Wes Statz, one of the family farmers who runs the Statz Bros. Dairy Farm in Marshall, Wisconsin was up until 1:00 am on Thursday (Sept. 26), harvesting 250 acres of sorghum for the 8,000 cows on his dairy farm. It was a job the farmers had to get done before 20,000 Luke Bryan fans descended on their land for the Farm Tour. And it's a lot of land. The Statz' farm is as big as the town is tiny.
All that late-night harvesting sounds like a lot of effort. Like back-breaking labor. But when I asked Statz how much work goes into taking care of 10,000 acres of crops and all the Holsteins and Jerseys, he said, “It’s not work. It’s a religion.”
It’s the kind of religion that Bryan might’ve practiced had he stayed in his small town of Leesburg, Georgia and worked in the pecan fields or the peanut plant with his dad instead of taking the leap of faith and moving to Nashville in 2001.
Before he took the stage, and after I’d received my very accelerated graduate degree in agri-business with Statz, I sat down with Bryan on his tour bus to talk about night one of his 11th year of Farm Tours.
CMT.com: Do you remember what it was that made you even consider leaving your small-town life behind?
Bryan: It was kind of a leap of faith. It was me pushing all my chips in. But my dad was really behind me. He would tell me, “While you’re young, you have to go do it.” And that’s what I’ve been telling my boys. My nephew Til is 17, and I tell him, “You have to think how precious the transition into college is. You can never get those years back.” I had to go to Nashville, so that I could live the rest of my life knowing I tried. It’s just like the Lee Ann Womack song “I Hope You Dance.” If you don’t go and try, you’re gonna have regrets and wonder what might’ve happened.
And you did try. So no regrets there. You moved there right out of Georgia Southern University, and then what?
I certainly thank God I did that. My first week in Nashville, I got a little dry-erase board, and I wrote about 20 of my goals on it: Write a No. 1 song, Sing a No. 1 song, Get a publishing deal, Get a record deal, and so on. And I've hit them all.
What a cool memento. Do you still have it?
I wish I did. But I moved around so much when I got to Nashville that it got lost in one of my moves. God Lord. I lived down in an apartment in Franklin. Then that was too much money. So I had to rent a one-room place for $100 a month. You just do what you have to do to survive.
So you’re saying that you had to give the uncertainty of the music business a shot, but that must’ve meant leaving some sure things back home. Right?
It was tough to walk away from a secure little life and future in Leesburg. I could’ve just stayed, married the sweetheart, had the big family, and this and that. But what people forget about when you enter into the music business, is that you kind of have to be anointed to deal with it all.
Just by having a lot of people in my town supporting me. I spent years having people truly encouraging me. That’s what was amazing about my small town. Most small towns have their star quarterback that they rally behind. Somebody they feel can leave and go do big, big things. I’m was that guy.
That’s a great analogy. That you’re kind of like an athlete that has to eat, sleep and breathe your passion from the minute you wake up every morning.
Right. If you’re a major league baseball player, you have to play through injuries, you have to hit a ball ten hours a day, and study the game constantly. It’s the same with music. It requires a lot of focus and so much sacrifice. And I think you have to be kind of a different breed.
How do you think working on a farm is like working a stage?
As long as you’re content, and doing what you love, and you’re growing and excited -- in farming or in the music business -- if you ever feel stale and stagnant, that is not a good feeling.
After my tour of this family farm today, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it has grown from the 20 or so cows they had when they founded the place in 1966. And yet when you look out at the crowd, it’s not 20,000 farmers. What it is is fans from small towns all over Wisconsin. How do you connect with a crowd like this one after a stadium crowd or a spring break crowd?
You stay yourself through all of it. No matter what I’ve done or where I’ve been, I’ve gotten on stage with two goals: make sure I'm the one having fun, and then make sure everybody out there is along for that ride. And I’m fortunate now that I don’t have worries, like, “Am I gonna have enough hits to do a full show?” There’s still the challenge out there to push the music, and to try to make the best music you can. Bottom line for me is, I have to be myself and connect with crowd. Even though the vibe here is different, it’s up to me to set the tone.
And how will you do that on this Farm Tour?
I may get on the piano tonight. I may do “We Rode in Trucks.” I may try to do some songs from (2016) Here’s to the Farmer. But when you have 20,000 people in one spot, if you go off the grid for too long with songs they may not know, it’ll get a little sleepy. I want to always hit them with the hits and keep the energy up, because that’s what’ll keep them coming back. That’s crucial. I’ve never ever been a big fan of being like, “Here are a few new songs I want to try on you guys.”
I know you’ve worked hard to make this Farm Tour a priority for the past 11 years, but when you look out at all the young guys, does it make you pine for the days when you could just show up and be a fan?
What I really miss is being naïve. I remember being a country music fan, and always wondering, “What is going on backstage? What do those cables power? Where do they go?” And then watching the drummer for five straight minutes. Then watching each individual band member do their thing. Even when I was out opening for (Tim) McGraw, (Rascal) Flatts, and Jason (Aldean), I was still geeking out over the whole experience. I was trying to take it all in. Those moments, being naïve, that’s the fun part. I mean, there might be a kid out there tonight who might be inspired to go do music. Maybe he'll remember for the rest of his life, “That crazy Luke Bryan put stage up in a farm field. I want to do that.”
When you first got here today, though, how about that smell?
The cow manure.
Cow manure? That’s a good smell. That smells like money. Come on, city girl.
During my tour of the vast dairy farm, Statz told me that this show wasn’t just for their farmers. It’s for all of the close-knit farming communities up here. “When this show comes to our town, it’s kind of like a reunion that the farmers all deserve. That’s the farmer way. We love getting up and going to work each day, but this day is even better,” he told me. “We think it’s gonna feel like you’re back in the corn fields, with a bonfire and a half barrel of beer.”
Bryan's Farm Tour continues Friday night in Richland, Michigan.