FOXBOROUGH — What makes a piece of American culture “country”? It’s a question that has been on the minds of pop music watchers this year thanks to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the hick-hop earworm that, as of this writing, is in its 11th week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its initial streaming-borne success caused confusion among that chart bible’s number-crunchers, who removed it from and eventually reinstated it to their country charts earlier this year. It’s sent crowds at festivals and in elementary schools berserk; it’s spawned descendants like Blanco Brown’s trap-meets-square-dance “The Git Up”; it’s made people rethink the ways in which race and gender determine genre across the board.
This question has also animated the career of Luke Bryan, who kicked off this summer’s concert series at Gillette Stadium on Friday night. A consummate showman with a toothy grin and a deep reservoir of charm, he’s best known for his songs about partyin’ and lovin’ — but he has nudged country’s boundaries outward throughout his career, and his opening song, “What Makes You Country,” nodded to that. Bryan rolled onstage on a tricked-out ATV to introduce it, bouncing along with the insistent beat as he laid out his vision of an ultra-inclusive country world.
Musically, Bryan’s idea of country brings together the grooves and rapid-fire lyrics of hip-hop, the muscle of stadium rock, and the gooey choruses that reside at pop’s sweetest spot, all topped by lyrics that hunger for simpler times and endless nights. He gets flirtatious on the punchy “Rain Is a Good Thing” (it makes corn, which makes whiskey, which makes his “baby feel a little frisky”) and his latest single, the roadhouse-ready “Knockin’ Boots”; he keeps the party spirit alive on “That’s My Kind of Night.” It’s not all Solo cups and across-the-bar glances, though: “Drink a Beer,” a contemplative ballad about grappling with loss, was the night’s emotional centerpiece, with Bryan at a piano offering a heartfelt vocal and, at the end, asking the audience members to join him in a toast to anyone they’d lost, while “Most People Are Good,” a salute to humanity that he dedicated to the moms in the crowds, had an almost bittersweetly hopeful quality about it.
Those quieter moments made the high points pop even more brightly. Bryan’s a flesh-presser in concert, shaking hands, offering high fives, sharing beers, and even holding babies as he prowls the catwalk. At one point, he decided to don an audience-proffered Rob Gronkowski jersey — and shortly after that, Gronk himself strolled onstage, sending the crowd into euphoria and playing a spot of catch with Bryan.
Friday’s encore was as neat a summation of where Luke Bryan’s version of country is as the versions of “Old Town Road” that peppered the evening, both by the openers and in the quickly moving mash-ups spun between sets by DJ Rock. It opened with a slightly cleaned-up remix of Eminem’s raunchy 2005 track “Shake That,” then segued smoothly into a brawny take on Bryan’s lusty “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” before the big finish: a flashy cover of Bon Jovi’s strivers’ anthem “Livin’ on a Prayer,” with Bryan egging the crowd in a sing-along and his bandmates supplying the harmonies that make that song leap out of speakers. A hip-hop song; a honky-tonkin’ come-on; and an undeniable rock anthem. Put ’em together, and you’ve got quite the melting pot.
Luke Bryan: Sunset Repeat Tour
With Cole Swindell, Brett Young, Jon Langston, and DJ Rock
At Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Friday
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.