview between the two songs and fielded at least one phone call from management. At the end of their writing session, Bryan took his cohorts out in the truck for a tour of his land, and when they came back, he had a brief interaction with Caroline before the writers returned to the loft.
"You could sense Luke and his wife have so little time for those kind of moments," says Nite. "A typical artist is gone 150 days a year. When the rest of the world is just kind of chilling and grilling on the patio, those guys are out there getting ready to put on a show, so it's tough. Everyone thinks that star lifestyle is so sexy, but in reality it's very difficult to keep a long-term marriage going and keep the fire going."
That formed a backdrop for what would come next.
"He brought out all the old guitars he had sitting in the closet and just started playing them," recalls Nite. "He was playing a 1930s old Gibson. It had this warm awesomeness that only age can give a guitar, and he just started playing the chords."
No one announced that they were writing another song. They just wrote. Copperman scrambled to his laptop, found a backbeat that worked with Bryan's chords, then used a keyboard function to create what became a spacious, signature lick that established a mix of sizzle and melancholy.
"That piano just tells the whole story of the song to me, and that was straight out of Ross Copperman's brain," says Bryan. "When he played me that piano lick, I was just blown away."
Bryan started in on a melody that matched its mood, attached to stream-of-consciousness words and phrases. Some of them were merely placeholders, but others were the start of what would become "Strip It Down."
"He literally just spit the essence of the whole song out in like eight minutes," recalls Copperman.
Those lines included the Dirty Dancing reference and "Feel my belt turn loose from these old blue jeans," phrases that made the song's sexual content just a little more specific. Nite wasn't sure they ought to remain in the song, but Bryan had no intention of editing those parts.
"I've never considered that once," he insists, adding that it's no more risqué than Conway Twitty's "I'd Love to Lay You Down." "When I was a kid, I used to sing 'When We Make Love' by Alabama, and I had no idea what the hell I was singing in the song. So I think the song is perfectly tasteful, perfectly sexy and perfectly real."
It was also perfectly unfinished when they broke that day. Nite and Copperman continued working on it together as the weeks went by, and they would send new demos to Bryan, who invariably tweaked the words.
"Even while he was cutting the vocal, he was calling us thinking about bridge options," says Copperman.
When producer Jeff Stevens finally heard the demo, he realized they were covering new thematic turf in the most natural way possible.
"Luke has to write a song like that in order to be able to sing it," he says. "I don't think you're going to be able to send him a song that's about something that intimate and have him sing it. It's gonna have to come from him, and it did, so it was very easy to record."
Jeff and his son, co-producer Jody Stevens, convened a session at Nashville's Ocean Way, with live musicians giving the mechanized parts from the demo a more human tone. Session player Michael Rojas took on the keyboard signature, though after the tracks had been laid, Jody reintroduced some programmed parts to help the slow-jam groove.
Bryan talked about raising the key, but Jeff convinced him that leaving it where it was would accentuate the manliness at the lower end of his vocal range.
"It's all about me learning more and more with each album about my voice," says Bryan. "That's what I wanna work for: to become a better singer and to become a true recording artist. The only way to do that is sing a lot and try to keep learning about your boundaries."
Jeff had background vocalist Perry Coleman add multiple layers of long notes, creating an airy sonic bed. And Jody found a low piano note from Rojas' performance and used the cut-and-paste function to place it dramatically at the end of the bridge.
Once it was dressed to the nines and allowed to go public, "Strip It Down" made an immediate impact. Capitol released it to digital retailers on July 17 while Kill the Lights' first single, "Kick the Dust Up," was peaking. Stations started playing it on their own, forcing Capitol to release it on PlayMPE on Aug. 3, sooner than had been planned.
"Anytime radio gets behind something like that, we love it," says Bryan. "We were about 80 percent sure it was a single, but radio reacted within the first couple of days they were able to hear it. They went on and made it their single, which was awesome."
It was the most-added title a week ago, debuting at No. 31 on Country Airplay, and it rises to No. 23 in its second week. "Strip It Down" might be personal for Bryan, but it's not like he and Caroline are the only ones who feel that disconnect as a couple. Nite and his wife, Krystal, are plagued by the same issue, and it's likely to resonate with plenty of listeners battling to find balance among their home life, their jobs, their social life and their children.
"I've been married since I was a kid," says Nite. "We were high-school sweethearts, but it's very much a long-term struggle to keep whatever that first spark was -- the craziness, up all night talking on the phone, keeping that intensity. You need moments like the moments in 'Strip It Down.'"
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.