As Luke Combs' stormy debut single "Hurricane" makes landfall in the Top 30 of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, country fans may find themselves wondering, "Who is this guy and where the heck did he come from?"
In truth, the Asheville, North Carolina, singer did arrive out of nowhere. Thanks to the relationship metaphor "Hurricane," Combs gained national radio play, secured an album deal on Columbia Nashville and landed an upcoming tour with Brantley Gilbert. It's all been pretty fast by conventional standards – but the burly 26-year-old has never been conventional.
In an interview with Rolling Stone Country, Combs says he's proud that nothing has ever been handed to him. Instead, he earned his newfound success by tirelessly delivering the goods on the road.
"I didn't even know what a tour manager was, but I was the tour manager, booking agent, all that stuff for almost two years without knowing it," Combs says. "I wasn't overwhelmed because I enjoyed doing it."
Plopping his generous frame into a giant beanbag chair, Combs doesn't give off the air of a polished, coached entertainer. He's wearing comfortable jeans, boots, a broken-in ball cap and a scruffy beard – most likely the same thing he had on six short years ago when he first picked up a guitar.
"I've always been a small goals kind of guy," he says, explaining how he went from aimless college student to booking arena gigs. "When I picked up guitar it wasn't like, 'Ok, I'm going to be Kenny Chesney.' It was like, 'I want to play a chord,' and then it was like, 'I want to play another one, then play a song, then sing while playing the song.'"
Eventually Combs had built up three hours of material, mostly covers with some originals, formed a band and began gigging in North Carolina's college towns – he was enrolled in Boone at Appalachian State University at the time, alma mater of his hero, Eric Church. Crowds began gathering for the unassuming everydude with a powerful voice, and his social-media following started to grow.
Bolstered by the response, he recorded and released a self-funded EP, and when it sold 10,000 copies in the first week, Combs quit his two crappy jobs and moved to Nashville with a vow to never work again. That was just shy of three years ago and, since, he's kept that promise, releasing two more self-funded EPs, with the last one peaking at Number 36 on Billboard's Counry Albums chart.
Then "Hurricane" hit, becoming a sing-along anthem for audiences at his live shows and notching 23 million streams on Spotify.
Now with a full Music City team behind him, Combs is pushing full steam ahead. He'll join Gilbert's The Devil Don't Sleep arena tour in February, and in early summer he'll release his debut album, This One's for You.
None of this was planned, but Combs admits it sure seems meant to be.
"I just love writing songs and singing them," Combs says as if to apologize. "People seem to enjoy them, and that's all you can really ask for. I didn't get into it to try to be a celebrity or whatever."
Indeed, the fact that Combs is so obviously not trying to be famous is part of his charm, along with deftly written songs that are both catchy and deep.
"I've always been a super regular guy," he says. "I think there's kind of a comfortability with me onstage – and I think my cool factor is not having one. I'm not extra cool or extra different. I'm an honest dude, not trying to be anything other than who I am."
Produced by Scott Moffatt (lead singer of Nineties Canadian boy band the Moffatts), Combs' debut album sounds like a Throwback Thursday come to life, an accidental combination of new school and Nineties-era country that freely mixes electronic beats, acoustic guitars and hard-rock vocals. Combs grew up on country, he says, but stopped listening from the ages of 10 to 18, finally rediscovering the format thanks to the Chief.
"That was my knowledge base," he explains. "The Nineties and Eric Church. I missed almost 10 years, so there'ss a gap, and I think that's where the sound came from."
Like Combs' success, "Hurricane" was also an accident, a hit born from a $200 mistake that almost derailed his career. Combs had saved up enough money for what he thought would be a six-song EP, but that figure was based on what he paid for his first two DIY projects.
"We recorded six tracks, and when they got done [Moffatt] was like, 'Hey man, we need to master these,' and I was like, 'What's that?'" says Combs. "I never mastered my first two, I just mixed them. I think the price was $200 per song, so I was like, 'I don’t have $200 per song, and I'm not going to have it.'"
Bummed out, Combs went home and started brainstorming. They hadn't even cut his final vocals yet, but one song sounded good enough: "Hurricane." After scraping together the cash, Combs mastered just that track. They called it a "single," released it on iTunes and it sold 14,000 copies in the first week, allowing Combs to finish the rest of the project and pay Moffatt, who was working for IOUs.
"So 'Hurricane' – the one that's on the radio – that's the only time I ever sang it," he says of the studio version, throwing his hands in the air.
He and Moffatt reunited for the full album, which shares its name and five songs with the now-infamous EP.
New tracks include "One Number Away," a moody bedroom dirge about patching things up with an ex;
"When It Rains It Pours," a humorous anthem for riding a wave of good luck; and "I Got a Way With You," a tender sleight of hand about stealing his girl's heart.
The title track "This One's for You" is a beer-raising toast to early believers, parents, friends and bandmates who helped send Combs on this crazy ride.
"So many things led me to get to this point, so I felt like it would be great to call the album that because those people go unsung," he explains. "This isn't just me, this is a huge team. I'm the guy who gets the quote 'glory,' but sometimes that makes me feel a little uncomfortable."
Combs will likely get used to the glory. He's on the verge of realizing his next "small" goal, an arena tour he figures will be everything he's ever imagined. Coupled with the success of "Hurricane," the tour will help fade his "out of nowhere" status. But like "This One's for You" suggests, Combs will always be tied to those old DIY days.
"You can't forget that just a couple of years ago I was playing nowhere," he says. "But I think I've come far enough and played enough gigs now that I can handle whatever. I could play a gig on the moon and not be nervous about it."