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LUKE COMBS: THE PEOPLE'S STAR KEEPS IT REAL


Luke Combs is in the parking lot of a Waffle House outside Lakeland, Fla. It’s early. He needs coffee, and he’s already on the phone talking about...Luke Combs. The North Carolina kid, who went to Appalachian State, got inspired by Eric Church to write songs that looked and felt like his friends lived. Now one of Sony Music Nashville’s biggest acts, Combs has come a long way in a relatively short time from the two self-released EPs whose sales paid the rent on a Nashville apartment for the eight months after college he spent writing songs every day.

Since then, Combs, whose self-released debut single “Hurricane” sold 15,000 copies its first week and went on to top the Country airplay charts, has made scads of history. He’s the first and only country artist to hit #1 on the Country airplay charts with the first five singles from the same album (including the deluxe version). The Best New Artist Grammy nominee has topped all five country charts at the same time and spent multiple weeks at #1, including seven weeks for “Beautiful Crazy.”

His streams are massive too. “Beer Never Broke My Heart” broke Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” 7 million-plus first-week record, while his certified double-platinum This One’s for You has spent 35 weeks at #1 on the country sales chart, tying Taylor Swift’s Fearless and 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Establishing a regular-guy, real instruments-driven form of working-class country that’s been missing from the genre, Combs—shirt untucked, Red Solo cup in one hand, mic in the other—is connecting with an audience that can’t get enough. He believes in those people, this music and the guys he writes with enough to endure a Holly Gleason wake-up call.

This has been a crazy year for you.
The craziest thing about it is you get so used to it that nothing has a chance to surprise you. Once it started happening, it hasn’t stopped—and we haven’t stopped, so there’s no time to let it sink in. The Houston Rodeo was pretty crazy, because that’s such a big thing. They bring in the best artists from around the world, because they’ve got to sell 75,000 tickets a night for almost a year.

Did you ride out on a horse?
I did not ride the horse out. They kind of freak me out, and I don’t like trying things out for the first time in front of 75,000 people. I’m always pretty cool about not having a need to feed my ego doing something I have no business doing. I don’t worry about people thinking I’m not cool for not riding the horse out; I worry about a horse being unpredictable.

What else?
Honestly, the arena tour’s crazy. The tickets go on sale and they sell right out. I’d done arenas with Brantley Gilbert, then Jason Aldean. But when they’re there for you, it’s a whole other energy. A week of radio shows some people might see as an inconvenience; I see it as playing for people who want to hear these songs.

When I signed my deal, I wanted to prove I could do it, that I have what it takes. Lots of people think, “I have my deal—I’m set.” But that’s just like getting drafted into the NFL. Then you have to do the work. You have to prove you’re one of the very best. So I figured when opportunities come up, that’s why you’re here.

You also do this for the fans, right?
That’s always the thing that’s present in my mind. When I started playing, that was why. When you live in town, it’s a bubble—and it’s easy to think success is what these people think. Unless you’re out there touring, seeing the people, how do you know? It’s awesome going to events for the industry, record-company and publishing people, and I love it as much as anyone. But sometimes I feel like the fans come last—they get forgotten. It’s like, “Why does nobody in Nashville care about what the people think?”

As a songwriter, you’ve always done your own thing.
We were just scratching an itch. I’ve always been confident in my singing and my ability to connect in the shows. But writing songs was fun. I love plays on words, thinking about melodies and licks. This whole record was written before I got a deal. By the time all these songs were written, maybe three writers on the record had a publishing deal. I didn’t have one. James McNeary signed a co-pub deal with Sony/Tree Vibez. I think Thomas Archer might have had one.

But because of that, we didn’t have to go into a room, and they’re sending you sheets with who’s cutting and what they need. We wrote every day, and instead of that, we wrote for us. That circle is pretty tight, with 10 or 15 guys writing most of the hits. People are seeking those guys out, because they’re successful. But how many original ideas can they have? But if you’re writing 400 songs...

I think there’s some laziness with new, developing artists; you know, “Here’s the pile of [those writers’] songs.” We all kind of think you can do more. We’re not gonna sit down and write Chris Knight songs, or Guy Clark or John Prine songs. But there’s a middle ground between them—and what everyone’s reaching for.

Part of what works is that you’re doing very basic—and aggressive—country music, with real drums, not 808s.
808s are awesome if they’re used right, but I think real drums sound better. We come in with acoustic work tapes and say [to the musicians], “Here—let’s just see what happens. Do what you feel.” These players are great, and they know. When you’ve got a guitar/vocal demo, it’s a piece of tofu—you can season it any way you want.

But that’s a departure from what they’re cutting right now.
It’s crazy to me that it’s so shocking to people. People make it out like it’s something it’s not.  It ain’t George Jones kind of country. There’s some arena guitars. I like country—I like a lot of things, honestly. But the songs that come out when we write, well, we write country songs.

