Virtual overnight superstars don’t come any more unlikely than Luke Combs. It’s been five short years since his major-label debut, and in that relatively short amount of time, he’s achieved nearly every professional achievement a country singer could hope to, not least of all being named entertainer of the year at the CMA Awards last November. A possibly even bigger accolade than that singular one: He’s the first country artist in history to have his first 14 songs all reach No. 1 on the Billboard airplay chart, with no break in the proceedings.
And as he puts it, acknowledging that he didn’t necessarily arrive as the most picture-perfect package Nashville had ever put together: “Listen, man, I can’t say that I would have bet on myself, either.”
Some are probably still trying to figure out and bottle up the key ingredients in his success, but maybe it’s not all that mysterious: Take a voice that projects major-league virility but also vulnerability, sprinkle in some core-songwriting-team prowess with lyrical and musical hooks, and then most of all, don’t step on the agreeable, humble personality of somebody who — in contrast to a lot of the bro-country that’s been out there — seems like someone you wouldn’t mind having as an actual brother. (Or beau, although as fans are well aware, particularly with the news of his first child arriving June 19, he’s taken.)
His success streak is continuing with a new album, “Growin’ Up,” which made its chart debut last week as the top-bowing country album of 2022 to date. Its lead single, “Doin’ This,” was the 14th No. 1 hit in that aforementioned streak, and its follow-up, “The Kind of Love We Make,” is likely to be the 15th; that seems like a reasonable projection just based on the fact that it debuted at No. 18, an unusually lofty bow in the world of we-like-things-gradual country radio.
Variety spoke with Combs in his trailer on the set of the Jimmy Kimmel show shortly before the birth of his son and the release of “Growin’ Up.”
This is your first release not to have a title song. So to come up with “Growin’ Up” as a title must mean something to you.
Sometimes you feel like the kid that’s 21 years old that’s just trying to learn how to play guitar — some days I feel like that guy again. And I feel like I’m 70 some days, and I feel like I’m 18 on other days. I’m about to have a kid in a couple of weeks. Just in the last few years, turning 30, then 32… that’s a big change, from 28 to 32, and it’s kind of this change that I never heard about. Because when you’re 21, you feel like you’re an adult. And then when you’re 25, you’re like, “Geez, dude, I wasn’t an adult at all at 21.” Then when you’re 28, you’re like, “Man, now I’m really an adult.” And then you get to 32 and it’s married, house, kid on the way — it just changes the whole thing.
I think there are a few songs on this album that wouldn’t have been on here had I not been where I am in my life now — couple from a musical standpoint, a couple from a lyrical standpoint. Even musically, I was not as afraid of like: Well, what if there’s too many slow songs? When you’re younger, you want to be the fun, energetic guy, and there’s plenty of that stuff on here as well. But I’m cool now with going “All right, man, if we’re going to have more slow songs, then that’s what it’s going to be,” whereas before, I maybe would have put pressure on myself to go, “Do we have enough stuff that people are gonna really love?”
Is there any song you’d point to as an example of something you might’ve backed off a little before.
Yeah, “Middle of Somewhere.” We live an hour outside of Nashville and have for three and a half years now. I think we moved there at the right time, because we are coming into this new phase of life where things tend to get faster, but they also slow down because of the things that become important to you, which is spending time with the people you care about being in a place that allows you to breathe. Not that I don’t love Nashville, because I love it to death, but being out there in a really small town has changed my outlook on things.
When my buddies would come out to write songs, a lot of them would be like, “Man, you live in the middle of nowhere.” I started to think about it. And I was like, man, those little towns mean so much to the people that live in them, especially people that grew up there and are from there, and maybe left and come back, or people that have lived there since they were born and will live there until they die. I hadn’t experienced that, because I grew up in Asheville, which is not Los Angeles, but it’s a city. And so I had never experienced genuinely living somewhere that was such a micro climate. There’s a grocery store and a barbershop and a hardware store, but it’s not a Lowe’s and it’s not a Walmart. The guy that lives down the road owns the grocery store and the lady that runs the barber shop lives down the street. Since I had just never experienced that, I really just wanted to write that song as an ode to the little town that we live in. And that’s just something that I wouldn’t have done before, you know? And I think sonically, if I had done something like that before, it would come out way different than it did on this one.
There are a lot of classic country themes on this album, from small town pride to the fishing genre, with “On the Other Line.”
