When Luke Bryan played his first stadium show in Nashville at Vanderbilt Stadium on July 11, it was largely the good-spirited party you’d expect. Bare-shouldered men and women downed adult beverages in the suffocating heat, singing along to every word of one of Luke’s many hit songs.
And yet it was somehow also different than you’d expect. Luke has certainly transformed into a performer worthy of his dual ACM and CMA Entertainer of the Year wins, but this show on the Kick the Dust Up Tour was hardly an orgy of the bro-country party jams often associated with him. Sure, tunes like “Kick the Dust Up” and “That’s My Kind of Night” bookended the show. But much of the time between was devoted to Luke’s more sensitive mid-tempo songs, like “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” as well as ballads like “Do I” and “Drink a Beer.”
“That’s predominantly the meat of the show in the middle,” Luke affirms to Nash Country Weekly, visiting the office just two days after that sold-out hometown show. “It’s surprising. I think my show is grown up in that sense—in that it’s not an hour and 45 minutes of all Spring Break songs and stuff like that. But that doesn’t mean they won’t ever come back.”
He looks a little sleepy this morning, dressed casually—or stage ready, in his case—in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and baseball cap. Hard to say for sure, but that sleepy appearance may stem from having just weathered his first public relations controversy as a superstar over the weekend (see sidebar) with some comments about Outlaw country. He’s on the other side of it now, a bit shaken up, but looking ahead to an exciting summer.
Earlier in 2015, Luke played his final Spring Break concert in Panama City Beach, Fla., (after five straight years) and closed that particular chapter of his life. It was a subtle nod to the unassailable fact that even country music’s king of Spring Break, now 39 years old, has to grow up eventually.
But as with most things, Luke’s transformation isn’t happening like a light switch flipping on and off. Growing up one of those gradual processes that isn’t very noticeable day-to-day, but there are undoubtedly shades of it all over his fifth full-length album, Kill the Lights.
Of course, that means he couldn’t completely leave the party jams behind for an entire album of sensitive balladry. The album’s lead single, “Kick the Dust Up,” a meaty slab of Asian-glazed country rock aimed squarely at the tailgate crowd, was proof positive of that. It’s brawny and simple-minded like its logical predecessor “That’s My Kind of Night,” but kind of impossible to forget once you’ve heard it. Luke sees the need to keep songs like that in populist, businessman terms: retention of fans from years past and conversion of new ones.
“It’s all within a comfortable framework for me,” he says. “I want everybody to be able to have a stake in my album and a song that really affects them, whether you’re 14 or 16 or 30 or all through the gamut of ages.”
So Kill the Lights is necessarily wide in scope, but can almost be divided cleanly into two halves: party-friendly backwoods tailgaiter Luke, and the more reflective side of the Leesburg, Ga., native. On the party side, many songs tread some familiar themes for Luke: dancing women, moonlight romance, unfailingly rural settings. The title track incorporates many of these, but employs a skeletal bass and guitar figure like Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” for a sonic twist.
“You’ve heard Bruno Mars with ‘Uptown Funk,’” Luke says, referencing the unstoppable pop hit of early 2015. “That’s kind of a retro take where he went back in the—what’s the word—he kind of rewound the clock. And I think this one does that a little bit too, but with me… with my country voice singing it.”
Luke has never shied away from a romantic song either, as indicated by “I Don’t Want This Night to End” or “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” But he takes it a step farther on Kill the Lights with “Strip it Down,” a slow jam that was intended for sexytimes if ever there was one. With descriptions like feeling my belt turn loose from these old blue jeans, the action taking place in the song should be pretty clear to anyone who has rounded the bases. You have to wonder how Luke’s wife Caroline feels about him singing songs like this one to throngs of screaming women several nights a week on tour.
“Through the years you write hundreds of songs, and when I play it for my wife, I’m not gonna try to misrepresent anything,” he explains. “She agrees that ‘Strip it Down’ is pretty dang hot and sexy. So I think it’s a fine line where you’re trying to say stuff in your art, but you certainly don’t want to make your wife mad or certainly your fans and do something that’s so over the top that it’s not comfortable.”
Perhaps thankfully, it stops short of describing the entire act, leaving the most private details to the imagination.
“Exactly. It doesn’t get icky,” Luke agrees, laughing. Elsewhere you’ll find Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild stopping by for a duet on the revenge hookup saga “Home Alone Tonight.”
In the other half of the album, Luke adopts the reflective stance of a guy who has two growing sons and is about a year away from bidding his thirties adieu. In “Just Over,” he bitterly comes to the realization that he’s been dumped; in “Love It Gone,” he pledges attention and comfort to a woman in the throes of a crisis; and in “Scarecrows,” he touches on the place that shaped him and its dependable, slow-changing nature. For one of the album’s finest moments, Luke sings the delicate, jazz-tinged “To the Moon and Back,” by Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Tony Martin and comes off sounding pretty classy.
There’s also “Huntin’ and Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day,” which Luke wrote with his pals the Peach Pickers (Dallas Davidson, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins). While it adopts a lighter tone, “Huntin’” describes an outlook that Luke believes to be true of himself, both grateful and optimistic. “That may be one of my most favorite songs I’ve ever recorded,” he says. “Just because I don’t know if I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell my story or just really stamp who I am any better.”
In total, Luke contributed six songs to Kill the Lights (compared to only two that made it to Crash My Party), including the dance track “Move” and the more nostalgic “Way Way Back.” Oddly, it wasn’t through some great burst of creativity that he ended up with more of his own this time around.
“I told somebody that I wrote 50 songs, 50 or 60 songs for Crash My Party and I cut three of them,” he says. “And I wrote 15 songs for Kill the Lights and I cut 10 or 11 of them. It was certainly not by design.”
