Luke Combs is nation music’s latest mega-star, and its fiercest defender

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Luke Combs desires you to grasp this about nation music: In the event you’re making enjoyable of it, there’s an excellent likelihood you simply don’t get it.

He’s heard all of it loads of occasions earlier than. You’re in all probability going to say that every one the songs sound the identical, or that every one the lyrics are about ingesting chilly beer and driving down dust roads in your dad’s previous truck. Combs has heard each criticism, which places him within the uncommon place of a famous person who’s shaping the way forward for the style whereas additionally serving as certainly one of its fiercest defenders.

“It’s never been about the small town you grew up in, it’s knowing where home is; it’s not about the dirt roads you ride down, it’s the freedom you feel. The physical thing is not the thing that we’re talking about. It’s the emotion that’s evoked by what that moment speaks to,” Combs, 32, stated in a current interview. “It’s not about your dad’s truck, it’s not about the truck — it’s about your dad. That’s the thing where I think we’re a little misunderstood sometimes.”

Combs did this venting on a heat Friday night in July whereas sitting in a set overlooking an empty Ohio Stadium soccer area. The following evening, round 63,000 folks would pack the stadium to look at Combs headline Buckeye Nation Superfest, the largest viewers but for the style’s newest mega-headliner. However that’s the factor about being a Nashville star — irrespective of how profitable you might be, some folks from different genres hear “country music” and roll their eyes.

“I challenge any of those people and their acts to come in here and fill this place up,” Combs stated, gesturing the to stadium beneath. As quickly because the phrases left his mouth, he burst into nervous-sounding laughter, and shortly glanced again at his publicist sitting within the nook — he knew how which may sound, particularly for somebody whose down-to-earth humility has been an enormous a part of his mass attraction.

However he’s not fallacious: You’d be hard-pressed to seek out musicians in competing codecs who’ve risen to stadium standing as shortly as Combs. Because the launch of his debut album 5 years in the past, Combs has shattered gross sales and streaming data in a approach hardly ever seen within the style.

Every of his 14 singles has reached No. 1 on nation radio, with the swooning “The Kind of Love We Make” (from his new album, “Growin’ Up”) on the prime of the Mediabase chart this week. He had the best-selling country album of 2019 along with his debut, “This One’s For You” (initially launched in 2017) and repeated the feat in 2020 with “What You See Is What You Get” (launched in 2019). Already on a sold-out area tour this fall, he simply introduced a 2023 world tour that may take him to 16 stadiums stateside beginning in March, adopted by arenas from Australia to the U.Okay.

Combs’s speedy rise explains loads in regards to the modern nation music panorama: After the bro-country craze of a decade in the past, followers are embracing ’90s nostalgia and favoring performers who appear to be actual, down-to-earth folks. For his half, Combs oozes everyman relatability, with extra listeners seeing him as a mirrored image of their lives and experiences than lots of the style’s extra entrenched stars.

“Luke was always such a giant fan of country music, and it affected him in the way that drove his lifestyle and work and the way he talked to people and the way he interacted with people and the friends he picked and the clothes he wore,” stated Jonathan Singleton, his longtime co-writer and producer, noting that there are “a bunch of suits in town” that aren’t dwelling an genuine nation life-style. “And here’s a guy that is — so what happens if we don’t mess with that and let it be what it is? It’s purely, beautifully raw. … If you’re trying to understand modern country music, you would take a big long look at Luke.”

So if Combs sounds defensive for somebody so profitable, it’s as a result of he is aware of that regardless that he’s reached the peak of success in his area, he’ll nonetheless generally really feel like a “pariah” within the bigger music business due to the preconceived notions about nation music.

“I don’t want to come off as a jerk, because it’s not an arrogance or cockiness,” he stated. “I just — I care about how our genre is perceived by the world. And I don’t think people really give it a fair shake.”

Following Combs round for a day usually seems like a family-friendly model of “Entourage.” Outdated associates populate his highway crew, buying and selling inside jokes and making enjoyable of Combs for his horrible golf sport. (After one significantly irritating spherical at Inexperienced Gables on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, Combs chucked his golf balls into the scenic physique of water subsequent to the course.) When reflecting on his profession trajectory, Combs is again to his standard low-key demeanor.

“I don’t know how to feel or think about it. I mean, besides grateful, and humbled,” he stated. “To be able to be sitting here, and look where we’re at … I think about it literally all the time.” To Austin Harper, his childhood buddy rising up in Asheville, N.C., who now works as his government assistant, the surreal nature of a second like this nonetheless hit residence. “What are we doing here?” he yelled, looking over the large stadium.

