Luke Bryan is mourning the death of an integral figure in his career: Larry Willoughby, the A&R executive who helped the now-superstar get his deal with Capitol Records, died on Thursday (Jan. 14) of COVID-19, Bryan reports.

"This guy believed in me and rolled the dice on a goofy boy from Georgia," Bryan writes of Willoughby on Instagram, alongside an undated photo of the two together. "He was very key and critical in getting me my record deal at Capitol Records."

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

In 2016, singer Kelleigh Bannen learned more of the story in an episode of her This Nashville Life podcast. Autumn House Tallant, an A&R executive who worked under Willoughby and helped sign Bryan, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, tells Bannen that Capitol had passed on the aspiring star twice before inking a record deal with him.

"We knew he was talented and there was something there, but the music wasn't always quite right," Tallant remembers (quote via Country Living). But when she ran into Bryan later out in Nashville, "he was telling me a story about his [now-wife] Caroline, and I remember watching him and thinking, 'Oh, he's got it. He has got it.'

"He was funny and charming. He just had this star power," Tallant continues. And when she approached Willoughby about her hunch, he shared the same feeling.

"I came back to the office and said to Larry, 'Remember that guy, Luke Bryan?'" Tallant recounts. "And he said, 'Oh my goodness, I had the same experience playing poker with him, and we should sign him.'"

"He was a great artist, songwriter and a hell of an (sic) song guy," Bryan adds. "Thank you for believing in me Larry Willoughby. You will be missed. I love you buddy."

According to CMT, Willoughby was also interested in signing Jason Aldean in late 1998, when he was working for MCA Records. Aldean would later sign with Capitol -- Willoughby was working there by that point -- but was dropped from the label before releasing any music.

A native Texan, Willoughby released one album of his own, 1984's Building Bridges, with Atlantic Records. Rodney Crowell, who is Willoughby's cousin, produced the project.

Of Building Bridges' three singles, the title track is the only one to have charted -- but, a number of other famous names have sung Willoughby's songs. Eddy Raven, for example, covered "Heart on the Line (Operator, Operator)" and turned it into a Top 10 hit in 1985; the Oak Ridge Boys also recorded the song in 1983.

Brooks & Dunn, meanwhile, turned "Building Bridges" into a Grammy-nominated, Top 5 single in 2006. Their version of the song features guest vocals from Vince Gill and Sheryl Crow and was nominated for Musical Event of the Year at the CMA Awards and Best Country Collaboration With Vocals at the Grammys.

Further details about Willoughby's death have not yet been made available.

Country Artists Who've Battled the Coronavirus:

Other Stars Who Were Tested for the Coronavirus: