Entertainment, On A High Note

ACM Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan and the team behind his fame

Luke Bryan took home the Entertainer of the Year award at the recent ACM Awards and it reminded us of this story from our 2014 summer issue where we talked to Bryan and the team behind him that helped him rise to a bonafide country music superstar. Enjoy with us this look back at one of our favorite stories, and one of our most popular, from last year.

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An interview with Luke Bryan and some of his “top brass”… who aren’t in the band!

Luke Bryan is the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year for 2013, and garnered three nominations for this year’s ACM awards. And for the second year in a row, Bryan co-hosted the awards with his friend and fellow-artist, Blake Shelton.

Though no one knew what to expect when the two were paired last year, it appears there may be no slowing the duo down. Having hosted for 2013 and 2014, they are now scheduled to host the ACM’s 50th anniversary show in 2015 from the Dallas Cowboys’ home, the 80,000 seat AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, TX.

Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton hosting the 2014 ACM Awards / Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton hosting the 2014 ACM Awards / Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Speaking of not knowing what to expect, when I spoke with Luke Bryan, I was surprised at the depth of humility and warm regard that he exudes. It was like talking casually with one of my own brothers as I listened to him speak of how he loves his music, how he appreciates his supporting crew and fans, and how he loves and holds his own family in very high regard.

Bryan also talks about how he met his current manager, Kerri Edwards, and how he met his producer, co-writer and friend, Jeff Stevens.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Let’s start at the beginning.

Even though Luke Bryan may make it look easy, a lot of commitment and hard work goes on behind the shows, the schedules, the stage, the spotlight and the fame. But despite that workload, you won’t hear Bryan or any of his crew complaining! The underlying theme that is consistently heard from Bryan and his crew is “Grateful.” They are grateful to be where they are today and to be going through this journey together.

Luke Bryan with Manager, Kerri Edwards, and Producer Jeff Stevens in the studio / Photo by Ed Rode

Luke Bryan with Manager, Kerri Edwards, and Producer Jeff Stevens in the studio / Photo by Ed Rode

Some of the folks who make up Bryan’s team include Kerri Edwards, his aforementioned manager; Jeff Stevens, his producer; Jay Williams of the William Morris Endeavor/Agency; Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell (and his team) for concert promotion; Mike Dungan, chairman & CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG); Cindy Mabe, UMG’s senior VP of marketing; Dustin Eichten, UMG’s senior director of marketing & artist development; and Jessie Schmidt of Schmidt Relations, who is Bryan’s publicist.

This is certainly not the entire list! There are lighting, tech and sound guys, musicians, songwriters, photographers, stylists, road hands (fondly known as “roadies”), and the list goes on and on. And all these people connect every day to back up the career of an artist.

Though we didn’t have time to catch up with every member of his crew, we thought we’d touch base with the two people who have worked with him the longest – his manager, Kerri Edwards and his producer, Jeff Stevens.

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Luke Bryan with Producer, Jeff Stevens in the studio / Photo by Ed Rode

Luke Bryan with Producer, Jeff Stevens in the studio / Photo by Ed Rode

Kerri Edwards hails from the small town of Alum Creek, W.Va. and graduated from Duval High School. When it came time for college, Edwards moved to Nashville to attend Lipscomb University. Edwards had originally planned to intern at a TV station as part of her college requirements, but she happened to run into an Arista Records A&R person at an event. Once the two got talking, Edwards was offered the opportunity to intern at Arista – where she started out working in radio promotions.

Eventually, Edwards was hired full time in the label’s A&R department – working with and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters.
“The basis of the first part of my career was all in the creative, songwriting side of things,” informs Edwards.

— Meeting Luke Bryan —

Luke Bryan at 2013 CMA Fest on LP Field stage / Photo by larry Darling, flickr.com/photos/tncountryfan

Luke Bryan at 2013 CMA Fest on LP Field stage / Photo by larry Darling, flickr.com/photos/tncountryfan

Edwards spent seven years at Arista Records before Arista merged with Sony, which cost a lot of people their jobs. Edwards left Arista and was hired by Murrah Music as a “song plugger,” which allowed her to continue working with songwriters. A “song plugger,” for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, describes a person who markets a songwriter’s songs to labels, artists or producers who can get the song recorded.

One of the first songwriters she was assigned to plug songs for was Luke Bryan.

