“He who has not passed through calamity knows not the blessings of security,” reads the inscription on a lintel above the front door to American Legion Hollywood Post 43 in Los Angeles. On the first Monday in May, country singer Luke Bryan is posing for photos in front of the stately Egyptian Revival building that’s home to Post 43, whose members have included Ronald Reagan and country singer/movie star Gene Autry.
Although Bryan doesn't take notice of the lintel, it feels almost like his own Biblical proverb. Calamity and security have been the twin themes of his tumultuous personal life and flourishing music career, working in tandem rather than opposition.
No one better embodies country music in this decade -- its sound, its inventions, its risks and rewards, and if we’re being blunt, its capacity for making some people deliriously happy and others murderously aggrieved -- than this broad-shouldered, 41-year-old singer-songwriter from Southwest Georgia. What you think of Bryan, who integrates elements of hip-hop, arena rock and R&B in his music, is what you think of mainstream country music.
If you love country post-Garth, you love Luke. If you hate it -- if you think it has betrayed its roots, corrupted itself with cheap lyrics and drum loops -- well, Luke Bryan is something like Satan.
The numbers are overwhelming. Earlier in 2018, with “Most People Are Good,” he scored a No. 1 song on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart for the 19th time. (He co-wrote 10 of those smashes.) He has won the coveted entertainer of the year award twice from the Academy of Country Music and twice also from the Country Music Association (CMA). In 2017, while on tour, he performed for nearly 1 million fans, according to Billboard Boxscore. He sang the national anthem at last year’s Super Bowl, has hosted the ACM Awards five times, accrued 1 billion streams in 2017 (according to Nielsen Music) and is a judge on the reboot of American Idol (which was renewed for a second season). Also, a YouTube supercut of him grinding and wiggling his butt onstage has over 4 million views.
That last number starts to get at the reasons Bryan was the frequent target of a subreddit called “Punchable Country Faces.” Comments on the supercut video include “I don’t even like country music but I like dat ass,” “Basically porn for the country girls,” and “This video made my ovaries explode.” Country is a music of traditions, and its traditions do not include making ovaries explode. Hank Williams didn't make ovaries explode! Waylon Jennings didn't make ovaries explode! George Strait never -- well, hold on, maybe he did.
“You know what Motel 6 and Luke’s jeans have in common?” Blake Shelton once wisecracked. “There’s no ballroom.”
When he isn't shaking his tushy onstage, Bryan’s recording songs that are about the good life in the South. He’s one of many male singers doing the same thing, and you could make a Country Music Bingo card with the words that appear, over and over, in bro-country hits for the past few years: boots, truck, fishing, tractor, back road, party, cutoff jeans, tan legs, tank tops and girl.
Writing in the Dallas Observer, critic Amy McCarthy called Bryan “the father of bro-country” and said his music degrades and infantilizes women. “The women who love Bryan just don’t give a shit that his music is sexist and enjoy listening to twangy hip-hop-infused music whilst drinking Coors Light on a riverbed, and that’s fine,” wrote McCarthy.
And although neither country singer mentioned Bryan by name -- making critical comments about peers is not one of country’s traditions -- Brad Paisley was surely thinking of him at least a little when he said songs about tan legs and trucks were pandering and “totally cliché,” as, surely, was Kenny Chesney when he said songs about cutoff jeans and drinking “objectify the hell out of” women and lobbied for a more nuanced, less handsy view of women in country songs.
In 2013, so aggrieved that he broke with tradition, Zac Brown called Bryan’s big hit “That’s My Kind of Night” “the worst song I’ve ever heard” and added that some songs “make me be ashamed” to be a country singer. The two, who were friends, reconciled a month later at the CMA Awards. When Bryan won entertainer of the year, he cried onstage as the crowd yelled “Luuuuuke.” Bryan is very well-liked in the country industry. But that year, a dam broke: Country singers Gary Allan, Alan Jackson and Kacey Musgraves -- and even Tom Petty -- all criticized the incessant back road, Friday-night partying of country hits.
You know who else is a little tired of it? Luke Bryan.
It’s almost 3 p.m., and Bryan is in a dressing room at the Hollywood theater where Jimmy Kimmel Live! is taped. He is a guest on tonight’s show, where he’ll cross-promote Idol -- both programs are on the ABC network. Even though he said a few hours earlier he needed a night off from drinking, he’s got a Guinness in a clear cup. And he’s talking, with mixed feelings, about his best-selling song, 2011’s “Country Girl (Shake It for Me).”
“When I put that song out, I knew what it was. It was lighthearted fun. If you can’t appreciate the fun of that song, then I’m not your artist. Pick. Another. Artist,” he pronounces with a laugh.
