Just three years ago an unknown Luke Combs bought a limited edition Eric Church Gibson Hummingbird guitar from a pop-up shop in Nashville. He promised the salesman, who sold merch on the road for Church, that he’d be seeing him again.
“I said, ‘Dude, I’ll be playing shows with you guys one of these days,’ ” says Combs, calling from a tour stop in Missoula, Montana. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, all right . . .’ “
Combs’ prediction was spot-on and then some. Not only will he open for Church in Atlanta in November, but he also got his hero to sing on his new album, What You See Is What You Get. Church drops in for a verse on “Does to Me,” a sweeping ballad that celebrates the “underachieving average Joe” and the totems that define a life, from “Mama’s first Bible” to “Daddy’s Don Williams vinyl.”
There is nothing underachieving about Combs. Since self-releasing his song “Hurricane” in 2015, a viral and chart-topping smash that landed him a record deal with Columbia Nashville, the 29-year-old North Carolina native has checked off nearly every box in a country-superstar career. His 2015 debut album, This One’s for You, was certified double platinum; singles like “Beautiful Crazy” and “Beer Never Broke My Heart” have become country-radio staples; he was nominated for Best New Artist at last year’s Grammys; and he graduated from headlining theaters to selling out arenas in a year’s time. After opening for Jason Aldean at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena last September, he’ll headline the venue on back-to-back nights in December.
He’s also made fans of outside-the-genre stars like Post Malone and Ed Sheeran, who after learning that Combs covered his song “Dive” in concert, uploaded a video to Instagram of himself singing Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours.”
Combs is leading the charge for a back-to-basics approach to country music. His songs are airtight tales of cold beer, broken hearts, and blue collars that show off his massive, yet agile, voice. While many of his peers continue to experiment with hip-hop and electronic beats, Combs embraces the big hooks and melodies of Nineties powerhouses like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, and Brooks and Dunn, who cameo on What You See Is What You Get’s boozy “1, 2 Many.”
Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn was drawn to Combs’ everyman authenticity. “Combine that with real talent and there is no limit to how bright the star will burn,” Dunn says. “Luke has it.”
Combs respects the outlaws and legends, but at heart he’s a Nineties country kid. “I would love to lie to you so people would think I was cool and say I was listening to Merle Haggard records when I was 10 years old, but I wasn’t,” he says.
It’s such honest-guy answers and an easygoing approachability that have earned the burly vocalist, who performs in an oversize fishing shirt and baseball hat, a devoted following.
“I don’t think there is a wall between me and my audience,” Combs says. “There’s not anything that makes people go, ‘Oh, I can never be like that guy.’ “
Before moving to Nashville in 2014, Combs, who didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 20, gigged his way around North Carolina, playing “any bar that would let me” with his band. “We all drove around in a Chevy Avalanche together. There was five of us, and every week we’d have three or four shows. We made really good money, especially for college kids. I knew I could have stayed there and done that forever, but I wanted something more out of it,” says Combs, who, like Church, attended North Carolina’s Appalachian State University. Unlike Church, he dropped out.
Instead of school, he committed himself to music, latching onto the social media app Vine to get his songs directly to his fans. When he’d play live, he’d spend hours after each show mingling. “Luke would walk offstage, put in a dip, get a Jack and Diet, and he’d take pictures from 45 minutes to two hours,” says his co-manager Chris Kappy, whom Combs calls his “best friend in the world.”
Pressing the flesh paid off. What You See Is What You Get is one of the most-anticipated country releases of the year, every date on his 2020 tour is sold out, and in March, he’ll travel to the U.K. to headline the Country 2 Country Festival alongside Church and Darius Rucker.
But for all his fast success, Combs isn’t buying sports cars — he’s most satisfied by helping his buddies break into the Nashville system. Combs colleagues like Ray Fulcher and Rob Williford, who plays guitar in the singer’s band, have become in-demand songwriters themselves after scoring hits with Combs.
“I’m not a stuff guy. Me giving my friends the ability to achieve their dreams, that’s the thing for me,” says Combs, who took over his parents’ mortgage payments so that they could retire early. “Don’t get me wrong, I like having a nice truck and everything, but I don’t want a fleet of Rolls-Royces.”