Country music comes to Luke Bryan just as naturally as hunting, fishing, baseball and... spring break.
Raised to be a good ol' southern boy in the rural southern Georgia town of Leesburg, Bryan said, "My first memories of music were country music and Ronnie Milsap. Where I grew up, it was what you listened to. And anything else, you were somewhat out of place."
With his daddy Tommy and mama LeClaire listening to it around-the-clock on the radio, little Luke grew up singing in church and became a fan of country "kinda by default," he admits now.
That experience has served him well. Almost 11 years after making the move to Nashville, the Capitol Records Nashville recording artist is making his mark in the Music City. High-profile appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in April 2007, Celebrity Apprentice in April 2010 and as a popular supporting act on tours headlined by Tim McGraw in 2011 and fellow Georgian Jason (My Kinda Party) Aldean in 2012 have helped the performer formerly known as Country's Best New Artist turn his full-length albums into gold. That includes 2011's Tailgates & Tanlines.
The day before he was set to release the fourth in a series of spring break EPs -- Spring Break 4... Suntan City on March 6 (available now on iTunes and other digital outlets) -- Bryan was driving himself to Nashville for a party in celebration of his third No. 1 single, "I Don't Want This Night To End."
Now he's looking forward to two concerts March 13-14 to promote the spring break release on one of his favorite stomping grounds, the Spinnaker Beach Club in Panama City, Florida. "It's kinda the only show of the year that I drink while I perform," Bryan said. "It seems like the thing to do."
Before that, though, while steering clear of a reckless driver, the "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)" singer was eager to chat over the phone about a number of other subjects, including baseball, his humble roots, how he caught spring fever and who freaked him out on Celebrity Apprentice.
Bryan didn't hesitate to participate in this "Who, What, When, Where and Why" Q&A, which includes his edited responses.
Who do you look up to as a country music role model?
"As far as heroes thorough the years, I'd say definitely Alabama and Randy Owen, Conway Twitty was a big influence of mine, George Strait, Lionel Richie. It's easier to list the top five but a lot of them had a big influence on me."
Where (and when) did you first meet your wife Caroline?
"We met in college (Georgia Southern) back in fall 1998. At a little bar called Dingus Magee's in Statesboro, Georgia. We dated in college and then we broke up for like 5 1/2 years and got back together... and we've been depending on each other ever since. (They have two sons -- Thomas, who turns 4 this month, and 19-month-old Tatum).
"I was playing a little bar in Statesboro and she just happened to kinda be in town. We kinda saw each other and talked a little bit and then started emailing back and forth a little bit. And she was like, 'Hey, you want to come to my family's Christmas party?' I went to the party and the rest is history."
What can you share about the split?
"She was three years younger than me in college. I was about done with school when we met. So I kinda went off and did my thing in Nashville and she finished up her college experience and it kinda allowed us to both go get our feet a little firmer on the ground."
Who freaked you out the most on Celebrity Apprentice (when Bryan and Emily West got "country makeovers" from two teams of celebrity contestants)?
(Long pause) "Cyndi Lauper (the project manager on the opposing team) was pretty much out there. I didn't get much time around her, but ... For the performance [of "Rain is a Good Thing"], we used all of my crew guys and stuff. She couldn't understand that my guy was mixing it for TV because that's really all that mattered. And she was yelling at all my guys for it not sounding good in the room. But my guys were like ... television wouldn't let us change the sound because they liked the way it sounded on TV. She got a little weird there. It took a lot of biting of the tongue to keep some of my guys from not lashing out. Pretty weird."
What did you think about the overall experience? Did you enjoy it?
"I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. I don't regret it. Looking back, I think it was a positive thing to do. I don't think it was a make-or-break moment. Like I said, I don't have any regrets and sometimes that's as good as a positive."
In terms of your career, where do you expect to be five years from now?
"I expect to hopefully be in the running for some entertainer of the year situations and hopefully be headlining where we could play some stadiums and stuff like that. But you know, I want to be happy and enjoying it as much as I'm enjoying it now. The main thing is just trying to make the music that you want to make and have fun with it ... And making the most of every situation."
When did you know you wanted to be a country singer?
"I would say probably I knew in 1996. It took quite a while to pull the trigger on making it happen. I was planning on moving to Nashville and I had an apartment and my older brother (Chris) was killed in a car accident. ... I decided to stay and hang around my family and finish up college. I was a 19-year-old kid determined to move to Nashville. But when I moved up here, I was really ready to go at that point. It was the right time. ... When you're driving to Nashville and sign the lease on the apartment, that's when it becomes pretty real."
