NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Envision rising country star Luke Bryan on stage, dressed all in black with a line of scantily clad dancers behind him shaking it for all they’re worth as he paces back and forth, stopping more than occasionally to grind his hips in the direction of the camera and a national television audience of millions.
A male country star shaking his booty? Call it country music’s pelvis moment. Bryan’s performance of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” marked the first time a man in music’s most straight-laced genre really cut loose in the way Elvis Presley launched rock `n’ roll with a sexy sneer and that little wiggle.
Since Bryan made archetype-shattering appearances on the CMT Video Awards and the Country Music Association Awards in 2011, his career has been on a rise so steep 18 months later he’s headlining his own arena tour and releasing two albums in a four-month span. And in his biggest moment yet, he’s set to co-host today’s Academy of Country Music Awards (8 p.m., CBS) with Blake Shelton – a rival of his in the entertainer of the year category.
“I always felt like any of your TV opportunities, you better come out of the damn blocks with something,” Bryan said. “Because TV’s not going to give you many second chances if you tank a performance or if your performance was so boring that everybody changed the channel. So I had enough sense to know you better give something that people are going to watch.”
And while those performances caused some head scratching and even momentary mocking along Music Row, they instantly won Bryan fans who’ve helped make him country’s newest sensation – a triple threat with hit songs, No. 1 albums and sold-out arena shows.
“If you look at superstars over the years, look at their personality,” said Bob Romeo, the academy’s chief executive officer and a longtime country concert promoter. “Garth Brooks could relate to the people. Luke clearly has got that gift, and I think it’s a gift. If you have that gift and the ability to write music and sing, I think if all those line up, you’ve got the potential of being a big artist. And you see it in a handful of people.”
When Reba McEntire ended her long run as ACM host, Romeo and show executive producer Rac Clark took a chance and paired Bryan with Shelton, who co-hosted the show twice with McEntire. There may have been more likely candidates with television host experience. But Romeo said everyone saw something in the way Bryan maintained a relationship with his audience that made them pay attention. It was clear he was having fun all the time – even when he fell off the stage at a show in Burlington, Iowa.
“He was doing his funny dance and he accidentally fell off the stage – I think it’s on YouTube – and they caught him,” Romeo said with a laugh. “They pushed him back up and how do you recover from that? He stopped the song and said, `Wait, wait, wait! Maybe a lot of you didn’t see it in the back, but this dumbass just fell off the stage,’ and everybody was laughing. And he says, `But I just want to know who grabbed my ass?’ or something. The song starts back up and he goes right into it. What a great recovery.”
The folks at CMT noticed that each time he appeared on the network, their social media traffic would spike. So they became early adopters, tapping the 36-year-old father of two to host their annual summer tour in 2011. Leslie Fram, CMT senior vice president of music strategy, said it was already clear where he was headed.
“He’s got the it factor,” she said. “... You could tell at that point in time that he was poised to be a headline act of arenas because of his confidence on stage, his interaction with the crowd. He definitely had this it factor, but not just with the women. The guys also wanted to have a beer with him.”
That’s an ability Bryan had from the start. Kerri Edwards, Bryan’s manager, traveled to a Georgia bar gig – Bryan grew up in tiny Leesburg – 10 years ago and found a singer-songwriter already making the transition to full-blown entertainer.
“I remember standing there watching girls love it, guys love it and they were just all having fun,” she said. “... It was just like this guy had built this little thing down here and it kind of became a mission to bring it back here to Nashville and figure out how to make it bigger.”
They did things differently from the start. Bryan began an annual farm tour, playing to a traditional country demographic. But he went in the other direction as well, releasing a series of spring break EPs. Initially released digitally, this year’s version, the full album “Spring Break ... Here to Party,” was also released in a physical version and debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200. It remained in the top 5 three weeks later, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with more than 250,000 copies sold – with no single released to country radio.
And that’s not even his primary release this year. A follow-up to 2011’s hit-spawning “Tailgates & Tanlines,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in a surprise and has sold 1.9 million copies so far, will be out in August.
Sure that’s different in the country world, where artists tend to stick to a two-year schedule when releasing albums. But like his hips, Bryan’s not afraid to shake things up on the business side either.
“Obviously country music purists are going to look at things I do and it’s really going to rub them the wrong way,” Bryan said. “But I will challenge my country music heritage with anybody. It’s no disrespect. I love the way I’m going about it and doing it, and clearly the fans are happy with it.”