HELP WANTED: Country singer, preferably under 40, who can draw between 40,000 and 55,000 fans to NFL stadium in mid-Atlantic city. Must have string of No. 1 country hits and proven experience as amphitheater headliner. Good looks and ACM Entertainer of the Year award a plus.
That ad didn't appear in the trades, but one can imagine these were the qualifications for the guy to replace Kenny Chesney on the summer stadium tour circuit.
By taking a hiatus this summer, Mr. Chesney, who has packed Heinz Field seven times in the past nine years, left a summer vacancy at the home of the Steelers. Not only that, Taylor Swift, who's been on The Red Tour since March 2013, just wrapped up stadium shows in Asia, and she's ready for a well-deserved break.
There were a handful of contenders for the job.
• Brad Paisley: Hot guitar slinger and nearby West Virginia boy, he was set to open his H20 Tour at Heinz Field in 2011, but it was canceled, presumably because sales were soft. His last album, "Wheelhouse," did about 200,000 sales. Live Nation put him at First Niagara Pavilion in May.
• Jason Aldean: Strong contender with multiple sellouts in Burgettstown, and his last album, 2012's "Night Train," boasted 1.6 million sales and five Top 10 hits. He got PNC Park for July 26 and sold it out.
• Eric Church: The hard-rocking outlaw of the bunch, he charged up the crowd as much as Mr. Chesney last year. Risky, though, because he doesn't have all the No. 1 singles or the Entertainer of the Year award. Latest album, "The Outsiders," has moved about 600k. He opted for a fall U.S. tour with a Consol Energy Center date on Oct. 11.
• Luke Bryan: Winner.
The 37-year-old singer from Georgia, who started out in Nashville writing songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, has been on a roll since he went to No. 1 for the first time in 2010 singing about the benefits of rain -- "Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey/Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky" -- on his second album, "Doin' My Thing."
He went from playing Saddle Ridge in 2007 to opening for Mr. Chesney at Heinz Field in 2008 to a Pirates post-game show in 2010. One month before his double-platinum third album, "Tailgates & Tanlines," was released in 2011, he was opening for Tim McGraw at First Niagara Pavilion, riding high with "Country Girl (Shake it for Me)," currently sitting at 18.4 million YouTube views. The next summer, with the No. 1 single "Drunk on You" becoming a country anthem, his days as an opening act were winding down with a stint backing Mr. Aldean at the Pavilion.
Along the way, he was perfecting his knack for tossed-off drinking songs on his "Spring Break" EPs, and in April 2013, he pulled off the big upset, snagging the ACM Entertainer of the Year over Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Mr. Aldean and Ms. Swift.
In August, he topped the album charts with his fourth album "Crash My Party" and in September sold out the Pavilion for his first time here as a headliner. "Crash My Party" inspired USA Today to call him "just another backwoods party animal," and Post-Gazette critic Rich Kienzle chimed in that he "symbolizes everything wrong with Nashville in 2013."
He also symbolizes everything bro-country fans want in 2013: rocked-up songs about beer, girls and trucks, no matter how formulaic they may be.
On Saturday, that's what they'll get from Mr. Bryan, who is playing his first stadium show as a headliner in Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, he called to talk about it.
The first time you played here you did Saddle Ridge ...
Yeah, just a few years ago, no doubt.
... then the next time you came back to open for Kenny Chesney at the stadium. What's it like to return now as the headliner?
Oh, well, man, it's certainly the definition of the American Dream to be in one of the most famous cities in the United States, one of the most hard-working prideful cities, and to just go up the ladder of success within the town of Pittsburgh and then to come to Heinz Field, such a prestigious football arena and be able to sell it out. Man, we're really excited about being there.
I thought Pittsburgh was the first stadium show, but I guess you played that festival at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Well, no, June 21 is my first official headlining my own stadium. Now, I have played stadiums like on big festivals but never something that I created.
Do you sense that Pittsburgh is a hotbed of this type of country?
I think Pittsburgh has always been a great country music market, and great for all the country music artists. Certainly, when we were planning out our year, our desire to start embarking on stadiums, Pittsburgh was very, very high on the list of where we were wanting to go.
What kind of adjustment will there be for you to be a stadium headliner in terms of the performance?
Well, with me, man, every show I just try to go out there and just give it my all. That's kind of the main thing for me: Get out there and sing the best I can and try to make every person in the stands feel like I gave them some attention and left them wanting some more.
From the reviews of the Chicago show, it sounds like you also have the confidence in your band to try songs that you've never even played before.
Well, man, just last week at Bayou Country Superfest, I just got up there and started playing whatever came to mind. I think the spontaneity of music and being up there no matter what the venue, that's always fun. I think the fans enjoy that.
