Things sure have changed for Luke Bryan.
With 13 No. 1 hits under his belt and his fifth studio album, Kill the Lights, recently hitting the top of the country and pop charts – and with his red-hot Kick the Dust Up tour, his days of being able to fly under the radar are over.
Case in point: On a recent shopping trip in New York City, the singer recalls, “I walked into some high-end retail store, and the sales guy is like, ‘How are you, Mr. Bryan? We love your music!’ ”
It’s a moment not lost on Bryan, 39, who says reaching a wider audience is something that means a lot to him. “I relish that stuff!” he tells PEOPLE. “The fact that I can come into town being a boy from south Georgia and have a legitimate place in a big city like Chicago, Boston, L.A. and certainly New York City … it’s very flattering.”
In fact, there’s no shortage of flattery coming Bryan’s way. The reigning CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year is sitting on top of the country world – and it’s a view he can get used to.
“This year I feel like it has soaked in more than ever,” says Bryan, whose 2014 tour grossed over $60 million. “I’m truly having a blast. I feel like with each year, another little bit of pressure is off to prove yourself on a daily basis. It’s pretty crazy stuff to get to do what I do, and I try not to take a second for granted.”
Yet, the joy over Bryan’s career highs has been tempered by personal loss. After the sudden death of his brother-in-law last year left his late sister’s three children without parents, Bryan and his wife, Caroline, stepped in to help raise nephew Til and nieces Kris and Jordan alongside their own two boys, Bo, 7, and Tate, 5.
But Bryan sees caring for his nephew and nieces, and his sons, as a project far more important than anything he can accomplish in music.
“Obviously my nieces and nephew, they didn’t ask for this,” says Bryan. “Their life was amazing before Caroline and I took a more prominent role, even after losing their mother. Now my focus is trying to do what we can to help them.”
And it seems the whole family is adjusting well to the changes.
“Bo went from being kind of the alpha male to being the middle child, but he takes it in stride,” says Bryan. “It’s been amazing watching them do so well with it. They treat Til like their brother, and Til does the same. And that’s what’s funny, is Til went from being the baby of his family to being the oldest. It’s definitely been a social experiment.
“They’re becoming better athletes ’cause Til gets to play with them,” he says. “When I come home, they’re throwing the baseball a little farther and hitting the ball a little harder. I know that’s ’cause Til’s been out in the yard with them.”
Reflecting on all that has happened in the past year, Bryan says it’s his faith that helps him see the positive through the heartbreak.
“I think with everything that’s happened in my family, I just have to lean on my faith and the understanding that God has a plan for all of us. We just wake up every day and do our best. I’ll get down in the dumps, and then I’ll meet a Make-A-Wish kid, and I’ll ask myself, ‘What are you complaining about? You just have to keep your faith strong and rock on.”
For more from Bryan, check out the PEOPLE Country insert in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday