During a recent No. 1 party for a trio of Jason Aldean songs, songwriter Chris DeStefano said he loves being a songwriter today, because he can let so many of his influences show. Country, rock, R&B, hip-hop, blues and soul ... spend an hour listening to the radio and you'll hear something borrowed from every corner of the country, even though much of it is coming from south Georgia.

Luke Bryan's role in this musical melting pot is more than complementary. The "Strip It Down" singer is both lauded and ridiculed as he climbs the charts with each new single (11 of his last 13 singles have hit No. 1) and takes home yet another Entertainer of the Year award. On Kill the Lights, his fifth studio album, Bryan dabbles in hip-hop, hard rock, R&B and Alabama's vintage, mid '80s pop-country.

Obviously when I was a kid I didn’t understand how they were stepping out there on their own until later, you learn how they were criticized. Conway was beat up pretty good about being a pop artist.

So who threw open the doors for Bryan? Who paved the road for him to comfortably weave non-traditional styles and sounds into his own brand of country?

A better question may be: who taught him to dodge the arrows slung at him as he did it?

Bryan tells Taste of Country he learned a lot watching Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks growing up, but you need to go back further to answer the question honestly.

“When I was a kid, and you hear Conway, and Ronnie Milsap and Randy Owen and Alabama – how those guys pushed the needle of their style of music," Bryan says.

"Obviously when I was a kid I didn’t understand how they were stepping out there on their own until later, you learn how they were criticized," he furthers. "Conway was beat up pretty good about being a pop artist.”

The Alabama sound on Bryan's album wasn't intentional. The guitar tones on "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" are immediately familiar, but the singer says that all happened after he left the studio.

“That’s definitely a throwback sound,” he admits. “I play the guitar when we go into record … and then the musicians they go in there and however they’re inspired, they plug it in and fire their guitars up and that’s kind of how they do it.”

Sure, Bryan can ask for another pass at it, but on this song, “For the most part it’s like we heard that guitar right off the bat and were like ‘Man, this thing feels awesome.’”

Luke Bryan
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Songs like "Kick the Dust Up" and the album's title track are more demonstrative examples of Bryan spreading his wings, but as the album progresses, things quiet down. Four straight slow-to-mid-tempo songs about love (or the end of love, or things you do when you're in love) follow, and the album closes with three more. "Home Alone Tonight" is a true duet, in the style of Dolly and Porter. Bryan and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town hold conversation during the sensual three-minute-long song, instead of just splitting verses or harmonies.

“Our job is to be recording artists," Bryan says when asked where two people not married to one another go to find the heat a song like this requires. "It’s about getting in there and getting into character of the actual song.”

The collaboration came about rather quickly, and each recorded their parts separately. The song is unlike any Bryan has cut previously. There isn't a credited male/female duet on any of his previous four albums.

“We had always certainly entertained the right collaboration under the right circumstances, but it’s always about the right song and we’ve never really found the song that necessarily did what we wanted it to do," he says.

An uncredited collaboration later on the album is songwriter Hillary Lindsey adding harmonies to "To the Moon and Back." Their voices are a more perfect mix, and the sincerity in Bryan's voice as he sings a song meant for his wife is palpable.

With more distractions and people craving his time, finding inspiration for a new album could be a tricky proposition for this 39-year-old. On the other hand, Bryan knows what he wants after nine years as a recording artist.

luke bryan kill the lights cover
Capitol Nashville

“I think it’s still about finding songs that move me and excite me. That’s kind of the thing.”

Kill the Lights is a more personal album than Crash My Party, but there are some similarities. "Kick the Dust Up" recalls "That's My Kind of Night," and shades of previous hits appear as you're listening to some of the deeper cuts on the album. And if you miss all of that, you'll catch the Flint River reference. It's as common as his tight jeans, and it shows up on "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day."

“So many positive memories of the outdoors come from there," Bryan says of a river that cut right through his hometown. "I think it’s important in my music to establish where I’m from and whether I’m saying Flint River or making up some fictitious river, I’d rather use a real river that people know and they know that it’s me actually singing about it.”

For the record, most of those positive memories involved a fishing pole. Most.

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