Luke Bryan masters the two sides of his country-music persona at WMZQ Fest


Luke Bryan performs at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow as part of the 2013 WMZQ Fest. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Even six weeks after the fact, it’s hard to forget the time Luke Bryan broke down in tears on national television. His name had just been announced for the coveted Entertainer of the Year prize, beating out the bigger names (Taylor Swift, etc.) at last month’s Academy of Country Music Awards — and no one was more shocked than Bryan.

Bryan’s deeply emotional moment stood in stark contrast to his usual onstage persona, the carefree party animal who headlined the day-long WMZQ Fest at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow on Saturday night. Bryan’s popularity has surged over the past few years, evidenced by platinum albums and fast-rising singles, and also by the thousands who flood his concerts; WMZQ Fest tickets were gone in 10 days, the fastest that the annual event has ever sold out.

And the approximately 25,000 in the crowd stayed, even though the lawn was soaked with rain from the day’s unfortunate weather.

“I am your master of ceremonies this evening,” Bryan announced from the stage after the first rollicking songs (“Country Man,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and the appropriately titled “Rain Is a Good Thing”). He flashed his signature blinding-white smile, clad in a tight black T-shirt and even tighter jeans. It was difficult to hear him through the piercing screams of women throughout the audience — but that was only slightly less distracting than the men of all ages imitating Bryan’s go-to onstage moves, shaking their hips and dancing as if nobody was watching.

Why does Bryan — a 36-year-old Nashville crooner with solid-though-not-spectacular vocals, whose songs are relentlessly catchy, but tackle standard country fare — elicit such hysteria? It could be because of the dynamic dual character he has created through his music. On one hand, he’s the ultimate guy’s guy, dedicating about half his material to drinking beer with buddies, partying on spring break and watching girls in bikinis. Then, a minute later, he is the ultimate Romeo, wanting nothing more than to take the love of his life out to the country for some romantic off-roading or a picnic for two in the woods.

The way he balances the two in concert is impressive — the raucous, charismatic center of attention flirts with the ladies, then turns around to be the devoted boyfriend, going home with the same girl he brought to the party. Turns out, it’s an immensely appealing concept — and in Bryan’s case, accurate, as he’s a married father of two.

During the boys-night-out part of the show, Bryan, a southern Georgia native, dedicated the semi-autobiographical small-town-living tune “Muckalee Creek Water” to guys who just want to drink moonshine, go fishing, shoot some guns and answer to no one — even if it’s just for an afternoon. He followed that up with the drinking anthem “Just a Sip” and “Suntan City,” off his recent spring break compilation album. (In between full-length albums, Bryan releases short, spring-break-themed collections that you can practically hear being blasted from car speakers along the shore).

Some time after singing about the wonders of beer, Bryan switched to wine — homemade wine, served on the tailgate of a truck, with a girl whom he sweetly tells, “If you ain’t a 10, you’re a nine-point-nine.” That smash hit, “Drunk on You,” went double platinum and created the catchphrase, “Girl, you make my speakers go boom-boom,” which he sang multiple times, showing off a vocal range rarely heard on his recordings.

Bryan can go deep — his ballad about an inevitable breakup, “Do I,” was his first No. 1, in 2009 — but why sing about sadness when it’s so much more fun to dance? His love songs mostly stick to euphoric parts of relationships. “You can wake me up in the dead of the night, wreck my plans, baby, that’s all right,” he urges in “Crash My Party,” his most recent single, already headed toward the Top 10 on country radio.

With so many people, it’s difficult to interact with the audience, but Bryan tried his best, grabbing iPhones and lying flat on the stage so he could get in self-shots. He even took someone’s permanent marker mid-song and signed a “This is my 1st concert” poster for a small child, before flinging the marker a few rows back, simultaneously teaching the young concertgoer about kindness and property destruction.

“How many of you watched the ACMs a month and a half ago?” Bryan asked at one point. Beaming that smile again as the fans screamed, he showed his appreciation, thanking the crowd. This time, there were no tears: The only thing falling was beer, as he tore open a can, took a few sips and hurled it into the night sky.

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.

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