As is the usual line in Nashville, Luke says that the best songs have to win in service of the final product. In the case of Kill the Lights, he was pleased to see that some of his stood up to contributions from pros like Shane McAnally, Rodney Clawson and Luke Laird.
“I think it’s about the album as a whole,” he says. “When I saw the track listing, I was like, ooh, wow, I actually got a couple songs of mine on this thing.”
He says this as if it wasn’t entirely up to him, even though he’s at a point in his career where he could plausible record an all-acoustic songwriter album if he felt so compelled. It might sound like a stretch, but don’t count it completely out.
“I think it would be a daunting task for me,” he says. “I think a little four song deal where I do that in a stripped down acoustic situation. I thought would be cool in the future one of these days.”
Another of Luke’s songs, “Fast,” seems to be a clear indicator of his growing up. The acoustic guitar driven tune touches on the rapid passage of time and how it only seems to accelerate as you get older.
“What makes our music special is we can put a song out like this and people, it’ll make them reflect,” he says. “If I put this song on the radio at some point in my career somebody will come up and say, ‘You know what, me and my wife were going our separate ways and living too fast and this song helped us slow down and put a few things in perspective and take our kids camping.’ And really, really, I think these songs are always really important in country music.”
It’s a notion that resonates in Luke’s own life, as he’s on the road for a significant portion of time as his sons, Bo and Tate, grow into young men. He says he’s slowed down some from the earlier days where he was just trying to get known, but sometimes missing things is inevitable.
“There’s no doubt that I miss way more than I should,” he agrees. “Even now, I am blessed to be in a situation when I talk about my tour schedule and stuff we can go, oh, the kids’ll be in the heart of baseball. This’ll be when we want to go do this trip to Disney World or something. A few years ago we were running and gunning so much taking every opportunity to perform and get in front of people. The option of me not being there was a little tougher. As I get older, as I mature and get older, as they get older, I will slow down and even take a month or two off at a time. Gosh, that’s scary for me to even think about.”
Because Luke seems to be the consummate entertainer, made for the stage and generous to the audiences that have shelled out money to come see him perform. Take him away from that, and he feels a bit lost.
“I’ve had a little more time off from touring this year just because we’re not doing as many shows,” he continues. “It’s funny, anytime I’m home on a Friday or Saturday night, that’s like, such new territory for me. Me and Caroline, it’s not even natural for us.”
“I feel like I’m not working and somewhere out there there’s a stage that I need to be standing on,” he adds, sounding all the more like a grown up.
SIDE: Playa’s Anthem
Luke retired his Spring Break shows in March 2015, but his popular Farm Tour, which visits agricultural communities and awards scholarships to students in those towns, will continue on in September with a whole new list of stops.
“We’ve launched some new Farm Tour locations and dates,” he says. “Doesn’t mean we won’t revisit old Farm Tour sites, we’re just sprinkling in new areas and the Farm Tour feels bigger than ever this year.”
Additionally, Luke’s still-new Crash My Playa event in Riviera Maya, Mexico will return for a second year January 22-26, 2016 and has kind of replaced Spring Break as Luke’s annual party of choice.
“That was our first year we did that last year and man, the company that I’m doing that with knocked it completely out of the park for fan experience,” he says.
The upcoming event will boast performances from Luke as well as Dierks Bentley, Cole Swindell, Brett Eldredge, Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton and Dustin Lynch.
Fans who opt in can choose from three different resorts in the tropical location and enjoy all-inclusive food and drinks, plus daily excursions for the adventurous. “I was amazed that fans were watching my show and there were waiters and waitresses handing out beers and the fans, they don’t have to go anywhere,” Luke says. “Everything’s inclusive. It was an amazing event.”
SIDE: Wrong Side of the Outlaw
It’s hard to be the guy on top, because the things you say can come back to haunt you. Luke learned the hard way in July, when he gave an interview with HitsDailyDouble where he talked about why he doesn’t sing Outlaw country.
“I’m not big on looking back on the past. I’m not an outlaw country singer. I don’t do cocaine and run around. So I’m not going to sing outlaw country,” he said. “I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers—and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know. I don’t know about laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs.”
Needless to say, the mischaracterization of Outlaw country as a druggy form of music (even though some of his chief practitioners were users at one time) was quoted ad nauseum in the country media the Friday before his show at Vanderbilt Stadium. It was not unlike the Blake Shelton “old farts and jackasses” quip a couple years back.
Luke defended his words with a series of Tweets, saying “I would never speak against any musical artist. It’s not my style. I consider Willie, Waylon and Merle musical heroes. I was trying to state what I was about and where I come from with my music.”
Over this weekend, though, Luke took care to reach out to the artists and families of artists he had mentioned to apologize. That part was hard, he says, not knowing these artists well at all.
“It’s totally that these are mythical people for me,” he explains. “I’d hate the first correspondence I ever had with them would be talking about this.”
One family member, Waylon Jennings’ son Shooter, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the apology that he and his mother Jessi Colter received.
“Luke Bryan called my mom today to clarify that he would never disrespect my dad or me or any of us,” Shooter said. “I misfired and said some things in the past about people, namely John Mayer. And I didn’t have the guts to apologize. So, that being said, that kinda won me over.”
Luke also seems to understand that his comments came out at a time when everyone is vigorously (even angrily) discussing the format and genre. For some people who haven’t warmed to his sound, his words were salt in the wound. So he doesn’t expect it all to be OK right away.
“It can’t physically go away in a day and it shouldn’t,” he says. “It’s a big topic.”