I didn’t grow up on a farm. We had four acres on the river, spent a decent amount of time outside. It was a pretty regular life.

When you came to Nashville, which loves metrics and data, did your DIY approach translate?
I didn’t have a booking agent or a manager. I was making $2,500, $3,000 a month from those EPs, so for eight months or so, I could do nothing but write. But I couldn’t get a publishing meeting to play or pitch my songs. I was getting pretty discouraged. It was defeating.

I finally got a meeting with a big publisher in town. I had “Hurricane,” “When It Rains,” “She Got the Best of Me” and a work tape of “One Number Away” on my phone. I played this guy all of it, and he says, “I’ve got two things to tell you.” And I got ready. He says, “First, you need to write better songs. And you’re never gonna be an artist. No one is going to pay money to see you.”

Wow.
I’m a big fan of constructive criticism. 
I always want to be better, and I thought, “Well, OK, I’ve got to write some 
better songs.” But I also wondered how much better.

I wasn’t playing any shows, but I did some writers’ nights. People were driving in from Alabama and Kentucky, places I’d never toured. So I’d play Whiskey Jam, and they’d be like, “Why is it so packed?” And I knew. People would be coming up to me, asking questions about songs or taking pictures. And the EPs, which were a year and half old, kept selling.

The thing was, everybody had passed. They could’ve had me for $300,000 and a 360 deal.

Then “Hurricane” happened.
The record was happening, and all the labels were reaching out to us. Everything had changed, except for me and the music.

Then “Beer Never Broke My Heart” shattered everything in its wake to set up the EP Prequel, on top of the deluxe version of This One’s for You.
The timing of all that is the really frustrating part for me. I have so much stuff, but what can you do with it? Every release now [that he’s on a label] has to be so proper. There’s the way they do releases, and they take time. I think, “How many albums did Merle put out? Or Willie?” Look at their catalogs. Things are different now; I understand that. But I still make a lot of music.

Given your schedule, when do you have time to write and record?
I spent the last two Januarys in the studio. I sacrificed my bit of free time to go into the studio to make sure this stuff got done right, and we weren’t rushing it or singing tired. Like I said, I wanted this: I’m not going to let the opportunities slip away.

You were a blue-collar kid.
My dad was a maintenance man all of his life. My mom was a receptionist, worked in a women’s prison in human resources. She worked 40-, 50-hour weeks, came home and cooked dinner for everyone. We sat down for dinner every night and didn’t know anything different. The blue-collar, forgotten America: they may not love their jobs, but they do it to survive and for their kids. They worked hard to make sure we had enough, but we didn’t go on vacation. We went to Myrtle Beach twice. It’s working for next to nothing to get by. And I don’t wanna say it’s unique, because people all over the world work for a whole lot less than what we have in this country.

Did you have siblings?
I’m the only child.

Were you the first one in your family to go to college?
My dad went to a little community college for a semester. My mom went to Western Carolina for a year before my grandfather had a heart attack. She headed back home to help her mom take care of him, and did what she had to do.

So your work ethic and values are baked in. Did you realize it?
When you’re a kid, the world is only as big as what you know. When you’re old enough to have your own friends, I think that’s when it sets in. You don’t realize how lucky you are until you realize not everyone does that. You hear about other people’s families, and they’re not sitting down to dinner every night.

Does that help you keep your balance?
[The acclaim]’s pretty weird. I do try to separate myself from it. I’m very aware of all that stuff, because people keep me aware. And I’m very proud of it. But I don’t sit around and bathe in the ego of it. I might be on a plane home after a show and be there an hour later. But then I’m still scooping the cat litter.

When you heard your name at the Billboard Awards, what went through your head?
I wasn’t there [laughs]. I’d gone the year before, and thankfully Brett Young was there. We’re friends, and his wife and my girlfriend hang out, so we knew somebody. But you go to these awards shows, and they kinda treat [country acts] like second-class citizens. So this year, we were on tour, I got home, and did an interview for Billboard that day. I figured they were going to say, “Hey, you won an award. We need a video to play.” But nothing. So I figured someone else won.

Did you watch?
I was home that night. And I didn’t watch, because they wouldn’t announce the country ones on TV.

How’d you find out?
I got an email. That’s how important country is to them. I got an email from my management, who didn’t know either. Then, when people found out, I started getting all these texts.

So you’re really not caught up in it.
When you go home, you can’t think of yourself as a rock star, or a country star. The powers that be can push you in that direction, and it’s a dangerous thing. You can get caught up in that real quick, and that’s trouble. In L.A., those all-genre events like the Grammys, I’d hear people on the red carpet going, “Do you know who I am?” And no, they don’t! OK, fine. In the end, do you treat people good? Or not? In the end, that’s what matters. I wanna be remembered for good songs, as a good husband, as a good dad eventually. Everything else? I don’t know.

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