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November 02, 2015 04:15 PM

Before the Country Music Hall of Fame packs up Luke Bryan‘s Little League baseball uniform, first guitar, handwritten lyrics and multiple ACM and CMA awards that are on display for the "Dirt Road Diary" exhibit, they asked him for one more favor for his fans. The affable superstar complied and spent more than an hour Sunday at the CMA Theater, getting up close and personal before a capacity crowd of 700.

“What’s up?” he asked the delighted audience before taking a seat beside a moderator to talk about his youth, his career beginnings, his songs and rescheduling trick-or-treating. “The boys and mama are here,” he said, waving to wife Caroline and their sons. “We had to move up trick or treating to noon yesterday because of the rain but I think Bo and Tate are still on a sugar high.”

Explaining a photo projected on an overhead screen of the piano that was in his childhood bedroom back home in Leesburg, Georgia, he said, “I was blessed that somehow that piano ended up in my bedroom because that’s what I started on. Ronnie Milsap was such a hero. I didn’t really take to practice and scales so when I got my first guitar, I switched. I enjoy the piano now and know just enough to fool people.”

Though no one was fooled by his first college band, he admitted. “We were called Neami Road, which was a terrible name for a band, no one could pronounce it or they confused us with Naomi Judd.=While our buddies were going to football games we were packing up the truck and going to play shows. We did a lot of cover songs. ‘Fishing in the Dark’ was always a surefire way to pull the crowd back if you lost them and we had to play it a lot! We also had to dance on stage to cover up how bad we were and that’s where I got some of my early shake on.”

He got his start in Nashville writing songs for other artists, among them Billy Currington, who turned Bryan’s “Good Directions” into a monster hit. “It’s hard to give up a song that you think has potential, but Billy was such a champion for me. He always gave me credit for it, and that gave me credibility in the industry early on.”

Though he had some early anxiety about it, he held on to “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).” “The most I was ever scared of that song was the day we wrote it,” Bryan said. “I told Dallas [Davidson, his co-writer] ‘I can’t say that! We can’t do that!’ But Dallas held me to the fire that day. He said, ‘Stop worrying about it, just have fun with it.’ He was right. I never saw it as anything but a fun song after that and it meant so much to my career.”

But, he said, “Drink a Beer” was four times more important because we had never done anything like it before. When people connected to it, it freed me from then on to do anything I wanted creatively. It’s such a cool thing to be in a place in my career where a song will have an impact. I felt like ‘Strip It Down’ would have people dimming their lights all over the country! I want songs that people can laugh at, dance to, tear up over or, well, end up taking a pregnancy test!”

With that, he strapped on his guitar, pulled up a stool and sang a stripped down version of “Strip It Down.” At the request of a pint-sized fan – “Sing the boom boom song Luke!” – and with some help from the audience, he also performed “Drunk on You,” followed by “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Drink a Beer” and with a nod to the exhibit which closes Nov. 8, he finished with the nostalgia-soaked “We Rode in Trucks” from his first album.

Before exiting the stage, he said, “I want to thank the Country Music Hall of Fame from the bottom of my heart for having this amazing exhibit in this amazing place. I’ve been so honored to have a spot here this year. It took a lot of people to put this together – my publicist, Caroline and my mama all collected photos. My mama sent some that did not need to be seen. But I’m going to miss seeing my big ol’ billboard on the building. It was such a good picture!”

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Bryan, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, is nominated for top award once again, as well as Male Vocalist of the Year, and will also perform on the 49th Annual CMA Awards Wednesday, Nov. 4, airing live at 8 pm ET on ABC.

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