NEW YORK -- There's no getting around the fact that each year's CMT on Tour headliner ends up being an artist in the proverbial catbird seat, partly because their career has been picking up unprecedented speed to begin with and partly because the additional visibility the tour provides can only accelerate that process.
Luke Bryan, the marquee name for CMT on Tour 2011, was certainly a success straight out of the gate, with his 2007 debut album, I'll Stay Me, hitting No. 2 on the country charts. But his third record, Tailgates & Tanlines, released in August, has rocketed Bryan's career to a whole new level, with the single "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" crossing over to become his biggest pop hit to date. In other words, as he kicks off the tour, Bryan is in undeniably smack dab in the midst of his moment.
That fact is not lost on the 35-year-old singer-songwriter.
"It feels great right now," he said prior to the tour's Friday night (Sept. 16) stop at New York City's Terminal 5, while adding, "I think you have to step back and really remember that these are the days and to enjoy it. Being on top of the world, you can't be there forever. It can come and go so fast, and you look back and you didn't enjoy it as much as you should have. I'm taking it all in and having a blast and loving every second of it."
Taking the long view of his career's rising tide, he said, "I hope no fans are feeling left out because I'm a little bigger these days than back in the old days when we were in little old clubs and dives. I think my true fans are excited to have been on the front end of coming to shows and seeing a couple of hundred people there, and they love to watch it grow."
CMT on Tour continues Thursday (Sept. 22) in Cedar Falls, Iowa, followed by shows Friday in Kearney, Neb., and Saturday in Brookings, S.D.
While opening acts Lee Brice, Josh Thompson and CMT's Next Superstar winner Matt Mason go above and beyond the call of duty in terms of getting the packed crowd warmed up, the 10-foot-tall letters spelling Bryan's name on the Terminal 5 stage's back wall are a visceral reminder of how high his stock has risen. And you can't help but feel a little bit of a Springsteen vibe upon hearing the long, deep shouts of "Luuuke" that echo around the venue in anticipation of Bryan's arrival.
After the house darkens and the P.A. blasts out Bryan's intro music, Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" (ascension metaphors abound), the man of the moment takes the stage, looking every inch the "Country Man" in checked work shirt, blue jeans, boots, ball cap, and scruffy beard.
After the opening number, "Someone Else Calling You Baby," Bryan does indeed launch into "Country Man," his second Top 10 single, delivering the redneck-pride anthem with such conviction that you're utterly convinced he really does know how to "salt-cure a ham." After hammering that feeling home even further on the self-explanatory "What Country Is," Bryan takes a moment to show the audience a scar on his forehead from a recent fall in Central Park, sagely observing, "A redneck on a skateboard, that does not work."
In between the Tailgates tracks "Drunk on You" and "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," he slings his ball cap backwards and suddenly bears a striking resemblance to another famous Luke -- the gruff-but-lovable male lead from TV's Gilmore Girls. Following the bittersweet "Faded Away," Bryan joyfully shows off his new, seemingly custom-made microphone stand, with a base fashioned in the image of deer antlers, and plays his hunter image for laughs, asking "Y'all got any deer in Central Park?" before the band barrels into the grungy, hard-rocking riffs of the deer-hunting tune "Drinkin' Beer and Wastin' Bullets."
Both the theme and the hooky guitar riffs of "If You Ain't Here to Party" make the tune feel as much like an '80s rock anthem as a country song and, in retrospect, foreshadows the set's encore. Shifting gears to acknowledge the recent 10th anniversary of 9/11, Bryan respectfully dedicates "We Rode in Trucks" to servicemen of all kinds, from firefighters to soldiers. The reflective mood continues as he sits at the piano -- after warning, "I'm no Billy Joel" -- to begin "Do I," the romantic tune he wrote with Lady Antebellum's Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley, that earned him his first Top 40 pop hit.
The diversity shown in Bryan's latest single, "I Don't Want This Night to End," which would be an R&B tune if you took the trucks out of the lyrics, is underlined further when he turns his first hit, the rowdy roadhouse rocker "All My Friends Say," into a medley by segueing it into Metallica's iconic "Enter Sandman" before returning to his own tune. It looks like things are about to get ominous again when the stage darkens and recorded thunder and lightning come crashing from the sound system, but it ends up being nothing more threatening than the introduction to Bryan's first No. 1 hit, "Rain Is a Good Thing." While he's singing about "feeling frisky," a woman in the audience takes it as her cue to clamber up onto the stage. She's rebuffed by the bouncers, despite the singer's pleas to let her up.
It's no great surprise when the set's encore turns out to be "Country Girl (Shake It for Me"), unfurled in all its salacious glory, but it seems like the follow-up, an unironic cover of '80s hair-metal kings Poison's "Nothin' but a Good Time," ought to feel more anomalous. When Bryan segues from that into a rocked-up version of Lady Gaga's blockbuster "Bad Romance" and the band launches into the signature riff from Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" before finally resuming Poison's party tune to end the evening, something significant is revealed about Bryan.
For all his skill as a songwriter (having co-written all of his biggest singles, as well as penning hits for other artists) and a performer (whose genial, guy-next-door image hasn't hurt his crossover appeal a bit), Bryan's greatest gift is his ability to create and convincingly personify a new musical paradigm. In Bryan's modern musical worldview, Poison, Lady Gaga, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne and contemporary country can all be accessed with equal ease in the service of finding his fans' pleasure center and hitting it hard with pop-savvy hooks.
It's all fair game, and in Bryan's hands, it all comes together with surprising seamlessness. AC/DC's "Back in Black" comes bursting from the P.A. as the fans file out of the club, and out on the street, a twentysomething girl excitedly filling a friend in on the show via cell phone puts it all in the most succinct terms possible: "How can you not dance to country music?!"