I love to fish, man. I guess it’s kinda like when we wrote “When It Rains, It Pours” — it was the same (comedic) thing. I always loved that with Brad Paisley, where it was tongue-in-cheek, or just a hint of humor, and it gives you a little anecdote in there, but it’s not like a funny — but it’s not a Weird Al song or something, you know what I mean? I always was really to drawn to those songs that kind of give you that shit-eating grin when you hear it.
You’ve got a collaboration with Miranda Lambert, “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” which you co-wrote as well as co-sang. You haven’t done a lot of collaborations before now.
When we went in to write it, there was no “Hey, is this for your album? Or is this for my album?” It wasn’t written as a duet. We just went in, wrote a song, and then went our separate ways. When I finally went into the studio, that was at the top of my list to record, because I genuinely really loved the song. I didn’t have a plan to have any features on the album. But when we got done with the song, I was like, “Dude, how do we not have Miranda on there? How can you not do it?”
I’ve always looked up to her as a songwriter. I think she’s a true artist in a sense that a lot of people aren’t in today’s business. It doesn’t feel like she’s just about the success. She’s always been really true to the songwriting culture. I always feel weird (reaching out), because when I talk to Eric Church or Miranda or Chris Stapleton or whoever, I still don’t feel like we’re in the same thing. In my eyes, they’re so far above where I’m at. So it’s strange to me that I have, in some ways, an open line of communication with these people. Then I also feel like, God, I don’t want them to think I’m trying to piggyback off them. I don’t know — it’s all just made-up OCD madness in my head. But I hit her up and was like, “Hey, would you want to sing on this? I’m not going to be mad if you say no.” I don’t like putting pressure on people so they feel like they have to do something, but she agreed to do it. She’s someone that I have loved listening to for a long time and admire so much, so it’s cool to get to do a song with her.
At the point you’re at in your life, you’ve got mostly pretty positive songs on the album and not a lot of heartbreak songs. Even if you want variety on your album, as a young married, maybe it feels right to do songs like “The Kind of Love We Make.”
Yeah, definitely. I’m in a different phase now. Again, that’s probably a song that I wouldn’t have been comfortable cutting a couple of years ago. I’m older now, and less afraid of saying certain or writing different things. It’s fun to do that stuff and push the limits and see what people think. Because you can’t really broaden your horizons if you’re not walking towards something.
On this album, whether it’s love songs or career songs and destiny songs, it mostly feels like you’re writing about you, and your fans like those glimpses into your real life, if they’re there. As was proven when you used real-life wedding footage in one of your videos.
Yeah. I try so hard to live as much of a normal life as humanly possible. I know that maybe that’s a pipe dream, and maybe that’s like the most arrogant thing anybody’s ever said, because obviously my life is drastically different than it was when I started out. But I feel like if I really sunk my teeth into (the idea that) I’m this successful celebrity guy, you’d just go down this rabbit hole that’s insanely unrelatable. It would feel really disingenuous to write songs from that perspective, even though you’re in it. You know what I mean? So I spend a lot of time outside. I spend a lot of time with my wife, sitting on the couch, watching TV, cooking dinner. We live a pretty normal existence. We’re not on some jet every week going to exotic locations. On our farm an hour outside of Nashville, we have chickens and dogs and cats, and we’re about to have a son, and we just hang out with each other and hang out with our friends, and that’s enough.
I didn’t get into music to be somebody that I’m not, or some big mega-celebrity. I wouldn’t be OK with myself if that’s the way that I was acting. The songwriting would be really hard for me if I were doing all these really over-the-top things. I mean, I am in the sense that the shows are massive, and it’s all insane. But that’s a little bit out of my control at the moment. I don’t ever want it to go away; the big shows are just so fun. But the thing that I love about what I do is not about being seen by anybody at a cool restaurant. It’s about writing songs that I love and playing ‘em for people that love ‘em too.
You’ve achieved almost everything it’s possible to achieve in your artform, and really not very many years into your career: The CMAs’ Entertainer of the Year. Headlining stadium shows. Grand Ole Opry member. Thirteen No. 1 songs in a row.
Yes. It’s insane.
Is there anything left to strive for, other than being in the Hall of Fame, which might take 40 years? Anything in-between?
