After having written songs for youth groups in his church and played in "a little high school band," Luke Bryan was prepared to leave his native Georgia and head out for the emerald city of Nashville.
Then a family tragedy intervened, and Bryan decided to stay at home and attend college. He's glad he did.
Bryan was a featured guest Monday (June 4) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville, an annual event designed to shed light on how people make money in the music industry.
Appearing with Bryan to help him explain how he got to where he is today were Kerri Edwards, (his manager at Red Light Management), Dustin Eichten (director of marketing at Bryan's label, Capitol Nashville) and Jay Williams (his booking agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment).
Billboard's Ray Waddell hosted the session.
After graduating from college, Bryan worked briefly for his dad. Then he moved to Nashville -- but with a maturity and sense of purpose he wouldn't have had, he pointed out, if he'd come four years earlier.
"The second I moved to Nashville," he told the audience, "it was like magic because you just feel like you're home."
His first goal, he recalled, was to become "a published songwriter." That first required him to learn how the publishing branch of the music business operated.
In the meantime, he was writing and demoing his songs. Having done his homework, he was signed to a publishing deal with the celebrated songwriter Roger Murrah two months after moving to town.
"Roger plugged me into Music Row right off the bat," said Bryan.
Edwards was pitching songs for Murrah's company when she met Bryan. At first she regarded him as a songwriter, she said, not as a potential performer.
But after "a couple of years" working with him in that capacity, she went to see him do a show and was so impressed by his stage presence, she asked Murrah if she could focus on building Bryan's career.
While he was in college, Bryan had built a reputation performing locally, and he kept that association going after he moved to Nashville. He said that at least two times a month he'd return to Georgia to play.
To keep his reputation alive there, he said he would spend "$900 or $1,000" to make CD copies of the songs he had demoed and then give these away free to his audiences. When he returned, he said, his fans would already be familiar with his music and were inclined to buy tickets to his shows.
Edwards said she initially promoted Bryan as a songwriter when she visited the A&R (artist and repertoire) departments at the Nashville record labels. Then she would point out that he was an artist, as well.
She arranged for Bryan to do showcases in Nashville in the hope of getting a record deal. But she said the prevailing feedback from the labels who saw Bryan perform was that he showed promise but was not quite ready yet for signing.
Ultimately, Edwards continued, Larry Willoughby at Capitol Records recognized Bryan's talent, and the label signed him in 2004.
Eichten noted that from the outset Bryan knew and shared with the label what he wanted to achieve as an artist.
Williams said he met with Bryan soon after he signed with Capitol but didn't really know what he had to offer as an artist until he saw him perform in Albany, Ga., as Dierks Bentley's opening act.
"He already had a regional following," said Williams. "I can't tell you how important that is."
Williams' point was that if an artist can't attract fans among the people who already know him, how can he expect to do it on a larger scale?
"My whole side in this business starts with enjoying the people you're with," Bryan said of his support team. And, he added, "Don't let the money be the crucial decision [in building your career]."
"When we started working with [Bryan]," Williams said, "[Capitol] marketed him by giving away CDs."
Capitol did this, he explained, because Bryan was primarily performing in small college towns where there was little media to promote him.
Bryan's booking agency also formed partnerships with large nightclubs outside the South just to increase his exposure.
"There were some massive flops along the way," Bryan chipped in. He recalled one date at a club in Austin where only around 15 people showed up.
In response to a question from Waddell, Williams said there were other artists on their way up who were "absolutely less patient" than Bryan was in his comparatively slow build to stardom.
Bryan said it was easy for him to show enthusiasm regardless the size of his audience.
"I just enjoy every minute I've been onstage," he noted.
Edwards agreed, saying, "I've never seen him upset by the size of a crowd."
"We don't harp on the negative," said Bryan.
To keep his college and youth crowd connection, Bryan -- who's now 35 -- has put out four Spring Break mini-albums.
He said he realizes country radio will never play such songs as "Sorority Girl" and "Time to Take My Drunk Ass Home," but the songs are reaching out to -- and attracting -- another demographic.
Bryan said he's had no trouble reconciling being a family man while having a "single guy image" onstage. He said his wife, who's often in the crowd whooping it up with her "girlfriends," enjoys the crowd response he gets.
Currently, Bryan is touring as an opening act for Jason Aldean, but Williams says he'll be headlining his own shows next year.
While he's eager to headline on his own and building momentum for that to happen, Bryan said he's happy to be working with Aldean.
"I knew this year I would not play to a single unsold-out show," he said.
Williams said that between dates with Aldean, Bryan is testing his crowd appeal in "secondary and tertiary markets" and is drawing significant attendance on his own.
Tailgates & Tanlines, Bryan's current full-length album, had sold 1,099,684 copies as of last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.