When Luke Combs released his hit single Hurricane in 2015, he was still an independent artist. Now? He's one of country's biggest stars, breaking records, scoring billions of streams and selling out arenas. Here, the C2C headliner, his co-manager Lynn Oliver-Cline and Sony Music Nashville chairman and CEO Randy Goodman tell us why we ain't seen nothing yet...
In the not too distant past, it wasn’t unusual to see Luke Combs performing in chicken restaurants. Take the Wild Wing Café in Asheville, North Carolina, for example. The way he recalls it, half the people there were just eating and, actually, quite annoyed with him for interrupting their dinner. In no way did this deflate him. He nevertheless had a rowdy contingent of fans singing along and got $200 towards his rent doing what he loved. It was a dream come true.
“That was five years ago, man,” says Combs today, his cap pulled low, his frizzy beard framing his smile as he sinks into a sofa at Sony Music Nashville’s HQ. Through the window behind him, the silhouette of distant skyscrapers occasionally pierces the fog enveloping Music City.
Beside him on the sofa are pillows bearing the faces of Sony’s illustrious country roster, including Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris. And there, too, is one sporting his face. “It’s kind of weird,” he says, gesturing towards it. Yet, having his face stitched onto a pillow is, quite frankly, the least of his achievements. Boasting a booming voice and endearingly humble disposition, his first two albums for Columbia – 2016 debut This One’s For You and 2019’s What You See Is What You Get – have transformed him into a country phenomenon. Not only did his debut go triple platinum and become the most streamed country album of 2019, it also tied Shania Twain’s downright imperial record for the longest reign at No.1 on the Country Albums Chart, spending 50 weeks on top. While What You See Is What You Get is only a few months old by comparison, since its November release it has already hit No.1 on the all-genre US chart and enjoyed the largest streaming week for a country album ever. Among other honours, Combs now has three CMA Awards, two Grammy nominations, and over five billion streams to his name.
“He exhales hits,” beams Randy Goodman, chairman & CEO at Sony Music Nashville. “I look at Luke right now, two albums in, and he’s already setting the stage for his induction into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. And that’s a crazy thing to say. He’s one of the biggest hitmakers right now in the US.”
Indeed, on the very day Music Week joins Combs in Nashville, he is playing a fundraiser for the CMHOF at Bridgestone Arena, as part of an all-star line-up assembled by Keith Urban. “A couple of years ago, I would have killed just to be able to go see the show,” says Combs – who has also headlined the arena in his own right – pointing through the window to where the massive complex can occasionally be glimpsed through the gloom. Yet even on a line-up that includes the exalted likes of Tanya Tucker, Blake Shelton and Chris Stapleton, a couple of hours later it is Combs who not only closes the night, but also receives its most ecstatic reception. It’s proof, if any were needed, that he’s been anointed as Nashville’s latest superstar.
“You have shows like The Voice, American Idol and ...Got Talent, but he was able to surpass all that because he writes his own music and sings from the heart,” says River House Artists’ Lynn Oliver-Cline who, alongside Chris Kappy, co-manages Combs. “He’s the American dream.”
Not to mention a UK dream, too. His debut has sold 48,000 copies according to Official Charts Company data, while What You See Is What You Get is clear of 17,000. Moreover, he has recently found a home on BBC Radio 2’s New Music Playlist and, this month, returns to play Country To Country festival. Only, something’s different this time around...
“When he first played [in 2018], he was bottom of the bill, so it’s great to see him progress to being a headliner in, effectively, three years,” says C2C’s Chris York. “Luke’s obviously one of the biggest breakout stars in country.” Repeat: five years ago = chicken restaurants. How did this happen so fast?
Luke Combs – now 30 – didn’t start playing guitar until he was 21. His aspirations were pretty modest. “I didn’t pick the guitar up and go, ‘I want to be country star’,” he admits. “I just wanted to make a living playing music in some capacity.”
Playing solo shows in North and South Carolina, East Tennessee, North Georgia and Southwest Virginia, Combs recalls being “the guy getting the money, driving, loading the van and running cables”. He moved to Nashville in 2014 in search of a publishing deal and soon became acclimatised to meeting contacts, hearing nothing back and then bumping into them again…
“It’s kind of awkward,” he grins. “You know they didn’t call you back, they know they didn’t call you back so it’s, like, ‘How’s everything goin’, man?’”
