If there’s a single answer to the question posed in the title of Luke Bryan’s sixth album, “What Makes You Country,” it’s not “dirt road cred,” hunting and fishing prowess, or “the size of your tires,” to name a few examples cited in the title song. In Bryan’s case, it’s sheer amiability. Bryan isn’t just the most effusively congenial presence in country music, but maybe all of showbiz, Hanks notwithstanding. His ingratiating grin will haunt you in your dreams, and probably wear your skeptical city butt down before daylight.
The goodwill he engenders has made Bryan arguably the biggest star in country, post-Garth (not that we live in an entirely post-Garth world). Coming ten years into a commercially spectacular career, “What Makes You Country” suggests that Bryan has zero interest in fixing what ain’t broke. It’s a 15-song guidebook to What Makes Him Successful, filled with good-time drinking, better-time sex, a little bit of family, and no particular sadness that can’t be cured as soon as a certain ex-girlfriend texts back.
Four years ago, it almost looked like Bryan might be ready to make The Pivot from his party-down persona, when he recorded the Chris Stapleton-co-written “Drink a Beer,” which, despite its bro-sounding title, was a melancholy ballad about being thunderstruck by the death of a loved one. But this moving song was an aberration, not a signpost. Bryan hasn’t shown much subsequent interest in recording material with that kind of emotional depth… and given that there are plenty of performers better equipped to jerk tears than he, maybe the very slow creep of his move toward maturity is no tragedy. He may be in his early 40s and a dad, but he’s still at his most credible-sounding when he’s singing about wanting a girl to blow up his phone.
“Light It Up” lights up whatever local radio request lines are left for good reason: He and co-writer Brad Tursi (the guitarist for upstart band Old Dominion) have done a great job of capturing the youthful (and middle-aged) angst of peeking out of the shower or waking up in the middle of the night to check a phone for that all-is-forgiven text that never comes. It’s the best paean anyone in country or pop has yet written to the power of the blank screen.
The rest of the material here is as consistently inconsistent as ever. Several numbers were co-written by the team of Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley, who were the songwriters of the moment a few years ago, when bro-country was at its peak, and who are clearly still favored by Bryan, who hasn’t deserted his flair for gentler redneck tropes. The Davidson/Gorley catalog is a frustrating one; they’re terrific at putting specific, lived-in Southern lifestyle details into their lyrics, but not always so terrific at expanding those “best things about Georgia” lists into actual narrative songs. The title track of “What Makes You Country” is one of these: the writers embellish the verses with fun allusions to specific types of trucks, tractors, and trees, but they can’t be bothered to flesh out the title concept and actually explore the wide world of what makes anyone but the narrator a country boy.
In the era of Haggard and Jones, you would have looked at an album cover with titles like “Hungover in a Hotel Room,” “Drinking Again,” and “Bad Lovers” and assumed we were in for an album of lushy, sudsy heartache. But, these being the 2010s, these are all extremely happy songs. “Drinking Again” is a Jimmy Buffett-esque sing-along (Alan Jackson’s duet with Buffett on “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” also comes to mind) devoted to the idea that the best time to drink is in the thick of the evening, at closing time, with friends at home after closing time, or any time after the sun has come up. “Bad Lovers” is about how unerringly awesome sex keeps an otherwise rocky relationship flourishing, with no sense of impending doom or even irony about that. Things get even steamier in “Hungover in a Hotel Room,” a duet that casts award-winning contemporary Christian songwriter Emily Weisband — of all people! — as the hot chick who leaves “Gucci falling on the floor” and has Bryan repeatedly calling the front desk to cancel his checkout.
And what should immediate follow that tribute to days-long drunken lovemaking, a song that would almost make R. Kelly blush? Naturally, “Hungover” segues immediately into “Pick It Up,” a beautiful, tender, wistful ballad about the joys and hopes of fatherhood. It has Bryan singing about all the meaningful items he plans to leave figuratively and literally in the path of his young sons, from a fishing rod to a Ronnie Milsap LP. It’s a wonderful song about hoping your offspring pick up your likes through hints and proximity, not pressure.
And if there’s something jarringly Saturday night/Sunday morning about following an album’s fornicatin’-ist song with its most deeply and sincerely family-friendly one… well, that’s what makes this album country.
Maybe Bryan isn’t so very many years away from The Pivot after all, if the decent minority of more reflective songs is an indication. On the other hand, there’s enough enduring appeal in the best of the sexier songs — especially on several tracks where a rhythm banjo kicks in as a bed for the electric guitars — that it’s hard to make too strenuous an argument against still letting Luke be Luke. Country boy, milk it for us.