CHARLOTTE, Tennessee – On a warm, clear Tuesday in May, Luke Combs offered a visitor a ride around his property in rural Tennessee on one of his Polaris utility vehicles. The 140-acre lot of woods, fields, and streams is about an hour’s drive from Nashville. It includes a swimming pool, beach volleyball court, chicken coop and a large white house on top of a hill where he lives with his wife, who was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
About 50 yards from the house is a huge barn converted into a sprawling man cave, complete with a pool table, gym, beer tap, hunting trophies, arcade games, platinum records, and framed sports jerseys. In the driveway in front of the house was a beautifully restored hunter green Ford Ranchero. Outside the shed stood a brand-new, painted-up tour bus with a deluxe steam shower and $4,000 coffee maker.
“We used to have a Keurig,” Combs said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I don’t think that was good enough.”
Combs is currently one of country music’s biggest stars. His first 14 singles, including “Doin’ This,” the first off his June 24 album, “Growin’ Up,” are all #1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart. His latest album, 2019’s “What You See Is What You Get”, opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with huge streaming numbers, and he has had 20 songs reach the Hot 100. Recently sold out football stadiums in Denver, Nashville, Seattle and Atlanta, and is the Country Music Association’s reigning entertainer of the year. He has accomplished this not with virtuoso musical innovation, cross-genre collaborations with celebrities, or organizing a television singing competition, but by waving one unstoppably catchy, universally recognizable meat-and-potato country song after another.
In marketing language, Combs seems like the kind of guy you could imagine having a beer with. Now he faces an existential crisis that freshly minted stars have often encountered: How do you maintain that man-of-the-people vibe when you literally live in a hilltop mansion?
Unlike many country stars of recent vintage, 32-year-old Combs doesn’t look like the shaggy handsome model in a Bass Pro Shops ad. He looks like a guy who shops at Bass Pro Shops. He’s a big boy, but he doesn’t have a threatening look. Dressed in a white Vince Gill T-shirt and wrinkled khaki, he walked into the garage where the Polaris was parked, raised a hand and apologized to his visitor. “Just one second,” he said. He had to relieve himself. Then he stopped at the side door and urinated in the open, right next to his mansion on the hill.
Combs grew up in Asheville, NC, a small town with a decidedly bohemian vibe, where he was a relatively indifferent student and not much of an athlete. He played football in high school, although he admitted that “played” is a generous description. “I drove on the couch,” he said. As a teenager, he worked at Asheville’s Fun Depot. “Karts, climbing wall, laser tag — it was probably 60,000 square feet of fun,” he said, “unless you worked there.” While money was never in abundance in his household, his childhood felt stable: “It was pretty super normal, which isn’t the most entertaining story of all time.”
One thing that distinguished Combs—or that, in retrospect, seems remarkable—is that he always sang: in the house, in church, in his school chorus. “I was just drawn to singing,” he said. His parents stimulated his musical interest. When he was in seventh grade, they bought him a guitar. He quit after two lessons and put it in his closet. “I hated it,” he said.
Combs enrolled at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, but spent more time going out and drinking than studying. The summer after his third year there, he returned to Asheville and the job at Fun Depot. “It was brutal,” he said. “Everyone was in high school. I was the old man there.” One day, sitting on his porch, his mother noticed that neither Kenny Chesney nor Tim McGraw started playing guitar until they were 21. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him yet.
“I still had that guitar my parents got me in the closet,” he said. “So I pulled it out and taught myself how to play.”
Not only did the guitar take up his time that summer, when he returned to school in the fall, it also solved other problems. “If you’re a 300-pound guy in college, how do you stand out from the opposite sex?” he asked. “You can’t really sing at a party and not act weird. But when you play guitar, people are like, ‘Cool!’”
Combs met another student named Adam Church, and the two started playing together. “Luke knew three or four chords, so not good,” Church said in an interview. The two would cover songs like Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” and upload the videos to YouTube and Vine. “Luke was this more heavily built guy who looked like a normal person, but when he stepped up to the microphone and opened his mouth, everyone’s attention went straight to him,” Church added.
Combs eventually dropped out of college and started playing more often in North Carolina, and later in the Southeast. At one point, he auditioned for ‘The Voice’. “I was rejected because my story wasn’t interesting enough,” he said. In 2014 he moved to Nashville. The disinterest he got from labels, publishers, executives and pretty much everyone involved with the industry there was palpable.
“You walk in the door and it’s an immediate ‘no’ before you’ve said a word,” he recalled in an amiable, slightly bemused Southern accent. “You have to remember that everyone was hot back then. The blueprint was: ‘Let’s find a handsome man, tune his voice automatically, and then release a song. In many ways it still is.”