Going to back to when you came to Saddle Ridge and that first Kenny show, would you say you had a more traditional sound than you have now?
I think my sound back then was certainly a little different, but I think I've evolved through the years and I think evolved to what I've become to somewhat move the needle and get me down a path to be able to play stadiums, and I think I've become a better singer, a better writer, better performer, but I think you have to always get better and work harder, and we've been doing that.
I guess also when you play live you get a sense of what people respond to.
Yeah, there's no better way to test songs and there's no better way to read people and to figure out people than to get up there and play your music right in front of them.
You've obviously heard that criticism of the modern country scene as being beer, trucks and parties, and your name has certainly been thrown into that. You have people saying, "Well, Willie and Johnny Cash, they didn't do that." What do you say to those people?
Man, I mean, I don't know. Listen, everything I want to know about what I'm doing is vindicated when I walk into, you know, Heinz Field, and I look out there and there's people that have paid and laid down their hard-earned money to come see something that they want to enjoy. Where the rubber meets the road for me are people buying your music or people wanting to come see you and people having a good time. That whole "nothing's ever as good as the old days," that whole cliche of what people always want to say, it doesn't really interest me. I don't know. Hell, Willie Nelson was certainly different than Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash was certainly different than Ray Price, so who knows. I'm doing this interview with you. I got up from writing a song and came and started this interview. I try to get up and write the best song I can every day and try to find songs throughout the city of Nashville to put on my albums and change some songwriters' lives and change country music fans' lives, and if people want to critique that or doubt my methods, whatever, I can't do anything about that.
Also, not every one of the songs on "Crash My Party" is like "That's My Kind of Night."
Well, yeah, I think it's kind of ridiculous if you critique somebody on one body of work. If you hold them to the fire. ... If you go back through the Conway Twittys and Ronnie Milsaps and George Straits, if you analyzed every song they did throughout their whole career, you can't record a "song of the year" every time. People want to have some fun, people want to cry a little bit, people want to dance to a love song. When I play "That's My Kind of Night," I have fun singing it and people have fun dancing to it. When I play "Drink a Beer," it's very emotional for me and very emotional for everybody out there in the crowd.
On another note, what's it like for you to see People magazine and a pic of you that says "Country's Sexiest Man"?
Well, it's funny. I certainly don't wake up every day and go to the tanning bed or go get a facial. It's flattering. I'm glad that People magazine feels that way. If me being on the cover will sell them some magazines, well, then that's good for them.
Do you think country is a hard market for young people to break into right now?
I think any form of entertainment at a high level is hard to get into. It's just not really designed for somebody being a fly-by-night person. I think you gotta put in your time, put in your homework, work hard and cherish every relationship along the way, and build it brick by brick. I think if this success and fame and everything is just laid out on a platter to you very easily, then it's kind of a scary thing. I think if you can get out there and work your butt off for it, that's what it's all about. Look at Taylor Swift. Nobody worked harder than Taylor and nobody was really younger than Taylor. But like I said, it's just difficult to do this. It's going to be hard whether you're young or old.
Do you think your summer tour is a replacement for Kenny or do you think you'll stick with stadiums?
I don't see myself as a replacement for Kenny at all. I see myself as somebody that is going to play a lot of shows a year, and next year we have a plan for 10 to 20 stadiums, and growing. But also, you know, I just spent two weeks up in Canada playing for arenas that were 3,000-seat arenas that we did two or three nights in a row, because I just love getting out there and playing. It does not matter. I'm in the business to get on stage if it's 200 people or 200,000. That's when I'm enjoying my career the most, when I'm on stage. Stadiums are something I always dreamed of. Now it's upon me. It's my time to go after big old stadiums and creating a really amazing experience for the fans.
Kenny played here last year, and in the aftermath, there was so much trash left from the tailgating that people were calling for a ban on country stadium concerts in Pittsburgh. Is there any message you would send to the fans?
Well, on all of my endeavors in any city or anything, I've always had the personal charge to leave it better than you found it, and I'd never want me or my fans coming into any city and it be nothing but an extreme positive thing for the city. So, having said that, it's not that hard if you tailgate to clean it up. I think that's just common sense, common courtesy, and no matter if it's Kenny or me or whoever from now on, I would hope that message got out there and fans make a concerted effort to clean up their mess.
And I think they're going to urge you to wave a Terrible Towel in Pittsburgh. You're a Falcons fan, right?
Yeah, but, man, I don't get into the politics of football. My thing is, I'll be up there with a Terrible Towel because that night I'm a resident of Pittsburgh, because you guys have made a dream of mine come true, and I'm there to be a champion for a great city.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: scottmervis_pg.