“I knew Luke did the ‘artist’ thing, but I was more focused on trying to get his songs cut,” relates Edwards. “But I ended up going to Georgia with some friends to see Luke perform, and when I saw his performance, that changed everything for me! He was at a much higher level than I would’ve imagined. So then it just became a mission to figure out how to help him….and with Roger Murrah’s blessing, I just made my focus at that point to work on Luke’s songwriting and his songwriting partners.”

And Edwards had one particular person in mind who she thought would be perfect to write with Bryan.

“I had been talking with Jeff Stevens about writing with him, and when we finally got it worked out, they just connected immediately. The first song they wrote ended up being recorded on Luke’s first record after he got his deal.”

— Luke’s Producer, Jeff Stevens —

A few years back, Jeff Stevens had a record deal of his own on Atlantic Records, which is where, Stevens says, he learned how to make a record from the artist’s point of view. Stevens made three records for Atlantic, but he did not produce his own music at that point. He had a producer doing for him what he does now for Luke Bryan.

Kerri Edwards, Red Light Management; Jeff Stevens, Producer; Luke Bryan and UMG Nashville Chairman & CEO, Mike Dungan / Photo by Ed Rode/Courtesy Schmidt Relations

Kerri Edwards, Red Light Management; Jeff Stevens, Producer; Luke Bryan and UMG Nashville Chairman & CEO, Mike Dungan / Photo by Ed Rode/Courtesy Schmidt Relations

From there, Stevens’ career took a natural path into being a full-time songwriter. Part of a songwriter’s duty is to produce his or her own demos, which is what Stevens did.

“I spent a lot of time producing hundreds of demos on songs I sang, and I worked some occasionally with other singers,” relates Stevens. “Regardless, I was exploring different sounds, rhythms and everything all the time. But honestly, I wasn’t really that big into the production thing. It just didn’t appeal to me that much.

“But then, Luke and I met on a songwriting session that Kerri had set up,” describes Stevens.

“She’d asked me to write with Luke, and I told her I’d love to. But it took us a while to get together. Kerri is my cousin, by the way, but she had never asked me to write with anyone before. I knew this guy must be pretty good, because she was real excited about him as an artist.”

— Says Luke —

“I was writing songs at Murrah Music, and Kerri was hired and started as my song plugger right away. She knew I had said I was an artist, but she had never seen me perform,” Bryan recalls. “She and some friends came to a show I did down in Georgia and afterwards, Kerri was really excited. She – just kind of by default – started handling my schedule and handling my songwriters and songwriting meetings. She was just a real team player for me, and she was persistent about wanting to book me with Jeff, her cousin. And I think he turned her down for about a year because he said he didn’t really like to write with artists!” Bryan relates with a laugh. ”But finally, she talked him into writing with me, and we hit it off right away. And as they say, the rest is history.

“The first song Jeff and I officially wrote was ‘Baby’s On the Way,’ which I cut on my first album too, but ‘All My Friends Say’ was our fourth or fifth one,” recalls Bryan. “It was a really great start and really got my career going where it needed to go.”

— The Record Deal —

A year or so in, when Edwards felt that Bryan had enough great songs under his belt, she started talking with different label heads about considering Bryan “as an artist.”

Luke Bryan performing on tour 2013 to benefit the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship Fund / Photo by Michael Monaco

Luke Bryan performing on tour 2013 to benefit the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship Fund / Photo by Michael Monaco

They caught the ear of Larry Willoughby at Capitol Records.

After hearing songs that Stevens and Bryan had written and that Stevens had produced, Willoughby suggested the two stick with making music together.

“So that’s how that came about! “ Edwards exclaims. “I hooked them up to write, but Larry is the one who suggested Luke and Jeff keep working together. Jeff wasn’t necessarily looking to produce him at that time, and the same for me. I wasn’t necessarily looking to be his manager.”

Stevens agrees. “It just started from that co-writing arrangement that I ended up getting into producing, and I’m really grateful that it worked out that way!” states Stevens matter-of-factly. “Because working with Luke, I really got into producing full force with everything I had. And I’ve learned a lot since then – and we’re still learning every day!”

Edwards adds, “It just worked out that way because we both believed in him and wanted to do all we could to help him.”

— The Journey —

Help they did, but the decisions along the way have not all been easy ones. There are decisions about songs, scheduling and even whether or not to headline a tour. Many thought Bryan should’ve been headlining a year or more ago, so why didn’t he?