I don’t know. I think it’s just to continue to push the limits from a songwriting and musical perspective, and then also continue to put on a better and better show, whether that’s more musical or more interactive — constantly be thinking of ways of how I can improve myself, but also improve the experience for the fans. And to write better songs, which is always is a goal for me. When you’re trying to write better songs, there’s no way you’ve ever reached the top. You can always write a better song than you did the day before. That journey just never stops. I think that’s what fuels the success of the whole thing: great songs. Maybe it can’t go anywhere up from an optic standpoint, from an outside-looking-in standpoint. But for me, I mean, being happy and writing better and better songs and putting on better and better shows, whether they’re bigger or smaller, is the goal.
In thinking about what makes you different than other guys who are out doing the same thing: Sometimes, when you hear somebody who has a certain kind of “man’s man” voice, in country music, you can expect that guy will have an attitude and maybe come off a little bit belligerent, whether it’s culturally or personally. So in watching you in press conferences or interviews or other public situations, people may be surprised, that this guy seems to have a sweet spirit to him. It makes for an interesting combination with the voice, where it’s like, this guy doesn’t have like the attitude I expect…
The bravado thing. I have it on stage, but I don’t have it anywhere else! [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s just like, whatever that part of my ego is, if you call it ego… I just don’t feel the need to project anything. I’m comfortable with who I am and where I’m at and what I’m doing. And also, I could never look my parents in the face if I was some egotistical tough guy. I wasn’t raised that way. My parents were super open-minded, you know. I grew up in Asheville, which is a pretty progressive spot, and so I was around all kinds of different people and different music. So I feel like I have a really open mind to any and all situations.
I’ve always cared a lot about making other people happy. I think that’s always been something that’s important in my life. I’m an only child, so I had to have a lot of friends, and that was always something that I had. I always laughed and was always making people happy. I was the funny fat guy in high school, you know what I mean? I played football, and I loved it, but I wasn’t very good at it. But I was the jokester, man, and I’ve just continued to be that.
But also, I’m insanely focused, and aware of the situation that I’m in. I’m not unaware of how big of a moment that me and my team are having, and how big this whole thing has gotten. I am super involved in all that stuff, and I give a lot of shits about that. But that doesn’t make me the person that I am. Being famous or being successful, I don’t project that onto my self-worth or onto anyone else. You’re the same kind of guy as me, man. You’re a person that has feelings. And if I was an asshole to you, I don’t get anything from that. It makes my day no better or worse to be nice to somebody and just say “thank you” to someone that opens the door at the venue or somebody that makes my meal at a show or brings me a drink on an airplane. … I don’t understand how people can be so negative and shit all the time and be OK with that. It just blows my mind, honestly. And it was a conscious effort made by not only myself, but my family and my friends and my wife, to not allow that to happen.
Going further backward to the beginning of how you got here: I was reading an interview with your manager, Chris Kappy, saying that wasn’t an automatic “yes” for either of you when you were first met and considered the possibility. You were both taking a chance on each other, and the same with the label and all these other areas. The way Kappy tells it, he told you “Go talk to other managers, just so you’re sure.” And you went and talked to another manager, who said, “You’re not an artist. You’re going to be a great songwriter, but you’re not an artist.” Do those memories square with yours?
Yeah, definitely. It was folks that worked at bigger management firms and stuff who said that. Listen, man, I can’t say that I would have bet on myself, either, if I was in their shoes. Like, if I walk in the door, you’re going, “You’re telling me this guy is the guy? This is the guy? You’re going to bet your reputation on this guy?” You know what I mean?
I always compared it to this. There’s a lot of things in the store that have really great packaging, and that’s a huge leg up in today’s market for anything, whether it’s a car or anything else. But at the end of the day, after a couple thousand of those cars come off the lot, what people really give a shit about is the engine, and how it performs. And I knew I wasn’t going to get off the ground on my looks. It just wasn’t going to happen. But nobody looks at music. They listen to music. And I knew if I could write great songs and put ‘em out, you’d listen to me and go, “I really like that.” And then when you come to see a show…
I’m not crazy enough to think everyone in there is going to go, “This is the best show I’ve ever seen! This guy’s the best thing ever.” My goal was always to have no one walk out and go, “That was a bad show. I didn’t like that shit.” Maybe even if it’s not your favorite thing, maybe if your wife dragged you to the show, you’d be like, “OK. I like ‘When It Rains, It Pours.’ I like that. I dig this guy. He’s talented. He cares, even if he’s not my favorite guy in the world” — and that’s OK. You can’t be everybody’s favorite. But I never wanted anybody to walk out and go, “That show let me down.” And I don’t think that I’ve done that. Maybe I have. I don’t think so.