Luke Bryan Finds Safety in Country’s Middle Ground

Luke Bryan.

There was a time when having too youthful an image could actually be something of a liability in country music, a genre that privileged adult tastes and settled concerns. The few adolescents who scored country breakthroughs either sounded older than they were or strained to project weighty worldviews. All that began to change when Taylor Swift proved tween and teen girls would flock to country-pop songs that spoke their language. It wasn’t long after that Luke Bryan, a former Georgia farm boy and fraternity brother who was finding modest success with his frisky, hard-twanging odes to rural fun, ratcheted up the energy of his recordings and performances by incorporating R&B, hip-hop, and arena rock flourishes, thereby laying out a template that killed with the college-age crowd. Once country-radio research confirmed that swaggering, beat-driven singles from Bryan and other male acts were attracting listeners between the ages of 18 and 34, programmers doubled down in their pursuit of that coveted demographic, and the airwaves were dominated by what came to be dubbed “bro country.”

The conundrum Bryan is facing now is a new one for a country superstar. The 41-year-old stadium headliner has occupied the center of the massively popular, youth-courting format for the last half-dozen years, and he’d like nothing more than to extend that reign as he eases further into true adulthood. A couple of years back, he discontinued his annual spring-break EPs and added grown-up slow jams and ballads to his repertoire. It’s evident on What Makes You Country, his sixth full-length album, that he’s been pondering what sounds right coming from him.

Gray-headed traditionalists, Americana advocates, and highbrow critics alike have dismissed the malleable aesthetics and attitudes of the pop-country sphere Bryan inhabits as diluting the purity of the genre. But he’s never had much use for authenticity debates. When he’s riled by ridicule, it’s usually because he finds it belittling to his audience; he can’t abide live reviews that ignore what his fans get out of his concerts. He holds up his hybrid take on country as a faithful reflection of style-spanning popular listening habits. His favorite song sources include both Dallas Davidson, best known for booty-shaking hits, and Chris Stapleton, exemplar of country-soul realness. And though Stapleton is sometimes described as an outlaw, Bryan himself doesn’t try to claim any connection to the rabble-rousing icons of the ’70s outlaw movement. (After overshooting the latter point in an interview and fearing he’d caused offense, he called Waylon Jennings’s widow Jessi Colter to apologize.)

In the title track of his new album, Bryan makes his disinterest in policing the boundaries of country identity abundantly clear. Propelled by a surly country-rock riff, he reels off things that helped him feel meaningfully connected to the culture of country music growing up: chasing his hunting dogs through the woods; helping on the family farm; going to church on Sundays. But he recognizes that those aren’t universally shared experiences. “Friday night-spotlightin’, that was us,” he sings. “It might not’ve been you, but I can’t judge / Just be proud of what makes ya country.”

In the second verse, he fires off a string of rhetorical questions about the roots of country fandom: “Does it run in your blood? Did it come from your daddy and mama? / Were you converted by an Alabama song on the radio that feels so right?” He’s suggesting that identifying with country music is just as likely to be a matter of individual choice as it is of inheritance, and judging from the song’s congenial tone, he doesn’t consider one scenario any more legitimate than the other.

Bryan continues the benign philosophizing in “Most People Are Good,” a gentle, loping tune that plays like a sentimental recitation of traditional, family-centric small-town values. Mostly, he spends three minutes and 44 seconds extolling the virtues of working hard, appreciating your loved ones, and living in the moment, but lodged in the middle of the chorus are two lines that come off as a thoroughly low-key endorsement of marriage equality. “I believe most people are good, and most mamas oughta qualify for sainthood,” he begins in a temperate croon. “I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights / I believe you love who you love / Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of / I believe this world ain’t half as bad as it looks / I believe most people are good.”

