Luke Bryan Brings a Nonstop Nashville Party to LA as First Country Headliner at Dodger Stadium: Exclusive Interview

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Ethan Helms
Luke Bryan at Dodger Stadium

As the first-ever country act to headline Dodger Stadium, Luke Bryan made sure to stack the lineup in his favor Saturday night, with fellow Nashville hitmakers Sam Hunt, Jon Pardi and Morgan Wallen warming up the already pretty warm crowd on an 84-degree Los Angeles evening. But Bryan knew the weight of toplining the iconic venue fell squarely on his shoulders, and his plan to entertain the sell-out crowd went something like this: never stop moving and never stop smiling.

“It’s up to me to just try to have a blast up there,” Bryan told Billboard backstage hours before the historic concert.

And it was clear from the moment he hit the stage just after 9 p.m. PT that he was, indeed, having a blast. His one-man party was infectious enough to reach all 50,000-plus fans in the ballpark -- from the nonstop dancers in the pit who only quit moving long enough to catch a Miller Lite thrown by Bryan from an onstage cooler during his 2007 breakout hit “All My Friends Say” to the die-hards in the bleachers holding up glowing cell phones for What Makes You Country lead single “Light It Up.”

“Stadiums are a lot of work,” Bryan said before the show -- and he would know. The latest leg of his What Makes You Country Tour includes the “XL Stadium Sized” edition, hitting ballparks across America, including Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. Bryan just landed at No. 15 on Billboard’s 2018 Money Makers list, in part due to his $17.8 million earned from touring, making him second only to Garth Brooks (No. 2) in the country space. “You’ve gotta try to make 50,000 people feel like [they’re in] an intimate setting and an intimate environment,” he said about the challenge of such a large venue. “When you’re playing a 15,000-seat amphitheater, everybody’s right in front of you. When I get done with a stadium, I feel like I ran a marathon. There’s no just getting up there and nonchalantly making a stadium show happen. You gotta work hard at it.”

That hard work included running up and down, back and forth, across a massive T-shaped catwalk for two solid hours to make sure every inch of the crowd gets as close as possible to his legendary hip-shaking dance moves. It also included personal touches for the City of Angels, from customized lyrics (tucking “I wanna see those palm trees sway” into “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” or ending 2018 single “Most People Are Good” with “I believe Los Angeles is good”) to catching a Dodgers baseball cap from a fan early in the show and not hesitating to replace his own hat to rep the home team for a song.

Saturday night’s show was hardly Bryan’s first time playing the LA area -- he’s had concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, Staples Center, The Forum, Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino and the now-defunct Irvine Meadows -- but adding Dodger Stadium to the list feels like he’s truly conquered a market that seemed almost foreign at the start of his career. “It’s pretty overwhelming,” he told Billboard. “Growing up in south Georgia and moving to Nashville, you think about markets like New York City and LA and all these far-off places. When you realize your music has touched people in these huge markets out here, it’s very, very surreal, and when you have the opportunity to go into these iconic places and headline ‘em and sell ‘em out, it’s hard to wrap your head around it and something that you try not to take for granted when it happens.”

Bryan’s brushes with tragedy have helped give him that perspective, which is why his perma-grin and upbeat energy on Saturday night only made the show’s emotional peak that much more poignant. Near the end of the concert, the singer planted himself on a stool with his guitar in front of his band for 2013’s “Drink a Beer,” the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay No. 1 that takes on a whole new resonance in light of the untimely deaths of his only two siblings. In a concert filled with fireworks, pyro bursts and crisscrossing lasers, Bryan instructed his crew to turn down all the house and stage lights for the song’s final chorus, sung a cappella with the crowd in a stadium lit only by glowing phone screens. “Y’all, drink a beer for somebody you loved or someone you’re missing,” he said before joining fans in the cathartic chorus.

It’s the strength of Bryan’s hits-packed catalog that he was able to slowly steer the mood back to its honky-tonk heights following the somber sing-along, thanks to the progressively more buoyant ballads “Old Beach Roller Coaster” and “Play It Again,” followed by “Rain Is a Good Thing,” all leading up to the pure-party encore of “Move” and “My Kind of Night.”

Up close and personal for the party was a VIP section tucked into a corner of the sprawling catwalk filled with a lucky few Verizon Up members, who scored the unbeatable seats just by being Verizon customers and downloading the My Verizon app. Bryan said partnering up with the rewards program for his stadium tour made perfect sense. “Any time I can team up with a corporate sponsor and it all fits and feels right -- that's how it’s been with Verizon Up,” he said. “Seeing those fans down there in the pit with their Verizon Up badges on and knowing that they just subscribed to this program and now they’re at one of my concerts is pretty cool, and watching them down there have fun makes you feel good.”

Bryan has come a long way from playing Georgia Southern University bars and Nashville clubs early in his career, and he said playing a venue like Dodger Stadium is a dream so lofty he never even let himself have it. “I didn’t want to be a stadium act one day -- I never wanted to dream that big,” he told Billboard. “I kept my dreams attainable. So everything from here on out is just kind of gravy for me.”

Luke Bryan’s What Makes You Country Tour set list at LA’s Dodger Stadium:

Country Girl
Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day
I Don’t Want This Night to End
This Is How We Roll
All My Friends Say
Light It Up
Someone Else Calling You Baby
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
Most People Are Good
Sunrise Sunburn Sunset
What Makes You Country
Kick the Dust Up
Strip It Down
Drunk On You
Crash My Party
Home Alone Tonight
Do I
Good Directions
Mountain Music
Drink a Beer
Old Beach Roller Coaster
Play It Again
Rain

ENCORE
Move
My Kind of Night