As Bryan sees it, his success brought on imitators, whose Bryan-esque songs created the current glut. “When I started singing about stuff like that, a lot of people saw that it worked, so they incorporated it. Then sometimes things get beat to death, and then it’s time to move on.
“I know that there are more layers to describing the country way of life than a pickup truck and fishing,” he continues. “When I’m in a songwriting session with one of my songwriter buddies who’s going down the back-road path, can I sing a song about hunting and fishing ever again?”
Is it time for him to move on? Bryan pauses. He answers the question -- there are two answers, actually -- but first, you need to understand the role of calamity in his life.
When he was 20 years old, Bryan decided to move to Nashville. The youngest of three kids, he was at Georgia Southern University, singing with a band and gaining confidence from his local popularity. In November 1996, five days before he planned to move, his brother Chris, 26, was killed in a car accident.
Bryan decided not to go to Nashville, largely to comfort his mother. As a kid, he’d had asthma and “terrible allergies,” he says. “I had to sleep in the bed with her, and she’d be feeling my breathing all night. One time, I got rushed to the hospital because of an asthma attack.”
“I couldn't bear the thought of Luke being away,” his mother, LeClaire, later said. Instead of going to Nashville, he finished college and went to work for his father Tommy’s fertilizer company while playing clubs with a band on weekends.
The fertilizer job stunk (sorry), and although he was unhappy there, Bryan was content to stay in his small Georgia town, Leesburg: “It was just the path of least resistance for me.”
To force a resolution of this impasse, his dad vowed he would fire Luke if he didn't move to Nashville. “He was like, ‘Our fertilizer company will always be here, but you’ll never get your youth again. You’ll never have this time in your life where you don’t have a wife and kids, and chasing your dreams is not that complicated right now.’ Once I got his blessing, it made the decision easier.”
He arrived in Nashville on Sept. 1, 2001, and by November was signed to a publishing deal. The Nashville philosophy is not to stroke your chin until inspiration strikes, but to make co-writing appointments and be productive. “I was writing two, three songs a day from Monday to Thursday. It didn't pay a lot of money, so I’d rent a van, and the band and I would drive eight or nine hours to play college bars and frat parties in Georgia. On Sunday, we’d head back to Nashville.”
At home, Bryan’s parents listened mostly to country and Motown, but he had more modern tastes. As a kid, “my brother and sister and I were sneaking Beastie Boys albums, LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and even N.W.A. I would have gotten in so much trouble if I’d been caught with that stuff. I had one buddy who had a big farm and an old Army jeep with a tape player. We’d ride around on his plantation listening to N.W.A, and we thought we were little gangsters.”
Bryan burned CDs of the songs he had been writing, and rather than selling them at shows, gave them away, which was a smart strategy. “If I had a hundred people, I gave a hundred CDs out. That got me a good little following in Georgia, which really paid off.”
During these years, Bryan was going to college bars and playing Charlie Daniels, George Strait and Merle Haggard songs. “And when I got offstage, the biggest hip-hop songs would blast in these clubs. I started to realize there’s a way for some of this stuff to work together. You take your influences and create your own lane with it.”
He’d had some success writing songs for other acts, and Capitol Records signed him as an artist in 2004 partly because he already had an intense local following. His first single, “All My Friends Say,” came out in January 2007 and reached No. 5 on the Hot Country Songs chart. In April, Bryan made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a rite of passage for all young country stars; his sister Kelly, a middle-school teacher, brought 120 people up from Georgia for the occasion. Then, four-and-a-half weeks later, while she was at home with her 3-year-old son, she died suddenly, of unknown causes.
For LeClaire, two of her three children were now dead. “It forever altered my mother’s belief systems. I’ll get random calls from her when she’s having bad days. One day, she’s missing my brother, and one day, she’s missing my sister, and one day, she wants to be around me more, because I’m all she’s got left. We give Mama the benefit of the doubt on stuff. She has suffered a lot of pain as a mother, losing two children.”
A third tragedy would follow in November 2014, when Kelly’s husband, Ben Cheshire, died at the age of 46, orphaning their three children. Bryan and his wife, college sweetheart Caroline Boyer, already had two young boys, Bo and Tate, and decided to raise their nephew Til and their college-age nieces Kris and Jordan.
After “All My Friends Say,” it seemed like Bryan was on a straight path to stardom. Then came his second single, “We Rode in Trucks,” which, despite its title and the fact that it matches multiple squares on the Country Music Bingo card (farming, hunting, fishing, tailgates), is a subtle and lovely song about small-town life. It peaked on the Hot Country Songs chart in 2008 at a dismal 33.
