Months before the August 2007 release of his debut album I’ll Stay Me, rising country star Luke Bryan was creating a huge music media buzz. He was the only artist in his genre to be named one of Billboard’s New Faces to Watch and was later included in Country Weekly’s article ‘Who’s Hot in 2007.’ The singer/songwriter more than lived up to the hype, scoring two of the year’s biggest hit singles, one as an artist, the other as a writer. His catchy breakthrough single ‘All My Friends Say’ hit #5 on Billboard’s country chart and ‘Good Directions,’ the song he co-penned for Billy Currington, spent three weeks at #1.
The success of ‘All My Friends Say’ and its popular video – which was shot at a Theta Chi frat house on the campus of the University of Georgia – propelled I’ll Stay Me to #2 on the country album chart, with sales over 250,000 units. As his follow-up single ‘We Rode in Trucks’ began rising on the singles chart, Bryan enjoyed his first major tour late in 2007 with Sara Evans and Josh Turner. He’s starting 2008 doing dates with Trace Adkins, and in late February hits the road with Dierks Bentley and Bucky Covington.
This music success story is a world away from working for his father’s business, a peanut mill and fertilizer plant, back in his hometown of Leesburg, Georgia. He went to work for his dad after graduating from Georgia Southern University, and made the move to Nashville to pursue his career in 2001. His dad could sense that Bryan wasn’t happy, and recognizing that music was what his son was meant to do, told Bryan he better quit and follow his dreams or he would be fired. Not long after arriving in Music City, he landed a publishing contract with top independent publisher Murrah Music. His first major cut was the title track to Travis Tritt’s 2004 album My Honky Tonk History; that same year, Bryan was offered a deal by Capitol Records Nashville.
‘The main difference in my life having this success is that the business schedule is a lot busier, but I don’t consider anything I’ve done since I’ve been in Nashville work,’ he says. ‘Spreading fertilizer and hauling peanut wagons, that’s work! The neatest thing is being out on the road seeing how the fans react to my music. When I perform ‘All My Friends Say,’ the roof comes off the place and it’s a flattering thing. But when they’re singing along to my other songs, I know the only way they’d know them is by listening to and buying the album, and that’s really exciting. But there’s still a long way to go. Last June, I played at the CMA Music Festival on the smaller stage by the river, but was looking across at the Coliseum where the big names and veteran artists play and thinking about someday playing there.’
Bryan believes that the road to becoming a major star in country music begins with continually writing and recording great songs, but also involves building a long-term relationship with the fans. ‘I’ve loved country music for so many years and have been dreaming so long about being a part of the scene,’ he says, ‘and I’m enjoying every minute of being in the game and having the opportunity to touch people with my music. Sustaining a career involves giving it your all and writing and performing songs that help you reinvent yourself and stay fresh as time goes by. You have to strike a balance between giving the fans what they want and also, from time to time, connecting with something unique and different. I’m amazed at the wonderful support I’ve been getting so far. I love the chance to inspire somebody that’s had a tough day, and help them get away from the everyday grind and feel good about his or her life. The coolest thing about writing and entertaining is that in my own small way, I can move people emotionally and help them through a hard time. Music has the power to change lives. I first learned about this when I was 14 or 15 and wrote and performed my first song at church with my youth group.’
Although Bryan broke through in Nashville as a songwriter for other artists, he always saw composing as a steppingstone for his eventual career as an artist. He got his first guitar at 14 and by 16 was writing songs and leading his own band. ‘Wednesday nights,’ he recalls, ‘I’d be playing for church groups and then Friday and Saturday I’d be playing Alan Jackson, George Strait and Clint Black at some little old dives in Georgia.’ He originally planned to move to Nashville after high school graduation, but on the day he was scheduled to move, his older brother and biggest supporter, Chris, was killed in a freak car accident. Bryan scrapped his career plans, choosing instead to stay with his family during this painful ordeal. While studying at Georgia Southern close to home, his talents blossomed as he performed with his band nearly every weekend.
‘Seeing my brother taken away from me made me really appreciate life so much more, and to not take anything for granted,’ Bryan says. ‘I’ve learned to savor every moment I’m given and live each chance I’ve got to the fullest. For me, that meant finding any opportunity I could to share my music with people. Once I got to Nashville, I felt one of the ways to work my way up to Music Row was to start meeting and collaborating with other writers. I was always a singer first, but I fell in love with the writing process and felt like it was going to be a critical part of my becoming an artist. Writing my own songs automatically puts my own seal on it, my flavor and style. I’m always open to recording outside cuts, but the challenge is finding songs that fit as well into the vibe I’m developing.’
Capitol has had success in the past pairing new artists with promising but little known producers with whom the artist has a great songwriting rapport. This technique worked most notably for Dierks Bentley and producer Brett Beavers. So the label chose that risky route again when it allowed Bryan to make his debut album with his accomplished songwriter buddy, Jeff Stevens, behind the board. The pair had already co-written four of the album’s tracks, including ‘All My Friends Say.’
‘We started writing close to four years ago and that’s when the magic started happening in my career,’ Bryan says. ‘I’m privileged to have a producer who cares so much about me, and he’s a great friend on so many levels beyond that. He’s all about letting me say what I want to say, do what I want to do and encourages me to get after those early sparks of inspiration. He’s the first producer I ever met that helped me this way. He’s also taught me so much about songwriting. I always tell aspiring writers that the key to success is writing songs that you believe in, about moments you pull from your life. Then get out and perform them if you can, or at least let people hear them. If no one is reacting, then it’s not a good song. If just one person out there connects to it, then you’re onto something. From there, you can figure out what it is that made him or her connect to it, and tap further into whatever that is. If you think you’ve got a great song, don’t hold back. Get it out there. If your hunch is right, people will start responding.’
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+