February 2009

“What’s Your Name, Darlin?” Luke Bryan wows his fans

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Maybe a half hour (or more) before Luke Bryan starts his show, fans line up outside the dressing room door. They are carrying photos, cameras or just blank pieces of paper. Most are young ladies, wanting the country singer/songwriter’s autograph and to get a photo of the rising star.

Bryan asks, “What’s your name, darlin?” and signs whatever is put before him. Then he drapes his long arms over the shoulders of his ardent admirers, cuts a big handsome smile while a picture is taken, and more fans pile in.

We’re at Stages in Park Plaza on a Friday night. There is no place to park. Hundreds of people are milling about outside. Inside, it’s pleasantly jammed with hundreds more. There is nothing dark and gloomy about Bryan’s music. His songs are filled with images of home (Leesburg, Georgia), family (tackle box/Granddaddy) and delightful rowdiness (“All My Friends Say”). It is the last piece (the video is staged at a somewhat broken down fraternity house in Athens, GA) that climbed to number five on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2007. “All My Friends Say” might be considered his current anthem. It is truly the song the folks at Stages have been waiting for. The roof does seem to rise as they sing back to Bryan the words they obviously know.

Bryan is here for a concert because his agent just cut a deal with Miller Lite. You’ll be seeing Luke Bryan’s image on Miller Lite packages at Wal-Mart. Miller is a client of the promotion and event marketing company, Bluffton-based, BFG.

But tonight, all of that is background. Tonight is show time. “Performing, that’s why I write songs, to get a chance to perform them, definitely,” said Bryan. “We book a great show someplace and then I see the big crowd and all the energy out there, that makes my career and everything we do worth it.”

The songs Bryan writes and performs are country, plain and (not so) simple. He’s not a “cross-over” performer (though “All My Friends Say” comes close). His roots are genuine. Leesburg just got its first traffic light two years ago. His dad farms 800 acres, raises peanuts and owns a peanut and fertilizer business. That’s where Bryan worked. He attended Georgia Southern, played at bars and frat houses, and wrote and played his music since about the age of 16.

He had plans to move to Nashville when he got out of high school, but the day he was to move, his older brother Chris, his greatest fan, was killed on an auto accident. Nashville could wait. He went onto college and worked in the family business. But his dad had other plans.

“Dad kicked me out of the nest. He wanted it to be known he was fully supportive of me. What I was trying to do, staying home and running the family business wasn’t something he expected of me,” Bryan explained. Part of the Bryan lore is that his dad told him he had to quit his job or his dad would fire him. Family friends say that is very true. Bryan’s dad knew where his son’s heart was.

He got to Nashville in 2001, worked his way up (no American Idol instant fame for him) and soon was recognized as a triple threat: singer, writer, musician. One of his sponsors is Gibson, the venerable, 120-year-old guitar company. Those folks don’t fool around.

Capitol Records signed him, and as “All My Friends Say” was climbing the charts, the song he co-wrote with Billy Currington, which Currington performed, “Good Directions,” hit number one. Bryan’s album, I’ll Stay Me, released in 2007, also made it to number two. A song from the album, Country Man, has also charted at number 10 this year.

Bryan is managed by Red Light. For those of other generations or musical tastes, Red Light also manages Carly Simon, Jem, the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And he’s signed with the William Morris Agency, the largest talent and literary agency in the world.

Of his musical inclination, Bryan said, “It’s more country than what’s being put out there right now. It certainly leans more on that edge. We’ve been fortunate for that to work. We kind of pulled it off, so I guess we’ll keep doing it.”

Too country? We’ll see. Because, the “problem” is, there is that “All My Friends Say” song. It’s country. But it has galvanized a certain fan base beyond country. It may be about a frat party/breakup/hangover, but there is street poetry in the lyrics. It is a short story in song. It is funny, tragic, sorrowful and honest all at once. For instance, the litany of the opening lines:

“I got smoke in my hair,
My clothes thrown everywhere,
Woke up in my rockin’ chair,
Holdin’ a beer in my hand,
Sportin’ a neon tan.

My stereo’s cranked up,
Can’t find my truck.
How’d I get home from the club?
Ain’t got a clue what went down.
So I started calling around.

And all my friends say,
I started doubles when you walked in.
All my friends say,
I went a little crazy seeing you with him…
And all my friends say,
Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

In the last decade (or two or three), how many of us have not been able to “find our truck?” He describes this jilted person as a “rock-star-party-hard-getting-over-you-comeback-kid.” And while it is country, its driving beat under that familiar country resonance, forces us to listen. And to join this night’s crowd, when Bryan sings, “And All My Friends Say,” we respond, like hundreds of thousands before us, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” You become part of the process, the art, the performance. Over intellectualization? Nope. Listen to the song.

“It’s done real well because, I think, that scenario has happened to so many people. So many people kind of lived that,” said Bryan. “It speaks true. Even tonight it will be the biggest song… It’s kind of a song that’s bigger than I even realized, I guess.”

Oh, yes it is, Luke. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

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