Even for a superstar like Luke Bryan, delaying an already-announced album is very bad news. But when he was forced to postpone the release of Born Here Live Here Die Here from April 24 to August 7, watching helplessly as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S., the perennial hitmaker knew he had no other choice. Now though? That difficult decision is now looking conspicuously like a blessing in disguise.
“We were hearing grim, grim news everyday. And me running around smiling, happy, laughing, trying to promote an album like a used-car salesman in that time … it didn’t seem like the thing to be doing,” Bryan tells Sounds Like Nashville, speaking now with the benefit of hindsight, and uncertainty still ahead. “Even with postponing my concerts, I’ve never second guessed it one bit. Obviously, the financial aspect of shutting your whole world down sucks and it’s awful, and it’s awful for everybody – the businesses that live off of me touring and all that. But it’s just the right thing to do … and if you look at it now, with the success of ‘One Margarita,’ I have one more notch in the belt to promote the album. It was kind of a little blessing.”
That’s not to say he’s happy about the tragedy our country has endured — or the world as a whole, for that matter. But Bryan has always been known to fans as one of those good-natured farm kids who can make the best of a tough situation.
Counting the recent chart topper “One Margarita,” his seventh album sent three singles to Number One at country radio before it was even released (a first even for Bryan). And with his public profile growing thanks to a side job as an American Idol judge, he’s arguably a bigger deal now that he ever has been, almost 15 years into his career.
In his own words Bryan is proud of how far he’s come from his small-town roots, but he’s clearly still hardwired to that Leesburg, Georgia, lifestyle. And after the shock of COVID-19’s spread eventually wore off, he’s spent his downtime doing things like reconnecting with family and fishing — and even growing a plot of sweet corn (which he no longer recommends as a pastime activity).
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“I think the first month-and-a-half, [I was] just wrapping [my] brain around everything,” he says of slowing down after more than a decade at full-speed ahead. “It was a lot of emotional stuff when we realized we’re probably not gonna be able to perform all year, and after a month-and-a-half I really settled into my groove of whatever this year is gonna be. My main thing is, I’m just tying to have a lot of family time and be home at night.”
It’s fitting, then, that the album’s title track and spiritual center is all about the simple things — things like family time, the eternal spark of romance and the quiet stability of “home.” Bryan knows he’s moved beyond that world in many respects, but it still appeals the the multi-time Entertainer of the Year. And that balancing act defines Born Here Live Here Die Here as a whole.
“If you’re really dissecting me singing [‘Born Here Live Here Die Here’], you can say ‘Well, you actually left your small town and you’re kind of a hypocrite,’” he admits of the map-dot anthem, full of long held country touchstones and unshakeable pride. “But I don’t view it that way. I view it as a song that’s really gonna speak to those people that did stay and do love their home town. There are so many wonderful, beautiful people out there who don’t have to go chase these crazy dreams — they’re content. They love to go to church, get up and work a hard day, they love the small-town feel and what that small-town life is about, and this song really pays homage to them.”
Even as his own “crazy” dreams come true, Bryan continues looking backward throughout the album, nodding to the ’80s and ’90s country of his childhood on tracks like the romantic “Too Drunk to Drive” and wistful “Little Less Broken.” He taps acoustic balladry for the gorgeous Brent Cobb co-write, “Where Are We Goin,’” and lovingly celebrates a no-frills, middle-class upbringing in the reflective “For a Boat.”
Longtime fans, meanwhile, might experience flashbacks of their own on “One Margarita.” Released like a musical pain killer in the midst of the pandemic, the tropical-tinged hit went down like a callback to Bryan’s infamous Spring Break concerts, as he says part of his job has always been lifting spirits through troubled times.
“I looked at it like ‘I’m sure people always want to have a song they can be on the boat, or be out on the beach somewhere and enjoy,’” he says of the refreshing, charmingly lighthearted track. “So my main thing was just put a fun song out in a delicate, trying time.”
Elsewhere, “Build Me a Daddy” takes a different approach. Molding itself around classic-country levels of heartache, it imagines a young boy who loses his father to war and asks a local toy builder to fashion a new one. Bryan says he first thought the track was too sad to release, since everyone he played it for ended up crying, but now counts it as “probably my best vocal I’ve ever done.”
Still, Born Here Live Here Die Here is far from a traditional album, and Bryan would be the first to say it. Tracks like his first two singles (“Knockin’ Boots” and “What She Wants Tonight”) pushed his artistry to their modern limits, with the former relying on such a simple melody Bryan says he could play it solo and get a whole stadium dancing, and “What She Wants Tonight” heading in the opposite direction.
Full of digital programming and electronic drum loops, but also a timeless sense of passion, it serves as a allegory for the album as a whole — scratching the superstar’s itch to keep progressing, even as he strives to remain close to his roots.
That push-and-pull dynamic continues to inspire him onward, with Bryan spending time every day at the piano or with a guitar like an athlete practicing fundamentals. He’ll likely have more time to practice before the virus is finally controlled, and there’s more music to look forward to in 2020 (like a deluxe edition of the album with a few bonus tracks added in). But for now, he’s content to recharge his batteries — and secure in the knowledge that now matter how far he goes, his fans will always know where he came from.
“I certainly think I did my job of touching on different sounds,” he says. “And I hope [fans] take away that I delivered another album that says who I am in this time of my life.”