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March 24, 2023


Luke Combs Isn’t Like the Rest

The best country singer of his generation, the 33-year-old has broken out—big—with a surprising tactic: leaning into old-school, traditional country sounds.

In a nice touch at last month’s Grammy Awards, several of the night’s performers were introduced by friends and family. Brandi Carlile was brought to the stage by her wife and daughters, Lizzo by one of the contestants on her show Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. The introduction for country singer Luke Combs, a powerhouse both vocally and commercially who has exploded in popularity in recent years, came from Justin Davis, the owner of Town Tavern Blowing Rock in Boone, North Carolina, where Combs once worked as a bouncer. But with his round physique and ginger beard, Combs exudes nice-guy energy, so just how good was he at guarding the door?

“Luckily, there was two of us,” he said on a recent Zoom call from his manager’s office in Nashville. “I didn’t particularly love that job—I was more of a people pleaser than the ‘you’re not allowed in’ guy. I got it done, but I’m definitely not gonna be in the Bouncer Hall of Fame.”

As for the Country Music Hall of Fame? Well, it’s a little early, but Combs—whose fourth album, Gettin’ Old, is out today—has been on a sustained, record-breaking tear; other than Morgan Wallen, who operates in an entirely different stratosphere from the rest of the genre at this point, 33-year-old Combs is Music City’s biggest star to emerge in the last decade. He is also, out of his set of peers, the best pure singer.

This sounds impossible, but since the 2016 release of “Hurricane” from his debut album This One’s For You, each of his fifteen singles have hit Number One on the country charts—the longest consecutive streak for an artist straight out of the gate. (“Hurricane,” by the way, was certified eight-times-platinum, as was “When It Rains It Pours,” while 2018’s “Beautiful Crazy” reached the nine-times-platinum mark).

Luke Combs – Love You Anyway (Official Studio Video)

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All of which led to a skyrocketing touring base for the dressed-down, big-voiced Combs, earning him the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year award the past two years. It’s especially impressive since Combs occupies a traditional spot in country music—singing solidly constructed, old-school songs about love and booze with hints of Southern Rock and soul, and not a trace of the pop or hip-hop influence that defines most of the genre’s young artists working today.

“A guy like Luke comes along every now and then and becomes a phenom,” says Kix Brooks of Country Music Hall of Fame duo Brooks & Dunn, who have recorded with Combs several times. “He’s selling honesty, ground up integrity, and he sings hard, like he’s gonna hurt you with his passion. He freaking means it! You’ve got to be really good, and he is, but you’ve got to mean it every time, and it sure sounds like he does.”

So who gets the credit for this unprecedented sprint to the top of the charts? Well, that takes us back to Justin Davis and his bar, because Combs may have been a lousy bouncer, but taking that job led to other opportunities. “I played a million shows in his bars,” he says. “I lived upstairs and worked downstairs and played downstairs and ate and drank downstairs. You don’t even realize how important it is until later—with the rise of the Internet, if you have a song or a video that does well, all of a sudden, you can be playing shows for thousands of people, and sometimes those people struggle when they get out on stage. People go see them and they’re like, ‘This isn’t what I paid to come see.’

“Playing all those shows was a huge benefit,” he continues, “because you figure out what works, what doesn’t work—I mean, how do you even know if the crowd likes your song or not? I would encourage anybody to just play and play, in places where nobody’s coming to buy a ticket to see you. It may not be as fast as a [social media] video, but once you get to the point you want to be at, you’ll be glad that you did it.”

Gettin’ Old comes out just nine months after Combs’ last album, which turns out to be part of a master plan. That last record was called Growin’ Up, and he actually wrote and recorded most of the two albums simultaneously (the opening track on the new one, which he describes as “the overarching theme of the album,” is titled “Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old,” connecting the dots for any of us who aren’t paying attention).

“It became apparent that there were two markedly different groups of songs that were showing up,” he says. “Growin’ Up leaned more towards my first two albums and Gettin’ Old is a shift towards a more mature sound, with being married and having a kid and things that were happening at the time I was writing the songs. It felt like there was this big juxtaposition in my life—you’re out on the road playing shows and drinking with your buddies, and then you’re home and your wife’s pregnant, and then you got a kid, and then you’re back on the road, playing shows and riding on the bus. There’s things I really love about both of those, so that juxtaposition is kind of where the songs came from.”

Most of the album is meat-and-two-sides, plant-your-feet-and-sing country, exploring themes familiar from the format’s tradition—family, first loves and lasting loves, the power of song—but there are a few selections that take unexpected turns. There’s a cover of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit “Fast Car” (one of the first songs Combs remembers hearing, on cassette in his dad’s “1980-something, brown F-150 with a camper top”). “Joe” is the story of a sobriety journey, which is a bit of a surprise coming from the guy with alcohol-fueled hits like “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and “1, 2 Many” (“There’s no stopping me once I get goin’/Put a can in my hand, man, I’m wide-ass open”).

