There's a reason Luke Bryan feels a special bond with his two nieces and nephew, who became a part of his family after their parents died. They keep alive the memory of their mom and dad, particularly Bryan's beloved older sister, Kelly.
"We get to live with Kelly through her children," the 45-year-old superstar tells PEOPLE in an interview for the magazine's latest cover story, "and we see so many things in her children that remind us of her."
But Bryan's 19-year-old nephew, Til, also reminds Bryan of another family member he's lost, his brother, Chris. Bryan grew up idolizing (and occasionally pestering) his older brother, who was killed, at age 26, in a car accident in 1996. Now Bryan gets to see that same relationship with his nephew and his two sons, Bo, 13, and Tate, 10.
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Jim Wright Luke Bryan
Til was 12 years old in 2014 when he moved from Georgia to live with Bryan and his wife, Caroline, 41, after the boy's father, Lee Cheshire, died of a heart attack. Til and his sisters, Jordan and Kris, now 26 and 23, lost their mother seven years before from still undetermined natural causes.
With Til's arrival, Bryan recalls, his boys "woke up and they had a big brother." Ever since, Bryan has watched Bo become his mini-me, a "nagging little brother." And lately, Bryan has noticed a deeper bond growing between the two — like it did between Bryan and his brother — as their age differences lessen. Also like Bryan and his brother, Tate idolizes his cousin. "Tate sleeps with Til every night," Bryan reports. "Things are really, really special."
Bryan says he takes all the chances he can to enjoy his nephew and sons. "I mean, we go," says Bryan. "I load them up and take them. You gotta try to make time for everybody and love on everybody."
Indeed, a new IMDb TV docu-series, Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary, shows an active, outdoors family. Other public glimpses of the Bryans' leisure time — hunting, fishing, boating, camping, golfing, snow skiing, catching rays at the beach and roaring around on ATVs — leave little doubt that Bryan easily earns the title of Fun Dad. But for him, the most rewarding aspect of his family role, especially with his sons, isn't necessarily the fun stuff.
"The best part is just leading by example," he says. "However I navigate this life, they're gonna sit back and watch and navigate it in a lot of those ways. I hope they see my life, and they see that I always respected and love people for what they are."
Jim Wright Luke Bryan
Bryan and his wife also served a crucial role for Til as they helped him cope with the loss of his parents. "I mean, he's a 12-year-old kid," Bryan recalls, "and we just spent a lot of time really giving him what he needed. My wife had so many nights with him, just helping him talk out his grieving process."
Today, Bryan beams when he talks about the young man that Til has become. Now 19 and soon to be a college sophomore, "he's my buddy," says Bryan. In turn, Bryan considers himself Til's "uncle and friend, and hopefully a glimpse of a father-like example. When I see him do something that's a little foolish, I have to insert my adult knowledge into his life and say, 'You know, if you do this, things will be easier.'"
COURTESY LUKE BRYAN Til Cheshire and Luke Bryan
After their brother-in-law's death, Bryan and his wife also brought Til's sisters into their protective circle even though the two chose to stay behind in Georgia with friends. Bryan remembers those trying times as being filled with "just constant phone calls to handle their challenges and things they were dealing with. The beauty of our family is we try to lay it all out there."
Today, the singer says he feels blessed that he's been able to give Jordan and Kris "somewhat of a place to call home." Over the years, both young women have regularly joined the family for vacations and holidays.
"When you plan a trip to the beach or going snow skiing," Bryan says, "then hey, you gotta have a spot for the kids and their boyfriends or girlfriends, and we all load up. And that's the fun of it."
Christmases are always "very emotional," says Bryan. "As a family, we really try to do good to just remember the beauty of the people we lost and not dwell on the fact that they're not in our lives daily."
At the moment, Bryan is a part of the planning for another special family occasion: Jordan's wedding. He reports he's been pitching in, helping the men in the wedding party get tuxedos. And Caroline has stepped up to help Jordan with many more wedding details.
Bryan acknowledges such a happy occasion will also be "tremendously bittersweet," as once again, the family gathers with so many loved ones absent. And once again, they'll have to figure out how to adapt old traditions and create new ones.
Will Bryan walk his niece down the aisle?
"I'm a part of it," he reveals, but he's not ready to share details.
"There's a way that it's gonna happen," he says, grinning, "and I think it's perfect."
Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary premieres exclusively on IMDb TV, Amazon's premium free streaming service. All five episodes are available to stream starting Aug. 6. For more from Luke Bryan, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.