You'll be singing ("Running With the Night") with Lionel Richie on a prime-time CBS special (ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends -- In Concert). What are your thoughts about doing that?
"It was certainly a wonderful opportunity to be a part of that Lionel Richie tribute with the ACMs. And he was definitely in my top five, top three most influential songwriters and singers and, in my opinion, one of the greatest songwriters ever. He was a huge inspiration to me. So it was a no-brainer. I was saying my prayers every night that I got that opportunity."
What would you be doing if you couldn't play country music?
"I think I would be either working for my dad ... my dad owns a fertilizer chemical company and a peanut company down in South Georgia. I would be either down there with him or I would be probably working with my brother-in-law in real estate of some sort."
What's been the defining moment in your country music career to date?
"I think it's hard to say one moment. I think the defining moment in my career is the day that I moved to Nashville -- September 1, 2001. That's the biggest step to getting here is making that move. Anything that happens, the wonderful opportunities that happen to you, can't happen until you make that move. Obviously, first time at the Opry (performing "We Rode In Trucks" and his debut single "All My Friends Say"), the CMA Award performance (in 2011). Winning the ACM best new artist a few years back (2010). There's been a lot. But the single biggest deal was packing up and moving to Nashville and putting it all on the line."
Luke Bryan performing "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" at the 2011 CMA Awards:
What have you learned from your touring experiences?
"Countless things. When you have the ability through the years to open essentially for almost everybody in the business, and can honestly spend a little bit of time with them, it's a lot of learning. It's a good community, country music, because we get the chance to sit down and ... me and Tim McGraw spend a lot of time. Me and Kenny Chesney had the opportunity to spend a lot of time together. It's been a lot of great advice through the years. You just try to log it into your brain and use it to hopefully your benefit and be a better artist yourself."
Who is your best friend in the business?
"My best artist friend is definitely Jason Aldean. He and I really get along great and are really great friends. It's fun to tour with a buddy and somebody that I just enjoy hanging out with. If we weren't touring together, we'd be hunting in the off-season still and knocking around doing stuff, certainly. I guess Jason and I are going on about four years knowing one another. We actually met in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a radio station lobby and kinda chatted and had some mutual fans. As time progressed, we kinda hunted in the off-season a little bit. We had a mutual friend in major league baseball (Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche) that kind of put us together hunting."
You're a big baseball fan. Who do you follow? Since you're from Georgia, are you a big fan of the Braves?
"Yes sir. I'm a big sports fan in general. Me and (Atlanta Braves infielder) Chipper Jones are really good buddies and me and a lot of the Braves are good buddies."
Where do you like to go and what do you like to do when you're not performing?
"My hobbies are definitely just hunting and fishing. Doing some sports. Probably fishing is my first passion. The outdoors is mainly what I enjoy and I've been preaching all that to my boys. Having two boys, it's fun to have that opportunity."
What do you hunt?
"Pretty much anything. Mainly deer and doves and quails and ducks."
Why Panama City for spring break?
"Growing up in South Georgia, Panama City was where we always went to ... That's where we always did spring break. Actually, my wife and I, we spent a spring break down there our first year we were dating. It seemed like the right location. It's a fun area, we know a lot of spring breakers that go down there. We always kinda partied between La Vela or Spinnakers."
What is your most memorable spring break moment?
"Way back when (spring 1999 with a big group), my (future) wife and I jumped in the water the first night and it was about 50 degrees. The rest of the week, we had the flu. So we kinda laid in the bed and had the cold sweats the rest of the week. So that's a pretty funny memory."
What is the craziest thing you ever did on spring break?
"I was always pretty tame. Other than just maybe drinking a little too much. In high school (around 1994 or '95 in Panama City), one of my buddies turned (the car) into a strip mall and drove all up on the curb. We shouldn't have been driving, to say the least. A cop came up and wrote us a ticket for driving up on the sidewalk and that's how the ticket read. I don't think my parents would have been too proud of the description of the ticket."
When is someone too old to appreciate spring break?
"I guess if you're going down there and you're 26, 27, it gets a little weird at that point. But, hey, I can't call anybody out, 'cause I'm 35 and still going down there ... I think if you're in the spirit and you're in the mood, come and have a good time."
Publicity photos courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville.
See video clips of Luke Bryan performing "Spring Break-Up," "Shake The Sand" and "Little Bit Later On" from his Spring Break 4... Suntan City EP: