Luke Combs Is Country Music’s Biggest Star. He’s Also Its Biggest Champion
A few days before the official start of CMA Fest in Nashville, Luke Combs is already running at full speed. He’s set to perform at Nissan Stadium over the weekend, but today he’s making up for the last two years or so of pandemic delays and cancellations with a giant celebration for a run of nine Number One songs that he co-wrote — from 2018’s “Beautiful Crazy” to the most recent, “Doin’ This.” Combs and a small army of collaborators have gathered at the Nashville headquarters of performing-rights organization BMI to mark the occasion with a concert in the parking lot.
“Hell, yeah. Hell, yeah,” Combs says twice, raising a glass of some potent brown liquid as BMI exec Clay Bradley rattles off statistic after statistic about these hit songs. Combs is in good spirits and makes the rounds in the room — never holding court, just sticking to smaller group conversations.
Outside in the June heat, the BMI building has taken on a fortress-like appearance. Temporary fencing surrounds the complex and its parking lot, where Combs is set to perform for a humble crowd of about 8,000 — considerably less than the arenas and stadiums he’s headlining at this point. Except, instead of Combs’ full-band, full-production concerts, this one is staged like an intimate writers’ room hang. There are even couches onstage, from which Combs and his co-writers are singing and telling stories behind the hits.
Combs insists he was just “lucky to be in the room” and frequently directs attention back to his collaborators, including solo artist Ray Fulcher, who was gearing up to release his debut LP. “Let’s not sleep on Ray’s album coming out on Friday,” he tells the crowd when Fulcher joins him for one of several songs. This willingness to cede the spotlight says something about the 31-year-old North Carolina native, one of country music’s biggest stars: Luke Combs genuinely loves what he does.
“I had been singing forever and I always loved that. And I never in a million years would have thought that I would be doing that for a living,” Combs says, sitting on a sofa in his manager’s office before the BMI party. He’s wearing a camouflage Hunt Brothers t-shirt, the same one he’ll wear during his performance later that day. “I would love to tell you I knew when I was five years old that I wanted to be a country singer, [but] I just loved music. And then when I picked the guitar up, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is how I can make a living doing this and feel like I’m really good at it as well.’”
“I think what motivates him is moving people,” Fulcher says. “A great songwriter and artist just has this thing in them that drives them to create art that people will relate to — will raise a glass to, will cry to, will have as their life’s soundtrack. And he has this innate ability to really tap into that beautifully and serve those people he’s singing to and writing for.”
Combs also loves discovering new music. An avid listener with broad tastes, he raves about the latest projects by pop stars Jack Harlow and Post Malone, and talks at length about the deep catalogs of country stalwarts Don Williams and Vince Gill, along with the sonic adventures of Sturgill Simpson.
“You have to be seeking out new stuff,” Combs says. “It’s so easy to detach yourself from everything that’s coming out and just focus on your thing. That can be a disservice to yourself sometimes. Not in the sense of ‘Let’s chase this thing that’s working now,’ but it’s just being aware of what people are listening to and what’s working. It’s really important.”
Currently, Combs is obsessed with Virginia country-soul band 49 Winchester, whose t-shirt he wore in a recent Instagram post — essentially vouching for the group to his 4.3 million followers.
“When you’re an up-and-coming band, there’s always the hope, in the back of your mind, that the heavy hitters are taking note of the things you are doing,” Isaac Gibson, 49 Winchester’s singer-guitarist, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s an honor to have a guy like Luke supporting what 49 is doing.”
In 2020, Combs put his stamp on the Wilder Blue, a Texas country-bluegrass group then known as Hill Country, saying their record “strikes every chord that I want it to.” That same year he invited bluegrass wizard Billy Strings down to his Key West retreat to write songs.
“My manager was like this dude Luke Combs wants to hang. I’m like, ‘He’s a big country star, fuck it, let’s go chill with him and see what he’s all about,’” says Strings, who was blown away by Combs’ voice. “You sit in a room with him and sing? Oh my god. It’s like, ‘Oh shit, I’m in the room with a singer.’”
Since then, Combs’ booming voice may have remained the same, but a whole lot else has changed, particularly when the pandemic tried to halt his momentum. Combs had written a batch of songs to follow up his second album, 2019’s What You See Is What You Get, and was getting ready to record, but the uncertainty of his touring operation required all of his focus — he was having to make decisions about vaccination policy, deal with absences of sick crew members, and generally make it work in less-than-ideal circumstances as he played the biggest rooms of his career.
“People are like, ‘Hey man, like what if I get Covid and I end up in the hospital? What do I tell my kids?’” he says. “And you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ It was a lot of pressure.”
In a very self-aware move, he decided to press pause on the album.
“In my mind it was either just full-blown awesome tour and full-blown awesome album afterwards or half-assed tour, half-assed album at the same time,” Combs says. “I care too much about people [who] spend their money on the show.”