It wasn’t until Combs sold 15,000 downloads of his song “Hurricane” the week it became available on iTunes that Nashville took notice. He signed with Columbia, which re-released “Hurricane,” the first of his 14 country radio hits. The two albums that followed, “This One’s for You” in 2017, and “What You See Is What You Get,” were packed with songs that accomplished an nimble two-step, sounding both fresh and instantly familiar.
“I’ve always wanted to write songs that I felt like I wasn’t hearing,” he said. “When I started everything was beats or was really beachy. Not that that’s wrong, but growing up I really liked artists like Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn. So when I’m putting things out I want live instruments, not track.”
Combs’ songs are filled with classic country signifiers – beer, trucks, a gentle longing for the glory of yesteryear – but they are filtered through his own lens. “You know who it is from the first note,” said Miranda Lambert, who collaborated with Combs on “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” a mid-tempo duet on “Growin’ Up.”
His music paints a picture of a life that feels defiantly ordinary. His 2017 hit, “When It Rains It Pours,” describes a windfall in decidedly small-bore wins: “a hundred bucks on a scratch card,” “the last spot in the Hooters parking lot,” “three free passes for me, and two buddies to play a round of golf.” The most resonating lines in his monster ballad, “Beautiful Crazy,” deal with the subject of Combs’ affection abandoning her weekend plans and instead falling asleep on the couch watching TV.
Jonathan Singleton, who helped write Combs’ 2019 hit “Beer Never Broke My Heart” as well as four songs on the new album, compared the usual songwriting process in Nashville to Bingo: every song suits every artist. “Luke’s songs aren’t like that,” said Singleton, who also produced “Growin’ Up” with Combs and Chip Matthews. “They are very personal. He lets you in. He is a regular who sings and writes beautiful songs, but he feels like an unbeatable underdog.”
Combs’ brand as an Everyman with a Midas touch was shaken in early 2021, when footage of him performing in a 2015 music video in front of a Confederate flag and carrying a Confederate flag sticker on an old guitar began circulating online. This followed the emergence of a video of country star Morgan Wallen using a racist slur, sparking a fraught dialogue about race and racial equality within the genre that is still going on today. Combs publicly apologized for appearing with the flag, but in the same disturbing way Wallen’s brief rebuke by the country music industry caused a corresponding boost in his streaming numbers, Combs’ mea culpa caused its own backlash.
“There were fans who were angry that I apologized and fans who were happy that I did,” he said. “That was a tough time. Before it was all roses, this happens and it’s like, ‘Hey man, you’re a racist.’ I’ve never been more political in nature, but someone telling me I’m racist was a big problem for me because I’m not a racist.”
It would have been easier, Combs said, to do nothing and let the situation fade from view. But the episode got to the heart of who he is. “I’m a people-pleaser,” he said. “I am a man who derives much of my happiness from making sure that other people are happy. That is the nature of my job.”
This basic compliance formed the basis for his creative process on ‘Growin’ Up’. “Let’s just say ‘This One’s for You’ is the record that a lot of people, like me, fell in love with,” he said. “When I release an album that’s completely different, people say, ‘I bought this grape Gatorade and now it tastes like limes.’ But I also don’t want to release the same record seven or eight times.”
A manifestation of this modest evolutionary impulse is that – as both Combs and Singleton noted – there are no beer tracks on the new album. To be clear, beer still makes a few appearances, but Combs’ music has changed alongside its reality. “I’m in this transition phase and there are days when I think, ‘I could pulverize 100 beers in a bar tonight and play for five hours,'” he said. ‘On other nights I don’t want to get off the couch. I want to stay with my wife and get ready to have this child.”
Some changes are inevitable, but according to Singleton, who first met Combs before signing with Columbia, the only major difference he sees in the 2022 version of Combs is “his bank account.” That’s what drives ‘Doin’ This’, which envisions a universe where stardom eluded Combs, but where he still performs Friday nights at his local bar. He enlisted his classmate Church—who, coincidentally, lives up to the song’s sliding door reality—to star in the song’s video.
“I still play in my hometown for the most part,” Church said. “Luke is on this massive scale, but if he went the other way, like me, he’d still be playing music. He’s the same guy he was then.”
As Combs steered his Polaris down a forest trail, past a 100-year-old tobacco barn on his property, he repeated his friend’s claim. “I moved to Nashville and thought, ‘If I can somehow make a living out of music, that would be enough.'” He wanted to sing, but would have settled for less: “Being a songwriter, working at a publishing house, book bands in a bar, whatever.”
He drove past his gigantic man cave, his new tour bus, to his big white house and then stopped. “I wasn’t smart enough to plan all this in advance,” he said. “I was just smart enough not to drop the plane into the ground. Well, not yet.”