“That was probably my lowest moment as an artist. It was awful. When I saw what the live version of ‘Back Where I Come From’ did for Kenny Chesney, I thought ‘We Rode in Trucks’ was going to do that for me. I’d played it for my college crowds, and people loved it.”
It could be that the failure of a song he co-wrote and loved drove Bryan toward a more conventional type of sound and themes. “You have to have a nucleus of your image. Singing about trucks and back roads and fishing, that was a nucleus, because that’s what I knew. ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ -- that’s a thing me and my producer [Jeff Stevens] say a lot. I’m wired to write simple stuff that people can understand and relate to.”
When Bryan hears criticism of his music, he invokes the populist argument, aka the Jon Bon Jovi Defense: The fans love my music, who cares what anyone else thinks? It’s not actually a defense, though, because it doesn't argue for the quality of the music, but is instead a red herring that changes the subject from quality to popularity. He knows “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” isn't his best song, but if it’s the song his crowds love best, he reasons, then maybe it is his best song.
But it’s not that simple, because Bryan is of two minds about how he’s perceived. People mock him for “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” and “That’s My Kind of Night,” but he’d like to also be respected for his more serious songs, like “Drink a Beer” or “Most People Are Good.” This is true for sure: Bryan’s albums are better than his singles. “Do I think I put albums together that should be up for album of the year awards? And have I put out songs that I feel like ought to garner more acclaim? I wouldn't be a competitive spirit if I didn't want to get recognized.
“Certainly, I’ve caught flack for my styles of country. When I read something negative about myself, it kind of gets me down. But the true traditionalists, they’ll always bark. I mean, everybody wants hair metal back. Everybody wants the ’70s back, and it just doesn't work that way. It’s not coming back.”
At least as far back as Elvis Presley, who was denounced by a bishop from Rhode Island for leading white fans “back to the jungle and animalism,” music has transgressed racial restrictions. Traditionalists, who want Nashville to reject the growing influence of hip-hop, glorify an era when country was more pure and less citified. But nothing short of a time machine can restore an era when rural and urban music were segregated. To many young music fans, there’s no functional distinction between country and rap. “My nephew is 16,” muses Bryan, “and when he hears a country song he loves, it’s in his playlist. When he hears a Drake song he loves, it’s right in the same playlist.” This sense of casual musical integration is at least as pervasive in the South as it is in other regions, or else country fans would’ve wholesale rejected Bryan’s music.
Still, Bryan realizes that he has been repeating a few themes right to the brink of extinction. “I have enough intelligence to know I have to move the needle from singing about trucks and back roads and fishing.” He mentions “Pick It Up,” a song he co-wrote about setting a good example for his kids, from his most recent album, What Makes You Country. “Eight years ago, I would’ve never dreamed to put a song on my album that talks about fatherhood.”
But that album also includes “She’s a Hot One,” about a drunk girl at a club, wearing “little jeans and white tee,” as well as songs about fishing, tractors, boots, etc. Those Country Music Bingo songs are his security -- his financial security, sure, if we’re being cynical, but also his emotional security, his reassurance that God is good, joy exists, and misfortune will not prevail. His boisterous demeanor, he acknowledges, rises directly from the deaths of his siblings. “I have a really clear idea on ‘Don’t take a second for granted,'” he says with a sigh. “You think about it every day. I mean, I don’t go a day where I don’t think about ‘What if my brother and sister were here?’ But you just have to understand, that wasn't the plan.
“I’m a pretty happy person. The loss we’ve dealt with has given me an appreciation of how precious and fragile life is. And yeah, I carry that mentality into my performances, and even into how I deal with people every day. When I meet people, I want them to leave going, ‘That guy doesn't have a bad day.’”
Luke Bryan knows it’s time to leave hunting and fishing songs to other artists. He also knows his fans love those songs, and it’s his instinct to make crowds happy. How can he resolve the conflict? And, as he phrased it earlier, can he ever sing another song about hunting and fishing?
“Probably not,” he declares pensively, then breaks into a smile. “But once you say that, if the right kind of song comes along that you know fans will go apeshit over, I have to search myself and ask, ‘Is it OK to do this again?’” Luke Bryan has trouble letting go of security. And given the calamity he has seen, that’s no surprise.
ON THE (BACK) ROAD
On May 31, Bryan kicked off his What Makes You Country stadium tour. Opening for him is Sam Hunt, whose 2017 single “Body Like a Back Road” topped the Hot Country Songs chart for a record 34 weeks. Below, a snapshot of their achievements in the live realm.
Career gross ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore
Total attendance at his concerts in 2017
Career gross ticket sales
Total attendance at his concerts in 2017
This article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.