It’s a mission statement Combs lays out plainly in his latest Number One, “Doin’ This.” He’s successful now, but he’d still be making music even if it wasn’t his main job. “I’d have a Friday night crowd in the palm of my hand/Cup of brown liquor, couple buddies in a band/Singin’ them same damn songs like I am now,” go the lyrics. “Doin’ This” was the first single and introduction to Growin’ Up, his long-gestating new album. A few days after the BMI concert, he performs “Doin’ This” at CMA Fest for thousands at Nissan Stadium, and it absolutely kills. People cheer nonstop and it feels victorious in a way that’s hard to articulate.
Growin’ Up is a particularly appropriate title for the Combs’ album after a season of big changes. In addition to having achieved massive success since arriving on the scene in 2015 with the song “Hurricane,” Combs married his wife Nicole Hocking in 2020. At the time of our interview, the birth of the couple’s first child was imminent.
“It’s all out of my control, which just sucks,” Combs says, leaning back with his arms folded across his chest. “I don’t know how to help. It’s like all I can do is make sure she’s got food in her stomach and help her off the couch when she gets up.” Their son, named Tex Lawrence Combs, ended up being born about a week-and-a-half later, on Father’s Day.
The shift in Combs’ outlook shows itself in various points on Growin’ Up. He sings about making decisions he won’t regret later in “Tomorrow Me,” mixes sexy swagger with a country-soul groove in “The Kind of Love We Make,” and feels the sting of loss in “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” which he co-wrote and sang with Miranda Lambert. In “Better Back When,” he sees vivid, formative experiences with a clarity that tempers his nostalgia.
“Everybody has those moments where you’re like, ‘Man, it would be so fun to be in college for a weekend,’” he says. “But then it’d be really great to be able to instantly not be in college afterwards.”
Combs carries that feeling of contentment with the present through “Used to Wish I Was,” a sunny country-rocker where he outlines his (and by extension, everyone’s) struggle to find himself. He had tried his hand at various sports and trades, but the thing that finally stuck was when he started learning to play guitar.
“That song speaks to that moment of like, ‘I tried so many different things — I want to be a homicide detective, I want to be a businessman,’ and you don’t really want to be those things,” he says. “You’re just forced to try to have some sort of direction, but really you may not have any at all.”
It’s not all serious, reflective work. Combs knows that country fans want rowdy uptempo numbers as well. Growin’ Up has its share: “On the Other Line” is a cheeky fishing song, “Ain’t Far From It” is a rapid-fire ode to the weekend, and “Any Given Friday Night” is a joyful snapshot of rural, small-town life. That song and “Middle of Somewhere” show Combs’ fascination with rural living, having moved to a large plot of land west of Nashville just before his second album came out.
“I feel a lot of personal ownership of that community,” he says, noting the differences between where he lives now and his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. “That’s where my head was when we were writing those. I was [at home in Tennessee] and I was getting my haircut at the barbershop up the road that’s like a cinder block thing with two chairs in it.”
Combs acknowledges that a lot of country songs of late have covered similar thematic territory, but he insists that it’s a real glimpse at life outside cities.
“They’re not clichés, they’re actually what goes on,” he says, leaning forward as his voice turns to a near whisper. “I don’t understand the problem with that. I’ve never understood the, ‘Well, you’re not writing the John Prine song, then you’re not a real country singer.’”
He doesn’t name names, but Combs refers to “another echelon” in country music that sees what he does as inferior because it’s attuned to the mainstream.
“People always try to figure out what the genre is or they have their own definition,” he says, “and they try to go, ‘OK, you don’t fall under my definition. So now I don’t respect your music or what you’re doing.’ It doesn’t make any sense.”
Not that he’s worried about it. Combs filters out any noise and keeps plowing forward, entertaining legions of fans against all odds. In May, he played to 53,000 at Denver’s Empower Field, one day after snow blanketed the stadium. Earlier this month, he braved a downpour for 50,000 at Lumen Field in Seattle.
Strings witnessed Combs’ work ethic firsthand and walked away in awe.
“I’ve been out to Luke’s house and I’ve seen him on a regular Wednesday afternoon,” he says. “He’s playing a video game for a sec and then it’s like, ‘Boom, he does an interview. What’s next? Podcast? Boom, does the podcast. What’s next?’ It’s like, ‘Bro, it’s fucking Wednesday. And you’re checking all this shit off the list.’ He don’t stop.”
Nor does he plan to. Despite having just welcomed his first child, he’ll return to the road on July 7 and send yet another single to country radio — “The Kinda Love We Make.” To date, he’s notched 13 consecutive Number Ones, going all the way back to his first release “Hurricane” in 2015. At some point, he may have a song that will fail to ring the bell. But for now, he’s got his finger on the pulse and still loves singing his earliest material even as he expands his sound in subtle ways.
“It’s why I’m here. This One’s for You, that album is why I’m here,” he says. “I’ve never understood [artists] that are like, ‘I don’t like our first stuff.’ I was lucky to find my sound early on. I think that’s what a lot of people are saying when they say they don’t like their first album: It was something the label made them do or they were trying to be something they weren’t.” There’s a pause, and he adds with confidence, ”That was never the case for me.”
[Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak]
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