The turnout for Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour 2014 stop in Gainesville Saturday night was like something, well, straight from a Luke Bryan song.
Mud-splattered trucks by the hundreds crowded the giant field on Whitehurst Cattle Company in Archer. Boys in camo and overalls, minus shirts, and girls in all manner of sundresses, cowboy boots and body glitter drank from Miller Lite tallboys. In the center of the field, a giant stage stood flanked by semi-trucks bearing Bryan’s face and Cabela’s slogan, #ItsInMyNature. Red-topped Smirnoff tents stood next to stands selling leather belts and cowboy boots.
With a No.1 single and multi-million-dollar national tour, Bryan is a veritable country cash cow. Sponsored by 5-hour Energy, Cabela’s and Miller Lite, his sixth annual Farm Tour, with special guest up-and-comer country artist Cole Swindell, comes off the tails of his That’s My Kind of Night Tour, which has thus far grossed more than $55.5 million. A portion of the concert proceeds will go toward the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship, which awards scholarship money to college students from farming families around the communities on the tour’s stops.
Bryan’s goofy charm and sorority girl sex appeal are enough to allow him to skate by on tired, repetitive lyrics about country babes, drinking and trucks laid over simplistic, three-chord rock progressions. There’s a reason why critics, including Tom Petty, have pointed out that today’s bestselling country music is more Bon Jovi than Hank Williams.
After Swindell’s raucous opening set, the lights dimmed and a clip of Bryan shooting a flaming crossbow played over the monitors on stage — a familiar scene from one of his Cabela’s ads. Then began his act with plenty of hip gyrating, contrived shout-outs to the Gators win and live performances of the hits that have propelled him forward as today’s top-earning male country artist.
And though Bryan’s success is purely commercial — Rolling Stone gave his 2013 album “Crash My Party” just two and a half stars — the Farm Tour illustrates the crux of his appeal. Whether it’s one three-minute, three-chord song or one night spent on a farm 30 minutes away from campus, the Bryan listener can escape into a rural fantasy of whiskey, catfish dinners and country girls shaking it on the hood of daddy’s tractor.
I would venture to guess it’s a fantasy that doesn’t exist for the average Bryan fan. On Saturday, as he launched into “Rain Is a Good Thing” — prompting the girl behind me to upend her Miller Lite on the back of my legs in excitement — and images of corn fields and tractors played on the screens behind him, a girl next to me cracked open a canned Smirnoff screwdriver. In front of me, people held their smart phones high above their heads to capture video of Bryan bounding across the stage. The next day the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of UF students who’d taken a break to get muddy on a farm returned to their apartments, fraternity houses and the Starbucks in their libraries.
Sure, Bryan has tapped into a lucrative brand of rural escapism, and sure, maybe some of it rings a bit phony — Bryan has, at this point, pushed the limit on the amount of times one artist can mention catfish in his songs. But as the sun sank over Whitehurst Cattle Company, the temperature dropped and feel-good country song after feel-good country song played. Bryan’s pop-country crossover appeal became clear. He’s a cute, affable guy with a guitar and just the right amount of songwriting chops — besides genre and time, what separates Bryan from Frankie Valli, Elvis Presley or John Mayer?
It’s a familiar formula, and it’s one that works.
[A version of this story ran on page 7 on 10/9/2014]
Country singer Luke Bryan performs on his Farm Tour in Knoxville. Bryan was in Archer over the weekend when the Farm Tour came to Florida.