By Doris Degner-Foster
Many people know handsome country singer-songwriter Luke Pell from ABC’s hit television series “The Bachelorette,” but not everyone knows that he’s a graduate of West Point, a Bronze Star recipient and a lifelong equestrian.
Luke’s scholarship to West Point military academy was a result of his success as a high school football star in a small town in Texas. It’s also where his love for music began. “I grew up in a little Baptist church with about 60 members,” Luke said. “When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I started taking piano lessons from the pastor, who also was a piano player at the church. It was my first experience playing an instrument and learning about music and I loved it.”
It All Began in Texas
Burnet, Texas, is a small community of about 6,000, located less than an hour’s drive northwest of Austin, and several Burnet locals left a lasting impression on Luke. His family’s church pastor, Barry Drake, was not only his music teacher but he gave Luke his first job. “I was a 12-year-old kid [when I began helping] Barry in his carpentry business, and he was a big influence on me,” Luke said. “The interesting thing was that he was in a wheelchair most of his life — he’d had polio. He was one of those people I never forgot, who influenced me early on in so many ways and it has stayed with me throughout the years.”
Luke grew up on a small cattle ranch with a fully operating horse ranch nearby where he spent as much time as he could working with trainer Durwood Kelly. “He was a longtime horse trainer and another grandfather figure for me,” Luke remembered. “I spent every day after school and every summer during my teenage years breaking horses and helping with the horse training business. That was a big part of my formative years spent there.”
His love of horses and riding as a teen made him seriously consider a career as a trainer until other opportunities arose in high school. “I entertained [the idea of having] a career training horses when in I was in high school and thinking about what I’d do after college. That was long before I realized that I’d end up at West Point and in the military,” Luke said. “I knew then that horses would always be part of my life. I’m definitely going to have my own horses when I have the time and the space. Now that I’m building my career I don’t get to spend much time actively riding, but I will when I get to that time in my life when I’m building a family and a home.”
Plunged Into Battle
Luke played several sports in high school, but it was football that earned him a scholarship to play at West Point for the Army team. The time he spent there was a big change from life in a small Texas town, and helped broaden his horizons. “I spent four years in upstate New York at the military academy and that was a pretty big change for me, not having any background with the military,” Luke remembered. “Moving to the Northeast really opened my eyes to what the rest of the world was up to and abruptly got me out on my own.”
He stayed focused on the rigorous schedule and demands of keeping up academically while also playing NCAA football. “You’re in a dorm room there and you don’t have a lot of personal things or freedom to spend time doing your hobbies or what you enjoy,” Luke said, “but I was able to have a guitar there to play music and that kind of was my getaway.”
Luke again turned to his music during what he said was the most challenging time in his life: when he was deployed to Afghanistan following his graduation from West Point in 2007 as a lieutenant. “I had a guitar with me when I was deployed and played with my guys over there, so it was always something that stayed with me wherever I was,” he said.
“We were in life-and-death situations from day one. As soon as I got there, bullets were flying and I was in combat, so I had to learn to adapt quickly,” Luke remembered. “I was a 22-year-old kid and my first day in Afghanistan, we got ambushed and bombs were going off and we were in the middle of it. My vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb the first day I was there. It’s funny, looking back now I realize how big of a challenge that was in my life, but at the time I was going through it, it was like, This is what I’ve been trained for, and it seemed very normal.”
As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, Luke was awarded the Bronze Star for overall intensive combat leadership, leaving the Army in 2012 with the rank of captain.
Like many West Point graduates, Luke was in demand in the corporate world for management and leadership positions, and he chose an offer from Chesapeake Energy out of Oklahoma City. After two years there, he went back to Texas and worked for a leadership development consulting firm, advising many Fortune 500 companies in leadership planning. While he enjoyed the work, after a couple of years he began to rethink his plans, asking himself some important questions.
“I thought, What am I waking up doing every day? Am I doing it for a paycheck and because my resume says I should be doing a corporate job in this life, or because this is what I love to do every day?” Luke said. “It just came back to me that music is what makes me happy. I want to be a songwriter, to write music that maybe changes lives long after I’m gone.”
Luke was determined to fulfill that dream and planned his business investments to make it possible to go out on his own and move to Nashville. “I was an entrepreneur and it was a little scary at first, but at this point — just a few years later — it has far and away been the best decision of my life so far.”
A surprise opportunity occurred after Luke had been in Nashville for about a year when he got the call to go on “The Bachelorette.” After interviews in Nashville and Los Angeles, filming began within months. Luke explained that the people on the show don’t have acting experience and that the scenes are actual reality, which can get dramatic.
“There are a lot of circus tricks and drama up front in the first few episodes and that’s interesting to the viewers, but toward the end of the process, these guys are taking this girl home to meet their parents,” Luke said. “When you introduce them to your parents, you realize that this is becoming real and somebody will leave this experience and go back into their real lives engaged to this person.”
With a confident, relaxed personality, Luke was an open book going into the show, which left him especially vulnerable when he lost Jo Jo Fletcher to Jordan Rodgers at the end. “I got to a point where I was expecting to get engaged, and to have to go through that breakup onscreen is like no other experience I’ve ever had in life, but that part is real, for sure.”
Luke was even set to be the next Bachelor, but the night before he was due to fly to Los Angeles to begin filming, he got a surprise call telling him that someone else had been chosen. Loyal fans were shocked and lit up social media about it, but Luke dealt with his own disappointment and got back to work in Nashville.
Luke is working with Peermusic Publishing and his days include co-writing songs in the studio and working on his own projects as an artist, one of which is an album coming out in early 2017. On weekends, he plays shows with his band and does various appearances, some of which are residually connected with “The Bachelorette.”
Giving back is important to Luke and he works with several charities, two of which are especially important to him. “My buddy Richard Casper co-founded a charity called Creativets, which works with stars in Nashville to match them up with combat veterans who have never written a song and aren’t in the music industry,” Luke said. “Some of them have post-traumatic stress disorder or something of the like and we’ll sit down with them as songwriters and help them tell their story. It’s a way to kind of help them put their experience into words.”
Horses and riding are still important to Luke, and he works with a non-profit initiative of the American Horse Council’s marketing group. “Time To Ride is based out of Texas and a really good lifelong friend of mine, Patty Colbert, is promoting it. She’s been a huge part of the horse industry in the U.S. for the last 20 years promoting everything equine.”
Luke explained that Time To Ride was formed to connect people with horses and is designed to encourage horse-interested individuals to enjoy the benefits of horse activities. Luke isn’t the only well-known horse person to promote riding horses through Time To Ride. Fellow country singer Lyle Lovett, a reining competitor; David O’Connor, two-time Olympic eventer; and a host of other high-profile riders have joined Time To Ride to encourage people to pick up the reins and fall in love with horses.
Speaking of love, while Luke didn’t receive the final rose during his run on “The Bachelorette,” he still remains a happy cowboy. With his exciting country music career and his lifelong love of horses, his fans look forward to watching the next chapter of Luke’s life — when he happily rides off into the sunset. It’s all roses for this cowboy.
For more information, visit timetoride.com.
Photos courtesy of Time To Ride