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.