Undeterred, Combs embraced life as an independent artist and kept writing songs, using Vine to get them out to the world. “That was where I got my first fans,” he notes. “I still meet people that are like, ‘Man, I’ve been watching you since you were on Vine!’” He eventually struck gold with his breakout hit Hurricane in 2015, a song which now boasts more than 300 million streams on Spotify alone. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, he notes how important his independent journey was.
“When I moved to town, I’d already been playing for two or three years,” he explains. “I wrote for seven or eight months and I didn’t have a publishing deal so nobody was telling me what to do, what to write or how to write it. There was nobody giving me any direction at all, and so by the time that I finally ended up here, I was already selling a thousand tickets a night in some places. Nobody had any weight to pull against me. People were already coming to the shows and streaming the music. I was at a place where I didn’t have to relinquish creative control to get a record deal.”
“I first heard about him from one of the regional radio folks down in the south east,” recalls Randy Goodman. “They put Hurricane out on their own and it was really beginning to catch fire. The marketplace was really telling us that we needed to pay attention to Luke. We went to see him and he’d sold out a room that an act that didn’t have a label deal probably shouldn’t have been selling out.”
Combs finally went major in 2016 as part of a JV between Sony Music Nashville and River House. Less than a year after signing, he was on track to tying Shania Twain’s record. The strength of his songwriting is, Goodman stresses, the “real tip of the spear” of his success. But that’s not to say hard work wasn’t done behind the scenes. A few years back there was a major shift in strategy at Sony’s Nashville HQ regarding streaming.
“Sony had gone through a period of time of being cold in terms of developing new artists,” recalls Goodman. “So, we were incredibly aggressive about making sure we didn’t sit back and wait for that to come to us. We were going to take artists like Luke, Kane Brown and Maren Morris and drive them as hard as we could to make streaming services aware.”
Yet even that doesn’t fully explain why Combs has broken country streaming records. Music Week wonders if some listeners perceive him not so much as a country star, but rather a singer-songwriter. Is he, in fact, something of a Trojan Horse?
“I meet people all the time that do say, ‘Oh, I don’t like country, but I like your stuff.’ I’m like, ‘So you do like country then!’” Combs grins.
“The bottom line is those kind of numbers, and to be selling tickets at that level in arenas on his sophomore album, it has to be as much about cultural crossover as it is a genre crossover,” nods Goodman.
Indeed, not only is Post Malone a fan, Ed Sheeran has even covered Combs’ music (“That happened without our knowledge,” offers Oliver-Cline, “He showed up singing his song online, we were just as surprised as everyone else!”). Nor can Combs’ relatability be overlooked, his music often predicated on tales of working class life. While he’s certainly sampled the high life – at one point Music Week sees a picture of him holding a huge cake in front of a private jet (“A wild night,” he observes) – his blue collar values remain undiluted by fame.
“It’s just not something I care about,” he observes. “If you get out of a limousine and you’re a dick, you’re a dick… Money doesn’t make you any more important than anybody else. I’m sure it does to some people, but to me? It’s like, ‘Whatever.’”
Lynn Oliver-Cline – a music industry veteran who has worked with the likes of Zac Brown Band and Hootie & The Blowfish – stresses that their management strategy reflects this side of him.
“There are some opportunities we haven’t taken, because they didn’t feel right at the time, with sponsorships, TV opportunities,” she says. “A lot of dollar signs that, if we needed it, maybe we’d make it work, but we were able to say, ‘No, we don’t need that’. We were really strategic on the media part, and we kept the focus on the music and nothing else.”
Combs has been well-tutored in navigating the music industry by both Oliver-Cline and Kappy. There are some things, however, that nothing can prepare you for...