Combs nonetheless writes with the core group of Nashville songwriters who supported him in his unknown early days when others questioned his potential. He estimates he spent $2 million paying his band and crew’s salaries when touring stopped in the course of the pandemic.

“I’m not trying to brag,” he added shortly. “I just wanted those guys to not have to worry about what happened next, and I’m lucky enough to have made enough money at that point.”

“He’s the guy that all the fans love, and also the people in town that like, are kind of too cool for school — or not mainstream or whatever — those people love him too,” stated songwriter Ray Fulcher, certainly one of Combs’s frequent collaborators. “So he’s the people’s champ.”

Combs, in any case, isn’t that far faraway from the individual simply attending a live performance himself. He considered singing largely as a interest at school and began enjoying guitar when he went to Appalachian State College, entertaining patrons at a bar the place he labored. He left with out a diploma, transferring to Nashville in September 2014 whereas scraping collectively sufficient cash to file a few EPs and tour.

His music began choosing up steam on Fb, Vine and YouTube, and membership house owners across the Southeast observed he was bringing in critical crowds. Ultimately, phrase filtered again to the foremost Nashville labels that there was a low-key man with an enormous voice who already had a fan base.

“Luke came into our office and sang, and when he walked in, he did not look like a lot of the archetypical male artists within country music at the time,” stated Randy Goodman, chairman and chief government of Sony Music Nashville, not naming names however alluding to the muscled, coifed singers (maybe the Sam Hunts or Florida Georgia Strains of the world). “But the voice that came out of him was one of those kind of things where everything else kind of melts away. … It was so powerful to be in his presence and have him playing his acoustic guitar. It was pretty overwhelming.” Quickly, he had the primary of many No. 1 singles with “Hurricane.”

Combs’s booming vocals come from a spot deep inside his chest. That voice units him other than the opposite singers that populate nation radio. “He starts out at 10 and then he goes to 11, 12,” Goodman stated. “It feels like a bear is coming at you,” Singleton added.

“He’s got one of those big, gravely strong voices, but it doesn’t strike you that he’s hurting himself. … It doesn’t feel like he’s over-singing. You hear a lot of people screaming when they’re trying to sing hard,” stated Kix Brooks, one half of Brooks & Dunn. “He kind of sings hard all the time, but it’s his natural voice, natural delivery.” Brooks & Dunn function certainly one of Combs’s greatest influences — he incorporates a related conventional ’90s nation sound with trendy manufacturing, feeding the present nostalgia craze with out coming off as a carbon copy. Combs collaborated with the duo on a brand new model of “Brand New Man” for his or her 2019 “Reboot” album.

Brooks recalled writing the 1991 hit “Brand New Man” with Dunn, and finds it very acceptable that Combs has tailored the track.

“It’s in your face from the first note: ‘I saw the light, I’ve been baptized.’ It just punches from the get-go,” Brooks stated. “And that’s what Luke does and how he’s built his career — it sorts of fits him perfectly.”

Whereas Combs thinks that non-country followers are liable to have stereotypical views of the style and its followers, this results in the query: perhaps that’s as a consequence of tales about that style that break via into nationwide information? An off-the-cuff observer received’t see the overdue efforts for the business to be extra inclusive, or what Combs factors to as the varied origins of the format. As a substitute, they’ll see a TMZ story about how nation star Morgan Wallen was caught on video saying the n-word, and the way his recognition has solely grown since then.

Just a few weeks after the video of Wallen was launched in early 2021, Combs participated in a conversation about “accountability” on the annual Nation Radio Seminar along with his fellow nation star and labelmate, Maren Morris. Combs apologized for showing in a 2015 music video the place the Accomplice flag is proven repeatedly, and for a photograph of the flag on his guitar, saying there was no excuse for these “painful” pictures.

“I want people to feel welcomed by country music and by our community,” Combs stated in the course of the dialogue. “At the time that those images existed, I wasn’t aware what that was portraying to the world and to African American artists in Nashville that were saying, ‘Man, I really want to come in and get a deal and do this thing, but how can I be around with these images being promoted?’ And so I do apologize for that.”

Trying again, Combs stated he was extraordinarily nervous in regards to the panel: What if he misplaced followers? What if he stated one thing silly? Afterward, some applauded him, although others known as him a “sellout” for collaborating.

“I was like, me being a sellout would be not saying anything. Because then I would just go on my merry way,” he stated. “When someone says, ‘Hey man, you’re a racist,’ that’s a big accusation to say. And I felt to me like I did need it to be addressed. … I feel the need to explain myself and explain why I’m not.”

