Just like athletes’ jerseys get taken out of service to be hung up on a wall because no one could dribble the same way in that number again, the word “everyman” may have to retired by the time Luke Combs is through, so likely are we to hear it appended to him for years to come. A freshly minted superstar who embodies all that is un-superstar-like, Combs is on the schlubby side, can’t quite completely fill out a beard, and still has a slight deer-in-the-headlights thing going on when he’s called to the dais at awards shows, like he’s thinking: Hey, don’t look at me — I don’t know why this is working, either. But we do, of course, and it’s because he sings like hell, and because we the people relish triumphal underdog incongruities. You can see echoes of the Susan Boyle effect at work, except that he’s someone you want to share a beer with, not meds. Or five or six or seven beers, because this is country music, where average-Joe breakout stars, like all the girls, get prettier at closing time.
Right now Combs is absolutely the biggest star that you probably aren’t too familiar with if you’re within 25 miles of salt water and almost definitely know if you’re a little more inland than that. Radio-wise, he’s the hottest out-of-the-gate country newcomer since Garth Brooks in the early ‘90s (whose own everyman persona turned out to mask a peculiar brilliance that we’ll never understand until scientists dissect his brain someday). Combs is the first country artist ever to have his first five singles all become airplay No. 1s, and his debut album, 2017’s “This One’s for You,” just tied Shania Twain’s old record for number of weeks atop the country sales chart and is poised to break it. Arena shows sell out in minutes, and he’s got at least one stadium gig already booked for 2020. As far as the mainstream media have been concerned, though, he’s still nearly a non-entity, which maybe only endears him more to the base: At last, one we get to keep to ourselves. Or maybe his follow-up, “What You See Is What You Get,” will change all that. You can only hide this belty a voice under a bushel for so long before even the coasts hear it.
If you had to boil down the reaction to Combs’ ascent from the country intelligentsia, it would go something like: “Not great, but not bad, and at least it sounds like country music… and hey, if he sucks enough air out of the room to leave less for Florida Georgia Line and the bro brigade, then power to him.” The critical support may be a little less begrudging after “This One’s for You,” as the album benefits from some solid craftsmanship that indicates Combs really is developing his co-writing chops as an everyman (sorry) poet of sorts, on top of being, like, a fantasy fishing partner. There aren’t many topics here that exactly defy the genre’s going tropes — drinking to miss someone; drinking because it’s its own virtue; you’re going to miss your dead dad — but he and his collaborators increasingly excel at coming up with sharp micro-images of daily life that really pop when he sings them so effortlessly in his alternately staccato and loose, lubricated phrasing.
Speaking of triumphs of the ordinary, probably the most original concept here belongs to “Refrigerator Door,” which elevates the idea of Frigidaire as art museum: “My first day of kindergarten, when I was 5 years old / A postcard that my cousin sent from Cancun, Mexico / A list of what Momma needs from the IGA today / Is just one small part of a work of art signed Kenmore in ’98.” “Angels Workin’ Overtime” is the nearest thing to a classic country lyric, pushing the idea that his celestial guardians are “wearin’ their wings off” while he works two jobs and bar-hops through the few free hours. If the other tunes aren’t that original, you can still find pleasure in the way he sings about “five diet Millers” and “a bobber on the water” and “my Mama’s first Bible, Daddy’s Don Williams vinyl, that first-fish-catching Zebco thirty-three.”
The two guest duet partners on the album, Eric Church and Ronnie Dunn, are estimable co-signs, and they’re not wrong to sign off on the guy. It’s easy to figure that Combs brought ’em in because he likes ’em, not because they confer prestige, anyway. Because one look at the album jacket design lets us know how little he cares about that. (Let the debates begin about whether that’s the sleeve art equivalent of comic sans or actually some stroke of lowfalutin’ genius.)
Did the album, as good as it is, need to be 17 songs long? No; it feels less like taking listeners on an old-school album journey than just flooding the streaming zone with potential hits. And is it overproduced? Yes; not in the 2019 country-goes-hip-hop style of overproduction, but an earlier kind, where it feels like a contest to see how many electric and acoustic guitars can be thrown into one slick and busy mix (along with a stray banjo, mandolin or steel). If you’ve ever heard Combs play acoustically, you know how infinitely more powerful that is, and at least there are three numbers here that start out or stay more stripped down (“Dear Today,” “Nothing Like You,” “Better Together”) to let you know what you’re missing when there’s so much compressed competition going on.
Combs is already at the point where he could probably release an album of Gilbert & Sullivan covers as his third record and have it stay on top for half a year. If he wielded that power to let us hear his beautiful rasp in even slightly starker relief next time, everyone would be the winner for it.
“What You See Is What You Get”
River House Artists/Columbia Nashville
Artist: Luke Combs. Producer: Scott Moffatt. Engineer: Alex Gilson. Guest artists: Eric Church, Brooks & Dunn. Writers: Combs, Randy Montana, Jonathan Singleton, Jordan Brooker, Wyatt Durrette, Ray Fulcher, Thomas Archer, James McNair, Dan Isbell, Tyler King, Drew Parker, Erik Dylan, Derrick Moody, Josh Thompson, Chase McGill, Rob Snyder, Barry Dean, Tyler Reeve, Josh Phillips, Corey Crowder, Robert Williford.