Editor’s note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown will premiere its 300th episode from Bryan’s 10th annual Farm Tour on Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 6-7) at 9 a.m. ET..
You know those one-stoplight towns that country stars always sing about? Pesotum, Ill. isn’t even that big. This town has no stop light. It only has one watering hole, and it’s miles from anywhere.
And Luke Bryan feels right at home here.
Before his Farm Tour show on Friday night (Sept. 28), Bryan told me that the tiny southern Illinois town with a population of 550 is just like Leesburg, Ga., where he grew up. That’s one of the reasons he’s been bringing his show to rural, small towns for the past ten years.
Another reason? He remembers what it was like to live so far away from the big country concerts.
“Once in a while, we’d get shows in Albany. Alabama came, Reba came. And I remember just how excited everybody got when they knew Reba was coming,” Bryan told me. “And I never will forget when Trisha Yearwood did a flood benefit in Georgia in 1994, and Kenny Chesney opened for her. I was a big Chesney fan, so even though it was an hour and a half away, I still drove it to see it because it was Trisha Yearwood and Kenny Chesney. Kenny only had one album out back then, on Capricorn.” That was Chesney’s debut album, In My Wildest Dreams, which produced two charted singles: “Whatever It Takes” and “The Tin Man.”
“We would’ve never fathomed that any big artist would ever come right to Leesburg. We were such a small town that I remember when we got a Hardee’s and everybody flipped out about it,” he laughed. “And we only have two red lights there.” As Bryan looked around the 20-acres of freshly mowed fields of oats and rye grass that were filling up with roughly 10,000 fans, he couldn’t help but notice how much he had in common with the fans.
“Leesburg was a community just like this one. So the things is, I know these people. They’re my people. I know what they’re like. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in Georgia, Florida, Alabama or the Midwest. They get up, pour their coffee, go to work. So the fact that we can come in here and give them a break from that routine is what I always wanted to do.”
In 2008, when Bryan had only released one album — I’ll Stay Me — he decided that it was time to take his show out to the farm. His first farm concert was in Claxton, Ga., where he thought he might be able to sell some tickets. And he did. He estimated that about 2,200 people showed up.
“At that point in your career, you’re losing money at almost every show. Nobody’s showing up because they don’t know who I am,” Bryan recalled. “So I just decided to try a new avenue.”
Bryan knew from that very first one that he wanted to accomplish more than just country music. He wanted to give away scholarships, to bring farmers up on stage to honor them, and to put the show in a rural area. When Bryan came back again the next year, about twice as many people showed up. That was the night that he shot his “Rain Is a Good Thing” video, in the literal rain.
The exponential growth of the Farm Tour has been apparent on so many levels. Every year, they sell more tickets, visit more towns, invite more artists, give away more scholarships and donate more meals. Part of this year’s Farm Tour included a way to help fight hunger in the U.S. Through a partnership with Feeding America, the tour’s sponsor Bayer donated a meal every time a fan used the #HeresToTheFarmer hashtag on social media. Bryan said that last year, they reached one hundred million meals, and he’s hoping to give away even more this year.
“At the end of the day, we just want these communities to enjoy it, and to have fun. And we do everything we can to make that happen. We’ve learned so much about how to make it the best fan experience we can,” he said, adding this example: “If they said we needed 100 Port-o-lets, we got 300 Port-o-lets.”
Jim Goss, the director of Farm Management for the Atkins Farm in Pesotum, told me that preparing to bring this show to his farm meant that harvesting the corn around the concert site had to be finished a little earlier, which is hard to do when you’re relying on the weather. “You worry about those kinds of things because all of that is up to mother nature,” he said. “Those are out of our control.” A stark contrast to the diminutive size of Pesotum is the vast nature of the Atkins Farm. Goss shared that this 19,000-acre farm is part of an operation that produces 2,000,000 bushels of corn and 600,000 bushels of soybeans.
Another essential element of the annual autumn tour is that behind the scenes, early in the day, it’s all about the songs. The Peach Pickers — Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip — are one of the opening acts on the tour, and Bryan didn’t just select them because of their show onstage. He hand-picked them so they could spend their days writing songs. “Any time you’re in a room with the Peach Pickers, magic is bound to happen. As songwriters, they’re used to doing the Nashville songwriting routine,” Bryan explained, “but it’s different out here.” Together with the Peach Pickers, Byran wrote “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day,” “Dirt Road Diary,” and more. Some could potentially end up on his next album. And Bryan feels blessed that when he writes a good song, it will have a good run. It hasn’t always been that way, and he’ll never forget how it felt to believe in a song that you knew nobody would hear.
“Back then, before I had my record deal, you’d write all these songs, and they were good songs, but you haven’t made a name as a writer,” he said, “so you get passed over. You’re paying your dues. But having that doubt of whether or not someone will want to cut a song was tough on me.
“The beauty of my career is,” he said, “that I’ve enjoyed every little step on the ladder to get here.”
Bryan’s Farm Tour continues this week with stops in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia.