Luke Bryan sat down, stretched and smiled for the camera.
“This feels like work,” he said, adding a chuckle.
It’s the start of a marathon press day for Bryan, a 44-year-old Nashville, Tennesse, hit-maker who’s scorched the radio charts with 25 top singles since first climbing to No. 1 a decade ago. He’ll spend the coming hours kicking up dust on a country music campaign trail in support of his seventh studio album, “Born Here Live Here Die Here,” out Friday via Capitol Nashville.
But, this year, “work" doesn’t mean what it did a year ago.
As with virtually all entertainers in 2020, release week for this “American Idol” judge doesn't come with coast-to-coast trips for in-person appearances on morning talk shows or late-night television. And, for the first time in a decade, Bryan won’t celebrate his latest run to country radio’s pinnacle position by filling rural alfalfa fields with faithful fans asking him to “Play It Again” this fall during his annual "Farm Tour."
Instead, Bryan has paused his summer of fishing, growing sweet corn and pranking the family dog – all quarantine pastimes, as evident to the singer’s 5.6 million Instagram followers – to spend an afternoon tucked in the back room of a Berry Hill, Tennessee, management office.
For the album release, he’ll “work” like many of the millions who spin his songs monthly – behind a computer camera on Zoom calls.
And he’ll likely tackle each – virtually, of course – with a smile.
“It’s like, if you’re a football player running out there putting your body on the line, you love it more than your body,” Bryan said. “And I love music enough to go work a lot. None of that’s changed.”
‘Push some envelopes’
Last spring, Bryan and his team needed to call an audible on “Born Here Live Here Die Here.” He initially planned to drop the 10-song record in April and, of course, wanted to tour on the release.
But, as much of the country grappled with extended shutdowns and skyrocketing unemployment, Bryan said he knew waiting “was the right thing to do.”
“In the world of what we can complain about, me moving the album back … it felt like the only thing to do,” Bryan said. “When I’m out promoting my music, I’m happy about it, excited about it. In April, we all knew what headspaces we were in.”
Still, four months later and uncertainty continues to define 2020. How does Bryan see his music – often rooted in drink-raising anthems that blur genre lines or tenderhearted ballads capturing intimate moments – playing in a “new normal”?
“I think my albums reflect all forms of life,” he said, adding: “When you listen to the whole body of the album, there’s certainly love songs, songs that deal with loss … songs that have sexy undertones.”
He continued, “No matter what’s going on in the world, I’m gonna still always treat my albums like bringing everybody to the party; (I’ll) try to state who I am as a person and try to make music that my fans can relate to, but then still push some envelopes.”
’And new music means another opportunity for listeners to experience “a glimpse into my world, take ‘em somewhere. Let ’em have some fun,” Bryan said.
“No matter who you are as a human being, I’m visualizing how you’ll react when you hear this. When my heroes put out a new song, I know how I reacted. It’s a song I rode around with and burned my speakers up listening to it.
“I certainly want to attempt to do that every chance I can with my music."
'Born Here Live Here Die Here'
For "Born Here," Bryan returns to a rural ethos that's familiar to longtime listeners of the multiplatinum certified entertainer. Raised in Leesburg, Georgia, population around 3,000, this son of a peanut farmer looked to embody "what small-town life really is" on the title track.
In the "Born Here" chorus, he sings: "Born here, live here, die here/ From the roots, to the boots, to the lay me down suit/ Yeah, I'm gonna be proud to be right here."
He left his small town for Nashville years ago ("I'm a little bit of a hypocrite," he admitted), but still finds himself gravitating toward rural storytelling.
"I grew up in that type of town where so many people are happy being born there, living there and certainly dying there," Bryan said, adding: "There's nothing like the people of small towns and how real they are."
'What's in my heart'
Bryan doubles down on small-town "realness" with the characters throughout "Born Here Live Here Die Here."
"Too Drunk to Drive," a restless Bryan co-write tinged with classic country guitar and keys, spins a tale of sobering longing; "Little Less Broken This Time" finds Bryan diving into honky-tonk heartbreak for the first time in his career; "What She Wants Tonight," which first released as a single in 2019, offers lustful tension in a trademark Bryan earworm.
For a mid-album ballad, Bryan turns to "Build Me a Daddy" – a song playing from the perspective of a boy in a toy shop who is struggling with losing his father. Jake Mitchell, Josh Thompson and Brett Tyler co-wrote the song. Bryan said he once wondered if it was "too emotional" to cut for the record.
On it, he sings: "Could you build me a daddy? .../ 'Cause I sure miss him/ Maybe you could bring him back/ If I walked in with him, it'd sure make mama happy/ If you could build me a daddy."
"It was a song that really affects everybody," Bryan said. "The beauty of country music is people really respect those songs that touch on real, real tough stuff, and this song touches on a little boy losing his dad."
On "One Margarita" he gives nod to the unwavering party crowd with a boozy summertime tune that climbed the country charts faster than any other this year, earning more than 100 million streams since its debut.
Bryan said some questioned why during the ongoing pandemic he'd release a song that unabashedly embraces carefree partying, but he believed "it was the right thing to do."
"Deep down, I know I go about this business the right way," Bryan said, adding "Everybody's got their opinions. My main thing is I gotta wake up every day and do the songs I truly believe (are) what's in my heart."
The album also treats listeners to an overdue collaboration between Bryan and fellow Georgia songwriter Brent Cobb. After years of knowing each other but never writing together, they connected to write two songs in a day, Bryan said.
One track appears on Cobbs' upcoming October album, "Keep 'Em On They Toes"; the other, "Where Are We Going," finds Bryan asking what happens after the bar closes but well before the night ends.
With steel guitar, string arrangements and a vocal assist from tourmate Chancie Neal, the song inherited a classic sound, Bryan said.
"(Cobb) uses a different part of his brain to write with, much different than I use," Bryan said. "When I write with him, it gives me the opportunity to have a bit of a vintage sound. I was just ashamed it took he and I that long to get in the room."
As for getting back in the room with his fans? Like most artists, Bryan continues to wait and see.
But even the idea brings a smile.
"Nobody wants to get back to work more than me," he said.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Luke Bryan sings for the small town on 'Born Here Live Here Die Here'