Luke Bryan – Spring Break 2013 / Photo by Bryan Whitley

Luke Bryan – Spring Break 2013 / Photo by Bryan Whitley

“We were real patient about the headlining situation,” relates Bryan. “I had seen people jumping out there and doing it too soon, and I didn’t want to do that…It has to be the right time. So I had dug my heels in on making it the right time. Between me, Jeff and Kerri – and everybody’s advice – we always try to make sure we make the right moves. We chose to hold back, and it turned out to be the right move.”

Some might compare Bryan to Garth Brooks with the conscientious way he is pacing himself – planning every detail, being very methodical and well thought out when it comes to his career.

At the mention of Brooks, Bryan humbly responds, “I’ve not heard that comparison. But if I did, I’d be very complimented. He’s always been almost savant about his career. Anytime you make it to a level like that, talent can take you so far – being lucky and being blessed – but then there’s a whole other level of picking the best people to be around you and help you make the right decisions. And for me personally, I like the people around me to make decisions. I trust them, and they know me and they know what I like and what I don’t like. I don’t mind them pulling the trigger on something when they know me that well. I’m just grateful to have those folks around me and to know they support me the way they do.”

Edwards agrees wholeheartedly. “We always try to talk things through, and there’s a group of people we surround ourselves with because we trust their opinions. We all just try to be real and honest and step back and look at everything. And, yes – we probably could have done it, and Luke could have headlined. But we had some great opportunities for Luke to perform in front of some other stars and thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to get out there and keep learning how they run things and how they do things. And we wanted to keep building up the songs.

“Songs take a long time to get charted and move up the charts…so it takes an artist a long time to build up enough songs to do their own show. It’s something a lot of people don’t think about, and it’s a lot of responsibility to take on a tour,” Edwards comments.

“We probably have 50 employees, and we’re responsible for them and their families and keeping everybody fed!” Edwards says with a laugh. “You know, it’s a lot!”

— 2014 “That’s My Kind of Night Tour”—

 

Luke Bryan at 2013 CMA Fest on LP Field / Photo by Larry Darling/flickr.com/photos/tncountryfan

Luke Bryan at 2013 CMA Fest on LP Field / Photo by Larry Darling/flickr.com/photos/tncountryfan

Fans of Bryan’s live shows will fill stadiums and arenas in droves all over the country and will experience his laidback personality, genuine character and great country songs. They’ll also have an opportunity to see another side of Bryan when he jumps right smack-dab into a rapjust for fun!Well, there is little to worry about now! We’re betting everybody gets fed and has work for quite a few more years to come. Because Luke Bryan’s 2014 “That’s My Kind of Night Tour” is set, and he is indeed headlining!

“I wouldn’t say I’m a rapper,” Bryan confides with a laugh. “I’m a Georgia boy and grew up listening to country. But somehow the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and some of those guys got mixed in. Pretty much all forms of music were reaching me at an early age. I think music is that way for everybody these days.”

No doubt many of the songs from the “Crash My Party” album and hits from previous albums will be performed on tour along the way, but there is one song that Bryan has dedicated to his late brother and sister that has very special meaning for him. “Drink A Beer” sums up his goal for every song he puts out.

“You want to put music out that really touches people. And it’s my goal to always do that. ‘Drink A Beer’ does that, and in a way that’s really subtle. I think so many people in their life have had someone they have that connection with – kind of a country connection – where they just feel comfortable sitting back and having a beer and going fishing or what not. I think a lot of people can relate to that song. But the whole point in doing this – no matter what the song – is to connect with people and give them something they can relate to. So I try to do that with whatever we write or choose to record.”

The songs are ready, the buses are rolling and the stages are going up. The artist and his crew are working hard, but the rewards are great!

On having the chance to perform to STADIUMS FULL of FANS?

Bryan says it is something he’s “dreamed about for years.”

His dream is coming true!

Three major stadiums have been booked on the tour – Pittsburg’s Heinz Field on June 21, Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on Aug. 15, and Chicago’s Soldier Field on Aug. 31. We have it on good authority that Soldier Field sold out Bryan’s show in 30 minutes! Though Nashville’s LP Field isn’t on the schedule, there is some speculation that more tour dates could be added. Cross your fingers, Nashville!

— That’s a Wrap! —

You can’t leave a conversation with an artist like Luke Bryan and not ask how he keeps it all together.

“Well, I do feel blessed for sure, and I’m in this with my family. We enjoy it, and we live it together and have fun with it. As long as we stay on the same page about it, we stay fired up about it!

“We live in Nashville. It’s my home. The good thing about Nashville is that you can ease around and no one bothers you much. It’s about as normal a life as we could get. So when we get down time, we try to spend it together. It keeps it all pretty real.”

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