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Luke, who has already squeezed in an early morning workout, sits in his dressing room, prepping for a performance on 'LIVE! With Regis & Kelly' at ABC's studios on New York City's Upper West Side.
"It's a little too perfectly round and poofy," he jokes, examining his hair in the vanity table mirror. "It don't matter, I'm going to put a hat on!" he insists with a laugh, a comment that is quickly met with a chorus of "No!"s from his entourage in the room. "You've got great hair! We agreed: you wore the hat last night, so no hat today!"
While getting camera ready for his first-ever appearance of the popular morning talk show, Luke takes a moment to reflect on his growth as an artist. "The biggest difference between this album over the first two is having more knowledge going in and recording, and making sure we took our time," he explains. "With the second album [2009's 'Doin' My Thing'], there were things I'd want to go back and record differently and sing better. With this album, we made sure when I was ready to sing that I was feeling great. We took our time, we never really got backed up against the time frame. I feel like, across the board, the vocals are some of the best I've ever done."
"Another thing is that we were really able to find some great outside songs," says the country crooner who started his career writing songs for other artists, including Travis Tritt and Billy Currington. "It used to be that I could only sing songs that I wrote. It was nice to finally find an outside song that I could really sing, and it turned out nice on the album. I'm really proud of that."
Luke recalls the days of songwriting for others before he was an established artist himself. "What was funny was that back when other people were recording my songs, I was writing them for me and they just worked for other artists. You use that mentality. I used to just write and not know if it was anything."
But things are a bit different for the 35-year-old entertainer, now a seasoned vet with over 10 years experience in the industry. "When I write them these days, I'm a little more dialed in to who I am as an artist. It's fun taking a song like 'Country Girl (Shake It for Me)' and really making it something fun, something I can put my stamp on."
Diana Levine for AOL
"It's nice to do these things and be relaxed, just because I've done it more," Luke says before heading up to the stage at 8:25 AM for sound check, which included a brief cover of Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance.' But after joking about "zen moments" and "chi" with his band members backstage and dedicating their pre-show chant to another 'Regis & Kelly' guest, 'Jersey Shore' star J-Woww, it's 'Tailgates & Tanlines' lead single, 'Country Girl (Shake It for Me),' that Luke performs (hat-less, by the way) for the enthusiastic audience.
"Kelly was shakin' it!" Luke exclaims with a smile, as the adrenaline from the high-energy performance is still pumping.
In addition to hitting No. 4 on Billboard's country singles chart, 'Country Girl (Shake It for Me)' has entered the Top 25 of the Billboard Hot 100, a position typically held by only the top pop music artists. Luke, however, isn't too concerned about his genre-jumping mass appeal and the potential backlash from the die-hard country community.
"The main thing is stay true to who you are," he notes. "When it happens unnaturally and when it happens forced, it gets a little weird. You just make sure you love it and that it's the music that you want to be represented by. The rest is just out of your hands. It's up to the fans and the people who buy the album."
Luke does admit that the first album he ever bought was Michael Jackson's 'Thriller,' but insists he always knew he'd be singing country music and no other genre. His greatest influences were the country greats, after all.
"The music that I grew up loving, I always hope is in my music. I grew up really gravitating to the fun country songs that were big hits, and watching artists like [Kenny] Chesney and [Tim] McGraw, who had big, fun up-tempos."
Speaking of Tim McGraw, Luke reflects on his unforgettable experience opening for the legend on the Emotional Traffic tour: "He spray painted my Bronco! It was definitely one of the best jokes played on me."
All pranks aside, "It's been a great tour all together," Luke says. "I've really enjoyed being out with him all summer and I certainly hate that it's all coming to an end. I learned a lot from him. I learned how passionate he is about music and his fans. It's neat to see someone like that who's been in the business so long still driving."
It seems Tim's drive has rubbed off on Luke. He's set to embark on his first-ever headlining tour, CMT on Tour: Luke Bryan Tailgates & Tanlines, in September with only a moment to breathe after wrapping his tour with Tim.
"I'm not going to reveal any secrets, but we will have a big surprise that we haven't showed yet and pull out a card that nobody's seen yet. So come see it!" a tight-lipped Luke reveals of the upcoming series of live shows.
Diana Levine for AOL
The family man insists having a wife and kids at home "makes you more grounded, makes you more focused. When you have people that count on you and a family to support, you take things a little more serious. There are bigger consequences. I'm not running in and out of the bars like I used to. It's nice having something solid to come home to."
At 10:30 AM, Luke leaves ABC's studios and is on his way to his favorite spot in New York City, Junior's Cheesecake near Times Square. But not before a barrage of frantic fans from the 'Regis & Kelly' audience intercept him outside to sign autographs and pose for photos. Luke is, of course, happy to oblige.
After a few comments about the fast-paced New York City life and an observation about just how packed the city is with people, the Georgia-born, Nashville-based singer peeks through the SUV windshield and exclaims, "There's Junior's. I see it like a beacon in the night!"
By 11:15 AM, Luke is already settling in to his first bite of a long-awaited slice of classic cheesecake. "Man, this is so good!" He only makes it to New York about three times per year, after all.
When it comes to his self-proclaimed sweet tooth, Luke blames his mom. "She let me walk to school with a box of powdered donuts and a can of soda in my hand!" he remembers. While Luke enjoys his dessert-before-lunch treat, the starstruck waitress enjoys the sight of a "such a handsome man" at the counter.
Lunch is a cheeseburger, done medium-well, and talk turns to the next 'Tailgates & Tanlines' single, 'I Don't Want This Night to End.' "It's about a guy meeting a girl, and it's the first night that they're hanging out. It's a magical night and he doesn't want it to end. It's got a big fun chorus in it," Luke shares.
Diana Levine for AOL
Luke admits his boys "have no choice" in the matter when it comes to listening to their dad's music. "Bo chimes in on what his favorites are and Tate's just starting to move along to the groove these days."
But that doesn't mean Dad doesn't have some competition from his older son's other favorites. "Bo loves 'Mean' by Taylor Swift and he loves Jason Aldean, too, because Jason and I are friends. He loves Lady Antebellum because Charles [Kelley] and me and the Lady A guys are buddies. When Lady A comes on, he'll say 'There's Mr. Charles!' and he calls Jason 'Mr. Jason.' It's pretty funny. He doesn't say 'Ms. Taylor' though, yet!"
[Watch Luke perform with Lady A in our studio here.]
At 11:55 AM, it's off to media mega-store Best Buy near New York's Rockefeller Center to pick up a copy of the new album on release day, a trip that is more an excited expression of pride and accomplishment than a superstitious act.
12:10 PM and Luke meets a life-sized poster of himself on his album cover face-to-face, on the side of the Best Buy CD shelves. "Here it is!" he exclaims, CD in hand. After signing a few copies of 'Tailgates & Tanlines' for Best Buy patrons, Luke proceeds to do what he came to do. "I've come to buy my own CD," Luke tells the cashier as he hands her a $20 bill. "Make sure you push these, now!"