Luke Bryan has taken an unusual approach to the business side of his career since winning the Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year in April: He's turning down almost everything.
Rather than cashing in on his win and successful ACM co-hosting gig with Blake Shelton, country music's newest platinum-selling, arena-filling star has decided to leave sacks of money on the table, ignore television and double down on the live performances that have gotten him this far. Even Bryan can't believe he's doing it, but his logic is pretty unassailable.
"It's my first year in," the 37-year-old Georgia native said. "I won entertainer of the year and I ain't really been an entertainer yet, or what the definition of that is. I had the same feelings when I was asked to co-host with Blake. I turned the ACMs down the first time."
Bryan's eventual change of heart paid off by helping him pull in the fan votes needed to win one of country music's biggest awards. It was one of the most surprising upsets in the history of the ACMs - his competition included Shelton, Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean. The award is usually given to established performers at the top of the genre. They're not only selling oodles of albums, but also headlining arena- and stadium-sized shows and representing country music in a positive way to the world - and they've been doing it for years.
Bryan was just moving into that group. He reached platinum status with 2011's "Tailgates & Tanlines," and this week releases "Crash My Party," expected to be the year's top-selling country album. He's been greeted with sellouts at his first arena tour this summer. Turns out the fans who voted for him back in April decided it would be OK if the cart arrived at the same time as the horse.
Bryan wants to cement that place in country music.
"I'm getting really, really amazing TV opportunities where it's quite lucrative financially and it would have been stuff in different public spotlights," Bryan said. "I can't believe I'm turning them down, but when I huddle up with my core group of people and think about it, I think it's neat to just handle the headlining right now. I don't think I'm savvy enough as a headliner to start taking it for granted."
Bryan became country music's next big male star last year when "Tailgates & Tanlines" was the No. 3 country album of the year behind Taylor Swift's "Red" and Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" - despite being released in 2011. He was the 10th overall selling artist regardless of genre, and has already taken a significant step to being country's top-selling artist in 2013 with the bonus album "Spring Break ... Here to Party," a spring release moving in on gold certification.
The run he's been on means there were high expectations for "Crash My Party" even before he had finished recording it.
"I think I'd be lying if I said we didn't have a little extra pressure just because the third album did so well, `Tailgates & Tanlines,'" said Jeff Stevens, Bryan's longtime producer. "But you know what?
I can't ever really remember thinking about that when we were making the record specifically. We were just trying to make another good record, you know, that the fans will enjoy. The fans will decide, but I think we did a good job. It seemed a little easier - hate to say it, I'm knocking on wood right now - in that we felt a little more comfortable in our shoes this time and it sort of made it a little easier."
Like that album, life is generally coming a little easier, Bryan said. He's getting every opportunity a performer could ask for and he's reached all his goals long before he thought he would. So he's been re-examining how he'll approach the rest of his career.
"It's like an inner peace deal," Bryan said. "I've almost kind of got to redo my goals, you know? Now I think my goal is just happiness and being good to people and getting joy out of taking somebody fishing and putting them on a big fish or something, and watching fans' faces at my concerts. I don't know, man, everything I've ever dreamed of has happened. I think now I'm just shifting my goals into pure enjoyment."