Most mornings, Andrew Combs is awake by 7 a.m. There are a few exceptions, but, if he’s not on tour, he can more often than not be not found at his ranch-style home out near the Nashville airport, up with the birds. There’s a little barn in the backyard that he’s transformed into his own workspace, where he’ll read, write or paint with acrylics, and he’s trying to start running again. Though he’s only thirty, things are fairly mellow domestically for the Texas-born singer-songwriter: his new wife, Kristin, is pregnant with their first child, and excursions with friends usually fall well before sundown.
“I don’t go out much,” Combs tells Rolling Stone Country, seated at an East Nashville coffee shop – one where you can still get a cup of drip for less than two dollars. He sits on a bench with a large, lidless cup, his dark, expressive eyebrows raising ever so-slightly with each sip. “Most of my friends have kids. We have a breakfast club: every Wednesday we do a breakfast, just a bunch of guys. These days, we talk about traffic and crossing guards.”
It all may seem a little calm for a musician – or at least the common hard-partying stereotype – but someone like Combs, who creates so many vibrant worlds on his third album Canyons of My Mind, doesn’t need to conjure calamity and chaos in search of artistic inspiration. Instead, he finds the complex in the quiet, those cracks in everyday existence that only a rich interior life can discover. Whereas All These Dreams was an orchestral, modern take on Glen Campbell countrypolitan, Canyons ventures into more experimental folk textures: Nick Drake, Elliott Smith or even the acoustically adventuresome nature of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Combs, a staple on the young Nashville Americana scene, writes stories, not diaries: like a painter, his songs are coded interpretations of the world at large, presented to unfold a new way of viewing at the ordinary, the imperfect and the challenges ahead.
“I firmly believe in write what you know,” he says. “Even if it was in some twisted roundabout way, I don’t know how you couldn’t. But I read a lot, and the reason I read a lot is because I was a middle class white kid growing up in Dallas. There was nothing hard about my life. Every family has trials and tribulations, but compared to other people I had it easy. But through music, books and reading and films I transfer myself to someone else, and bring a little of that into song.”
Combs grew up in the urban part of the Texas city (surrounded by “concrete, smog and lots of money”) but moved to Nashville eleven years ago. His father played piano, but it was a cousin, five years his senior, who turned Combs onto songwriting, supplying him with pirated recording software that he’d use to make tracks in his bedroom. At first, it was mostly electronic music, then rock & roll like the Strokes, until a high school friend turned him on to Townes Van Zandt and the other Nashville artists who unfolded a whole new world of narrative song.
“I just started researching them and their ties to Nashville,” he says. “And it lead me to a whole other rabbit hole of the professional songwriter I didn’t even know existed. I was fascinated with Harlan Howard and Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury. But I also knew that if I wanted to keep writing songs the way I wanted to write them, I was going to have to be an artist.”
Combs released his first full-length Worried Man, in 2012: it included appearances from Caitlin Rose and Spencer Cullum Jr. and showed flashes of brilliance on songs like “Too Stoned to Cry.” With shades of seventies Bob Dylan and the rolling storytelling of Guy Clark, it scored him a publishing deal and tour slots alongside the likes of Shovels & Rope, Rose and Jonny Fritz. After All These Dreams was released in 2015, Combs opened for Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church, and signed a record deal with New West shortly before his wedding. He and his new wife honeymooned for six weeks in the Minnesota wilderness, favoring seclusion amongst the fir trees and fishing over some sort of hedonistic resort.
“These days, there is so much information, and you can make an argument about anything you want.”
It’s all a metaphor for Canyons, a mature but vigorously unique selection of songs that seem acutely aware of their surroundings. “Dirty Rain” ponders the consequences of how recklessly we treat our world; “Heart of Wonder,” an intellect’s journey to silence our existential doubts, and “Silk Flowers,” the permanent and ephemeral aspects of love.
“It’s about evolving and growing up and becoming more aware of who you are,” he says about Canyons, which was produced by Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning at Battle Tapes Studio in Nashville and includes vocals from Lera Lynn, Erin Rae McKaskle and Rose. “And I hope that comes across in the music. Taking care of your surroundings.”
There is also a layer of political fury to songs like “Bourgeois King,” written in response to the last presidential election. “Parasites and politicians intertwined and holding hands / Feed us fiction and fabrication / Make this country great again,” he sings with splays of keys that feel as though they’re being hit out of pure frustration. Tackling a protest anthem was new territory for Combs, but he felt that the stakes were simply too high to stay silent.
“I wish it were a little angrier,” he says. “These days, there is so much information, and you can make an argument about anything you want. It’s hard to be quiet but it’s also hard to speak, since anyone can form an opinion from anywhere. I felt like it was better to put it all in a song and flush it out from there.”
Though “Bourgeois King” ends with loaded chants of “build a wall to keep us free,” Combs wasn’t just reacting to the Trump regime, but the entire calamity of the 2016 election, mostly because he has the future heavy on his mind these days. The world we are shaping and passing on is painted all across Canyons, and in his first two music videos, for “Blood Hunters” and “Dirty Rain,” he includes shots of our most innocent citizens: children. Though his wife wasn’t yet pregnant when he wrote the LP, he had been thinking a lot about responsibility: to create, to leave things better than we found them, to leave a selfless but meaningful legacy. He’s excited, of course, about the baby due at the end of summer, but he’s nervous too.
“Bringing a child into this world, it’s scary,” he says. As he sings on “Dirty Rain,” “what will all our little children say, when the only place to play is in the dirty rain?” Combs may not know the answer, but Canyons ensures that it’s a question that others will keep on asking.
Canyons of My Mind is available now via New West.