By Kristin M. Hall
The first week of June was one of Luke Combs’ biggest weeks in his still fledgling career. The 28-year-old taped an outdoor performance for the “CMT Crossroads” series with soul singer Leon Bridges, attended the CMT Awards, released a deluxe version of his debut album and sang in front of tens of thousands of fans at the CMA Fest.
And then immediately after the festival performance, he lost his voice. Put on vocal rest for 10 days, Combs had a No. 1 country album but couldn’t perform.
“It stung a little bit,” he admitted later after his voice recovered. “It made me, I guess, a bit more vulnerable than I would have liked.”
Mostly he was upset about having to reschedule shows and disappointing fans. The Asheville, N.C.-born singer built his success on his live shows when he was performing more than 200 dates a year in 2016 in college towns all around the Southeast and adding to his fan base one show at a time.
“Imagine you’ve been working out for a year straight, as hard as you can work out and the last set, the last thing you gotta do is that last week of CMA Fest,” Combs said. “It’s like the second you’re done with it, you’re just like laid out on the floor.”
Combs has been working at a breakneck speed in the year since his debut album, “This One’s for You,” was released last year. It spawned three No. 1 country radio singles in a row, the first time that’s happened since Sam Hunt did it in 2014. The album’s deluxe version, featuring five new songs, sold better in the first week than his original debut record, meaning he’s earned himself a lot more fans in just a year.
His gold-selling album is the most streamed country album of 2018, and it has spent five nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart.
Instead of the traditional path to country stardom of writing songs for other people before launching his career as an artist, Combs released his own music and promoted himself to his millennial peers online through the now-defunct social media platform Vine.
“I think that was kind of always my goal: get people to come back and see a show twice and then see it a third time,” Combs said. “And now I’ve got people who have been to 30, 40 shows.”
Combs even found his first manager on the road when Chris Kappy saw him perform his now multiplatinum single, “Hurricane,” in a Georgia bar in 2015. Kappy, who had no previous management experience, immediately felt a kinship to Combs, as both are large men with oversized personalities and scrappy attitudes.
“We’re not the typical norm of what this industry is looking for,” Kappy said.
Kappy’s plan was to just let Combs be himself and let the natural talent win over fans. “I told Luke, ‘I just want people to fall in love with you, buddy, and to do that we have to expose you. And that’s being vulnerable, that’s being humble, that’s telling stories.”’
It helped that his first single, “Hurricane,” was a great showcase of his deep booming voice with a big hooky chorus. Already signed to a new label called River House Artists, the song was gaining ground on radio when he was added to the Columbia Nashville roster.
Sony’s promotional muscle behind the song was like adding gasoline to a fire, said Kappy.
His label listened to feedback from radio programmers to give him his second radio No. 1 with “When It Rains It Pours,” a cheeky take on a breakup that turned into a lucky streak.
But he went back to the well of the emotion-driven love songs with a slight R&B swagger on “One Number Away,” his third hit single. All three of his songs have also reached the Top 40 on the pop charts.
Fans connect with Combs’ unvarnished approachability and openness. The burly and bearded performer wears the same kind of shirt every time he hits the stage, a short-sleeved black sports shirt made to help fishermen deal with heat and sweat. He’s a beer-swigging, tobacco-chewing everyman who is also self-assured enough to sing about the passion of heartbreak and love.
“There’s an authenticity in just being who you are and not having an act about it or wear clothes you normally wouldn’t wear,” Combs said. “I’m just comfortable in my own skin.”
Combs is currently opening for Jason Aldean on tour, and he’ll play shows in the United Kingdom and Europe this fall. But his next big play is the sophomore album, which he’s already been writing and recording.
He compares the quick success he’s had with the first record to an average-looking guy who somehow landed the girlfriend that’s out of his league.
“I just try not to think about it too much,” Combs said.