It has a different effect when Bryan, a country centrist who studiously avoids controversy and strives to be relatable to broad swaths of listeners, sings words like that than it did when Kacey Musgraves, a clever dispenser of sarcasm who’s positioned on the fringes of the country mainstream, shrugged, “Kiss lots of boys / or kiss lots of girls of that’s something you’re into,” four years back. People expected a casually tolerant outlook from a millennial singer-songwriter with hipster appeal. Bryan, on the other hand, is viewed as a truer barometer of evolving Middle American attitudes — an indicator of how societal changes are being processed in places where life revolves around familiarity and belonging. In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine he sounded equally attached to his tiny, rural hometown and glad that what he’s experienced beyond it has enlarged his worldview. “[W]hen you truly see the world and the country in its entirety,” he told the reporter, “I think if you stay so conservative, it’s almost a little ignorant.”

This year in particular, reporters and critics have taken an interest in how the country-music industry and its audience are engaging with political discourse. Recalling past decades when conservative politicians tried to cozy up to Nashville, they’ve scanned the country landscape for signs of support for Trump. In the wake of the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Vegas, they’ve appraised country artists’ responses to a grieving public and ongoing gun control debates. What they’re looking for is explicit protest, but there’s little of that to be found in the country mainstream right now, for a variety of reasons. What Bryan seems to be doing instead is trying to make it feel safe for his fans to occupy a middle ground where preservation and slow evolution can coexist.

All along, he’s never been one to take himself more seriously than he should. In most photos, posed or candid, he’s flashing a toothy smile. There’s plentiful footage of him turning his backside to concert crowds and making a show of swiveling and gyrating in snug-fitting jeans. Goofy as those moves are, they’ve mattered to his relationship with his audience as a way of acknowledging the female fan gaze and cultivating a spirit of playful reciprocity. “Country girl, shake it for me,” he’ll beg, then proceed to shake it right back.

Country is currently full of athletic male performers, some of whom dress to accentuate their gym-toned bodies on stage, but they don’t share Bryan’s willingness to merge silliness and seduction in his dancing. It’s not insignificant that he was fashioning this crowd-pleasing persona at a time when bro country hits routinely depicted flirtations with gorgeous, passive women, a phenomenon satirized by the songwriting duo Maddie & Tae.

That’s not to say that Bryan doesn’t have his share of “Hey Girl”–esque songs in his catalogue, some more likable than others. In fact, there are two on the new album: the middling “Out of Nowhere” and the off-putting “She’s a Hot One,” but they take a back seat this time around. He seems more inspired by trying on other roles. In the lead single “Light It Up,” a broody, mid-tempo number that he co-wrote, he flips stereotypes of male indifference and female vulnerability. “I get so neurotic about it baby, ’cause I know you’re reading your phone,” he vents, sounding earnest, needy, verging on breathless. In the reflective R&B slow jam “Bad Lovers,” he goes for lover-man suaveness, unafraid to lay it on thick. His sensual side finds its most potent expression in “Hungover in a Hotel Room,” a track built on icy, minimalistic programming, whooshing synths, and moony guitar effects. He savors the memory of a boozy, rapturous night of sex, orders breakfast in bed for his still-sleeping lover and decides to extend their stay another night, his clipped phrasing slightly softened by his glottal drawl. Rising Nashville songwriter Emily Weisband supplies the hallucinatory fantasy of the woman’s voice, reenacting the voice-mail that initiated the rendezvous.

Bryan’s fans certainly know that he’s unavailable. His college-sweetheart wife and the brood they’re raising (two kids of their own plus nieces and a nephew they took in following the deaths of Bryan’s sister and brother-in-law) come up in virtually every tabloid and talk-show interview he does. At this point in his career, his family man image coexists alongside his party-starting performer rep. So it’s not such a surprise that he’s included a fatherly song in this batch. Set to a brittle beat and burbling organ, “Pick It Up” lays out a mellow approach to parenting: surrounding kids with good examples to follow and potential pastimes to explore while giving them room to test the value of these offerings for themselves. It’s more evidence that Bryan sees room for seasoned perspectives in his mix.

Luke Bryan Finds Safety in Country’s Middle Ground