By Eileen Finan
August 05, 2013 12:00 PM

Luke Bryan is kicking back at a local cafe in Brentwood, Tenn., dressed in flip-flops and shorts. “I’ve tracked mud on this carpet many times,” the country singer says of the low-key spot where he and his wife, Caroline, often meet for lunch dates. Later that day he plans to head to his nearby 169-acre farm to take his John Deere tractor, a recent splurge, out for a spin: “I’ve got a change of clothes in the truck, and I’m going to dig in the dirt and lay pipes to drain water out of duck ponds!”

Such down-home downtime has been scarce lately. Since his 2011 album Tailgates & Tanlines went double-platinum and launched a string of hits like “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” Bryan, 37, has been riding a wave of tours (hitting the road with the likes of Tim McGraw and Jason Aldean) and triumphs (he nabbed Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April). Now he’s on his first headlining tour and is gearing up for the release of his fourth studio album, Crash My Party, out Aug. 13. From the screams that follow every move he delivers onstage, he’s clearly country’s man of the moment. “It’s crazy,” says Bryan of his growing fame.

As a kid in rural Leesburg, Ga., where his dad sold fertilizer and his mom worked for the public utilities, Bryan didn’t dream of stardom. The youngest of three, “I was a little ol’ southern kid playing baseball or hunting or fishing,” he says. At 14, he took up the guitar and, as a youth group leader for his church, would rewrite country songs with Christian lyrics. By 17, he had formed a band: “We were awful, but it made me have to be an entertainer.”

Three years later, he had his bags packed to move to Nashville when his 26-year-old brother Chris died in a car accident. “You figure your mother just lost a child,” he says. “At that point her youngest son was not going to leave the house.” So instead of chasing fame, he stayed in college and then went to work for his dad’s business. But his heart clearly wasn’t in it, and with his dad’s blessing, Bryan headed to Nashville in 2001. After writing tunes for singers like Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, he released his debut album featuring the 2007 hit “All My Friends Say.” But tragedy struck again that same year when his sister Kelly died suddenly at age 39. “The losses gave me such a deep perspective of life, how tough it can get at any second,” he says. “You question it every day, but you have to revert back to your faith in God’s plan.”

That pain gave Bryan’s ACM win deeper meaning. “As a family, we cried for an hour backstage,” he recalls. “There’s been three times in our life where we were that emotional—my brother’s death, my sister’s death and that night. With what we’ve dealt with, it was so fun to have the joy.”

Bryan is looking forward to more happy days to come with Caroline, 33, whom he wed in 2006, and their two sons (Bo, 5, and Tate, 3) who love to fish, garden and cuddle. “I know all the parenting books say don’t sleep with your kids, but the only reason is it makes you tired!” he says with a laugh. “We just love on the kids all night.” Years from now, Bryan says he imagines himself on his farm “rocking on a porch swing when I’m 75, with Caroline and with a yard full of grandkids. That’s a big ol’ fulfilled life for me.” But until then, he adds, “I just want to ride the ride and have fun.”