With thousands of country fans in Nashville for the CMA Awards on Wednesday, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum kicked the week’s activities off a little early by hosting an intimate, acoustic show and Q&A with Luke Bryan on Sunday afternoon.
Bryan was in high spirits at the sold-out event at the museum’s CMA Theater, keeping the audience -- which included the singer’s wife, mother and two young sons -- laughing throughout.
In the Q&A, Bryan spoke about his early musical influences, including Alabama, George Strait and a more surprising choice. “Every kid was Michael Jackson crazy,” he said of his childhood friends. “I used to moonwalk to the pencil sharpener in third grade.”
Another influence, Ronnie Milsap, inspired a young Bryan to learn to play piano, but he admitted he never achieved the proficiency on the instrument he desired. “I make my way around on a piano OK,” he said. “Just good enough to fool people.”
Bryan also laughed about both the name and the prowess of his college band, Neyami Road. “It was a terrible name for a band, because 95 percent of the time it got pronounced ‘Naomi,’ like Naomi Judd,” he said. “We made an album that’s horrible. It’s [still] living out there, which is scary.”
But the band did inspire one skill Bryan is still known for to this day. “We had to dance to take the focus off how bad the music was,” he said. “That’s where I learned a little bit of the [butt] shaking.”
Long before his college band, a very young Bryan was inspired by Elvis Presley, and at the Hall of Fame on Sunday he painted an amusing picture of his 4-year-old self singing along in his underwear to Presley songs played on a portable turntable a young Bryan called his “rec-rec.”
Bryan’s 2007 debut album was originally meant to include a song he wrote, “Good Directions,” but when it became a hit single for Billy Currington instead, Capitol Records Nashville replaced it on the set. While Bryan said the decision to give one of his songs to another artist was “stressful” at the time, he added, “Billy was a champion for me as an artist right from the start,” often mentioning Bryan by name when he played the song live, helping build name recognition as Bryan worked his own hit debut single, “All My Friends Say,” at the same time. “I always appreciated how he helped get my name out.”
Another song Bryan wrote, “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” caused some anxiety for both the artist and the label because of the sexualized lyrics that Bryan said some interpreted as being “a little degrading” to women. Bryan admitted he was “scared of that song” after he wrote it with Dallas Davidson, and Capitol executives were “really stressed out about putting a song like that out,” but Davidson helped convince Bryan it was a hit. In the end, Bryan said it was the first of three career-defining songs, and one he said “got me on awards shows” and caused “pandemonium” when he would play it live.
Another milestone single was the sexy “Strip It Down,” a song Bryan said fit his goal of being “the soundtrack” to his fans’ lives, “when they’re having a blast, when they’re trying to heal or when they’re failing a pregnancy test.”
But Bryan said a much more serious-toned song, “Drink a Beer,” was “four times more important” to his career than the others because, after a string of lighthearted hits, its success “totally freed me up creatively for the rest of my life to do whatever I want to do as an artist.”
The Q&A was followed by a short acoustic set that included “Strip It Down,” “Drunk On You,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Drink a Beer” and “We Rode In Trucks.”
After five songs, Bryan ended the set to fly to his Farm Tour date that night in Columbia, S.C. The show had already been rescheduled twice because of bad weather, and it was raining again in Columbia on Sunday, but Bryan quipped, “I’m going to put on a poncho and get it done.”
The event was timed to promote the final week of the museum’s temporary exhibit, “Luke Bryan: Dirt Road Diary,” which closes Nov. 8 after a nearly six-month run.