We should have seen it coming. Throughout his career, Luke Bryan has let us know exactly the kind of country music he has favored, the crossover audiences he intended to pitch it to and, to a degree, the level of stardom he was going to attain with it.
You saw it clearly when he played Rupp Arena three years ago as an opening act for Rascal Flatts. During a 50-minute set, Bryan used country imagery the way an ad agency might use a neon billboard, especially within the opening songs Country Girl and What Country Is.
There was no way to miss the sentiment — no way, that is, unless you wandered in late to his performance and saw Bryan winding his way through '60s pop references (like the Walk Away Renee-style heartbreak that oozed out of the then-current radio hit Someone Else Calling You Baby) on the way to a cover of Enter Sandman, a classic by that stealth country band Metallica.
This was 2011, mind you — before the even more overt pop turns on the 2011 album Tailgates and Tanlines and its 2013 follow-up, Crash My Party, and chart-topping singles like last August's That's My Kind of Night, where a joy ride through paradise begins by popping a country/rap mixtape into the truck stereo ("a little Conway, a little T-Pain").
In short, the Georgia-born Bryan, 37, is the latest in a series of country artists to veer further than ever into popular but decidedly non-Nashville musical territory and establish a mammoth fan base in the process. Every stop on the singer's 2013 Dirt Road Dairies Tour sold out, pushing the cumulative concert attendance for Bryan last year past 1.3 million.
That same audience turned Crash My Party into a platinum-selling hit six weeks after its release last summer.
According to Nielsen/Soundscan, Crash My Party, which topped pop and country charts, was the third best-selling album of 2013, moving an estimated 1.52 million copies. That put it and Bryan ahead of such marquee names as Bruno Mars, Drake and Jay Z, and fellow country stars Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line.
As is often the case with massive commercial crossovers, critics have been unimpressed. Few, in fact, have lined up to crash Bryan's party.
"Mr. Bryan, as anodyne a singer as exists in the genre, has an unconvincing voice and not much attitude to sell it with," Jon Caramanica of The New York Times wrote in a review of Crash My Party published just after the record's release. The appraisal goes on to label the album as "competent but wearisome."
Bryan responded in the way that bankable country stars know best — by selling out two performances at Madison Square Garden that won't take place until September.
The fact that Bryan is doing such brisk ticket business for shows that are eight and nine months out tells us the singer is wasting no time getting to work in 2014. His new "That's My Kind of Night Tour" was set to kick off Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio. That makes the singer's headlining debut Friday at Rupp the second night of a tour that will run through much of the year. Needless to say, both shows have been sold out for a while.
Also on tap for Bryan in 2014 will be a return engagement as co-host of the Academy of Country Music Awards in April. This should be a happy reunion, as Bryan is the ACM's current Entertainer of the Year. As with the 2013 ACM ceremony, the singer will share hosting duties with Shelton, who played Rupp in September.
A week after the ACM telecast, Bryan will head to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to co-headline the Tortuga Music Festival with Eric Church. Bryan should feel right at a home as part of the event's roster of genre-jumping artists. The list includes Train, Sheryl Crow, Ziggy Marley and Slightly Stoopid.
"My main thing is I truly love what I do," Bryan told the Chicago Tribune in 2012. "I think you have to love this to be able to live up to what it requires. Every day I wake up and I lay in bed counting my blessings and my prayers for how fortunate I am."