“I had some people in my family struggle with that, and some friends that live that lifestyle,” Combs explains. “And I think about how much we talk about getting drunk and stuff—and hey, I love it as much as the next guy, but I wonder, what are those people thinking? Especially if it was my friend or my dad, I want them to at least have a moment in the show that spoke to them a little bit, too.”

Luke Combs was written about frequently as an overnight sensation, but ask the singer how he feels about that classification. “I put in my 10,000 hours,” he tells Esquire.

His expression of empathy for listeners beyond the stereotype sounds like a lot of the conversation in Nashville these days, which is taking a hard look at country music’s diversity and who does and doesn’t feel welcome as part of the audience. Combs says he’s supportive of and enthusiastic about efforts to include more and different voices.

“I think it’s great—any opportunity that our genre has to broaden its listenership or its base is so cool,” he says. “Bringing in people who have different outlooks and different perspectives on life is what keeps music interesting. I don’t want to hear the same version of the same song from the same person every day. I think having those different viewpoints, whether it’s from a Black artist or a woman or a guy like myself or whoever, everybody has different views and different takes, and that’s what makes music awesome.

Luke Combs started singing early. “As soon as I could talk, I was singing,” he says. He didn’t even know if he was any good at it—as an only child, he had no siblings to offer opinions, and his parents loved it but, as he says, “everybody’s parents love when they do anything.”

He started chorus class in sixth grade, then started singing in the church choir, and performed in all the school musicals. “Singing was second nature to me,” he says. “I put a lot of hard work into it, but I always just enjoyed the heck out of it.” The choir even sang at Carnegie Hall, and Combs was chosen for a solo. “It was fun, a confidence builder for sure,” he says, adding of the fabled Manhattan venue, “but I haven’t played there since.”

Still, he had no thoughts of making music a career. He went to Appalachian State University to get a business degree, then switched to criminal justice with thoughts of becoming a homicide detective. He also took the gig as a bouncer. After his junior year, he was back home for the summer, bored, working at a go-kart track. His mother reminded him that he had a guitar sitting in his bedroom closet that his parents bought him when he was in seventh grade; he had taken one lesson and bailed. Maybe he wanted to give it a try? He started to teach himself how to play.

And then there was no looking back. Playing at the Town Tavern turned into four or five shows a week, then putting a band together, “booking our own shows and driving the truck and pulling the trailer and unloading gear and loading it in and setting up speakers.” With one month left before graduation, Combs left school and headed to Nashville. So when he got signed and the hits and headlining dates started coming, he may have seemed like an overnight sensation, but he knew he was prepared.

“By the time I got my deal, I had been playing shows full-time for five years,” he says. “It does seem like it came out of nowhere, but I’d done my 10,000 hours of singing before I ever even learned how to play guitar. So I did feel ready. I never walked out and wondered, ‘Is someone going to think I’m good?’ I just went out and did it. I believed that I was doing something that was different, and something that was going to work.”

Harder for Combs, though, was adjusting to celebrity. He tries to keep his life as close as possible to what it was before all the Number One hits, and that yearning for simpler days still comes through on songs like “Back 40 Back” on Gettin’ Old. “I think I’m finally at peace with it now,” he says. “It was tough for a few years—feeling like you couldn’t go anywhere, like you couldn’t do anything. That’s kind of going away. I just live my life, I go to the grocery store and go out to eat and whatever. I used to not even do that stuff, because it was overwhelming—it always felt like somebody was looking at you or watching you or something. But now I honestly forget about that whole part of it.”

Luke Combs – Going, Going, Gone (Official Video)

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Emphasizing that “I’ve never tried to be something I’m not” (and pointing to his baseball caps-and-camo clothing choices as proof), maintaining a life outside the spotlight is especially important to Combs since the birth of his son, Tex Lawrence Combs, last June. “I want my son—and eventually my children—to have as normal of a life as they deserve to have,” he says, “to ride bikes, to have privacy, to go fishing. I don’t want them to be on jets all the time going all around the world—not that we wouldn’t go on vacation together. I want them to have the things that I didn’t have. But I also want them to have the things that I did have, which was a really fun, normal feeling childhood.”

Luke Combs knows that eventually, someday, his streak of Number One singles has to end. Maybe it will even be a relief. Anyway, figuring out those priorities is all part of growin’ up and gettin’ old.

“You obviously would love for it to keep going,” he says. “But chasing records or streaks, I don’t benefit from it as a human being. It’s great to have the most weeks at Number One or whatever; that stuff’s amazing. Nobody wouldn’t want those things. But I don’t ever think about that when I go in to write a song or produce a record, because then you’ve lost the whole art and the joy of it. I’m not going to sacrifice the integrity of what I love to do just for that.

“I’d be bummed to see it end,” he adds, “but my son would still smile when I got home, so it’s fine.”