IT isn't easy being an aspiring recording artist in the iTunes age. Take Luke Bryan, an engaging newcomer from Leesburg, Ga., who is releasing his debut album, "I'll Stay Me," today.
Where most debut acts have to start from scratch to win the attention of fans and radio programmers, you'd think Bryan would have a leg up as the co-writer of a recent No. 1 country hit.
That would be "Good Directions," a catchy number that Bryan and collaborator Rachel Thibodeau concocted about the woman who didn't get away and that singer Billy Currington took to the top of the country singles chart this summer.
Yet scan the back of Bryan's album and you won't find it. You will, however, see the title "Right Back Here to Me (The Sweet Tea Song)," which is what he calls his version of the same tune.
Why not use the same title and capitalize on the attention the song has generated this year?
"If you Google 'Good Directions' or put that into a search on iTunes, the odds are it's going to bring up the Billy Currington version and so people will buy that one," Bryan, 31, said over spinach dip and chips at one of his favorite pubs just down the street from Nashville's celebrated Music Row of record company and music publishers' offices. "We gave it another title so people would find my version."
Currington charmingly sings this backwoods tale of a good ol' boy who falls in love at first sight with a wayward Hollywood lass who's lost her way. But when Bryan applies his peanut farm-bred Georgia drawl to it, every ounce of authenticity sprouts from lines such as "I was sittin' there sellin' turnips from a flatbed truck."
Now, however, country fans are more likely to be searching music site playlists for "All My Friends Say," the debut single that's giving Bryan an identity of his own as it heads toward country's Top 10.
It's another lighthearted number, with an infectious singalong chorus, about a guy who's been dumped and then hits the sauce heavily when his ex walks in with a new beau to the local honky tonk where he's drowning his sorrows.
The next day he can't remember what he did or how he got home: "All my friends say / I started shootin' doubles when you walked in / And all my friends say / I went a little crazy seeing you with him."
That scenario created another mini-dilemma for this music-biz neophyte who favors a light stubble, baseball caps, tight-fitting T-shirts and jeans, on stage and off. Most artists star in their own videos, especially right out of the gate, to establish viewer recognition, but not this time.
"Everybody at Capitol felt it would be a better situation to have an actor," Bryan says. "They want to be a little careful with my image. With the first video coming out, they wanted to make sure I didn't come across as a raging alcoholic."
Image is a huge part of country music today, and record companies want their stars to be viewed as upstanding, not down drinking.
Bryan had no problem connecting with a small industry audience for a showcase at the Country Music Assn.'s offices.
He and guitarist Michael Carter, who've been playing together since they were in college, offered up an acoustic set during which he also proved to be a folksy raconteur. His clenched-throat tenor is part John Anderson, part Gomer Pyle, and he put his songs across as much with body language as any vocal pyrotechnics.
Promotional visits like this for radio DJs and other industry tastemakers are another huge part of what fledgling stars spend their days doing before they're in a position to headline clubs or land lucrative opening slots for major headliners, one of Bryan's goals for the final months of 2007.
Having built a solid fan base in Georgia before being signed by Capitol Nashville, he could earn a decent living playing the club scene back home. And, he says, if all else fails, "Dad can always use another tractor driver" on the family peanut farm.
That rural background spills out of several songs on "I'll Stay Me," but none more than "Country Man," in which he brags, "I can grow my own groceries, and salt cure a ham / Hey baby, I'm a country man."
Bryan had been set to leave the farm behind years ago and move to Nashville in pursuit of becoming a professional musician when his older brother, Chris, was killed in a car accident the day Luke was to leave.
He remained at home with his family, then enrolled at Georgia Southern University, where he studied business management. That experience, he said, allowed him to "grow up" enough to deal with the ups and downs of the music industry when he did ultimately move in 2001 to Nashville.
"You just chalk it up to things that were meant to be," he says. "I really feel like if I'd a-came when I was 19, I wouldn't have been able to handle it.
"When I did get here," he says, "I was ready. It was time for me to be here."