“I don’t consider myself a super political guy. I didn’t get into this business to be a social justice warrior,” he added. “I just got into this to play music that I love. But there are times when I think it’s pertinent to, you know, there are moments that are like — you just have to say something.”

NPR’s Ann Powers, who moderated the panel, famous that whereas Morris has all the time been outspoken, it was uncommon to see a star at Combs’s degree take part in such a dialogue, and that the burden normally falls on the Black artists within the business. “It was a very volatile moment,” Powers stated. “I appreciated the authenticity of Luke’s participation in the conversation and willingness to say, ‘I honestly made a big mistake.’”

Goodman, his label president, famous the straightforward highway would have been to say nothing.

“I would never try to censor or edit one of our artists, because that’s really not a part of what our job is — whatever they decide to talk about and the causes they decide to promote and support are really up to them,” he stated. “I’m excited if I can help build a soapbox that’s big enough for them to go out and do that, and maybe move us all toward a more civilized society. ”

One other matter that makes frequent mainstream headlines is nation music’s shut relationship with gun tradition, made extra sophisticated in recent times by the truth that one of many deadliest mass shootings in trendy historical past occurred on the Route 91 Harvest pageant in Las Vegas nearly precisely 5 years in the past. Combs doesn’t must be reminded — he was standing sidestage when the gunman began firing into the gang. The seemingly infinite spate of college shootings has been on his thoughts.

“Kids, children are dying. So how do we change the conversation to that? It’s like at a base level, how does a parent not fear to send their five- or six-year-old kid to kindergarten? That’s the sadness of where we’re at in the moment. And what’s the answer? I don’t know. I really have no clue,” stated Combs, who like different nation stars, enjoys searching. “I mean, I have tons of guns. I love them. Never shot anybody, don’t plan to. But at the same time, I’m open to hearing realistic options. It’s just openness, like, willingness, to hear something that maybe you don’t want to hear or aren’t interested in hearing.”

It’s about time to take the stage on Saturday evening, and Combs is partaking in his standard pre-show rituals: photographs of Jack Daniels along with his bandmates, blasting Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” as they stroll down the tunnel. The stadium that yesterday Combs dared anybody else to pack is stuffed with 63,000 individuals who sound like they’re on the verge of shedding their collective thoughts by the primary notes of “1, 2 Many” and the four-time platinum “When It Rains It Pours.” By the second track, individuals are overtly weeping. By the fourth track, a person has proposed to his girlfriend and Combs has shotgunned a beer, about half of which he drank and half soaked his shirt.

Combs casually walks across the stage, belting out lyrics about ingesting an excessive amount of (“Any Given Friday Night”), being in love (“Beautiful Crazy”), shedding love (“One Number Away”), the ache of claiming goodbye (“Even Though I’m Leaving”), and, as he put it about midway via the practically two-hour present, “all of you underdog, blue-collar, country-ass folks.”

“I always felt like an underdog when I wanted to do this,” Combs stated, introducing “Does To Me,” his duet with his hero Eric Church, about small moments in life that imply an amazing deal. “I know it might not seem like it tonight,” he stated. “But to me, it still feels that way.”

That is the place Comb’s relatability is most obvious. It’s one cause he doesn’t thoughts speaking about private matters equivalent to his household or physique picture.

“There’s probably some other chubby kid out there that is self-conscious about the way he looks, and he’s a great singer — and if he digs into that and does that, and it’s because of something he heard me say,” Combs stated, “that would be a win for me to give somebody hope that things are going to be all right.”

He is aware of that there’s a small however intense web obsession along with his relationship along with his spouse, Nicole, who has develop into a social media influencer in her own right. Households often become an integral part of a Nashville star’s model, although Combs is hesitant to put up any images of his child on social media. As a brand new dad, he half-joked that generally he thinks about pulling a Garth Brooks and temporarily leaving music to deal with his household.

“That should be the No. 1 thing on the Garth resume,” Combs stated. “It shouldn’t be ‘30 No. 1 songs’ or whatever it is. It should be ‘gave up his entire career and existence for 14 years to make sure his kids had some semblance of a normal upbringing.’”

For now, nonetheless, early retirement is a distant dream. After a quick medley of ’90s nation songs, he explains to the gang that individuals generally inform him that “country music’s about the same thing all the time”: beer, getting drunk, small cities and again roads.

“Who the hell do you think listens to country music?” Combs rhetorically requested the viewers, which screamed again in approval. “I’m not ashamed of the kind of music I like and the music I write. … I write it for me.”

But it surely was clear by the roar of the gang — they knew he additionally writes it for them.

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