On October 1, 2017, Luke Combs played Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. He was standing just offstage when Stephen Paddock first opened fire on the crowd from his window at the Mandalay Bay hotel, eventually killing 58 people and wounding hundreds. Sitting solemnly, with his hands clasped, Combs recalls the moment he heard some strange loud noises as Jason Aldean played. He taps the window behind him to mimic the burst of bullets.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
At first, Combs was convinced it wasn’t gunfire. Even when fans started to rush into the backstage area to escape, he was more concerned people would be injured from the panic. He compares the situation to the opening of Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks, despite all the chaos around him, perceives everything as eerily quiet.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Combs suddenly pauses his tapping.
“Then he’d change his magazine,” he adds.
Eventually, he and his team starting making their way to the protection of their tour bus, which actually involved heading in the direction of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Combs resumes rapping his knuckles against the window to trace the rounds, both louder and longer now.
Again, his fist abruptly stops making the noise.
“I said, ‘He’s gonna have to reload.’ Play enough video games in your life, you know you don’t go when bullets are flying. So, every time he stopped, we’d run to the next thing and get behind it. At this time I’m still thinking, ‘I’m not in any imminent danger’.”
When they finally reached the bus, Combs tuned into a police scanner and followed the story. For a long time, he heard reports that only a couple of people had been killed. Two hours later, he ran into a fan on the streets who also happened to be a paramedic from California who informed him he had personally pronounced 25 people dead. Combs never saw any of the carnage of that day, but his team did.
“Some of my band guys are still dealing with some of that stuff because they were more in the crowd and around those things,” he says. “It’s definitely affected them a lot more than me. The thing I struggled with the most was that I had guilt about not having the same experiences. It was like a different version of survivor’s guilt.”
He admits there was some fear to get around playing onstage for the first week or so afterwards. Life for all them, however, has had to move on. From the outside looking in, Combs certainly seems like someone embracing it to the full right now. No-one involved is resting on their laurels.
“This is not the time to settle in, this is not the time to say, ‘OK, we’ve done our job’,” explains Goodman. “What’s next? Turn this guy into a global superstar the likes of which country music has never seen. He’s got the potential to do that.”
Oliver-Cline says she’s already having meetings about the plans for 2021 and 2022. “Whatever it takes to solidify so that he can continue to do it for the next 20 years,” she says. Yet the global picture is much bigger than the USA and UK.
“From what I understand from promoters in Australia, they think he’s the next Elvis down there,” she adds. “There’s talk of a stadium tour in 2021, it’s mind-blowing.”
As for Luke? Well, he’s already writing more songs, with 11 in the can already. But is he feeling any pressure in doing so?
“I don’t think I’m ever going to top the first album to be honest with you,” he chuckles. “As far as sales, streaming and No.1s, I don’t think that’s ever gonna happen, but I’m just not going to go into it with that attitude. Remember your first kiss? You’re never going to get the magic of that moment again. There’s been a lot of hard work, but I’m definitely a lucky guy. How many people are on the earth? What are the odds of it being me? I don’t take that for granted.”
So, without further ado, let’s dive even deeper into a one in 7.7 billion success story…
So, seven No.1 singles, five billion streams and you tied Shania Twain’s record for longest reign at No.1... What do you put that down to?
“I think it has something to do with just being normal. As a country fan myself, I don’t want to go see a show with a guy wearing $20,000 sneakers… There are some intangible things in there. I definitely got lucky with my voice, but that’s just like being tall –.I just won the crapshoot on that one. I worked really hard to become a better songwriter, that’s a huge part of it, in my opinion, because there’s a lot of people here who are really great. It’s very competitive from an artist side, because there may only be 20 songwriters who are writing really consistent stuff that flows along with what’s on the radio. And so if you have to get those songs – if you can’t write them for yourself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.–.you become in competition to get those songs. There might be a song that six artists go, ‘I want that!’ and so does Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean, while you might be the guy that just got a record deal. Someone’s going, ‘Give it to Aldean or Shelton!’ because they’re gonna make money off that. Your fate is kind of in someone else’s hands at that point.”
So self-reliance is important?
“It’s like a sustainable resource. With the album that’s out now that’s doing really good, I know I can write 30 more songs like that in the next year if I just do it. I don’t have to be, like, ‘Man, I hope these songs show up’. There’s nothing against that, it’s just more risky. Having the ability to do it on your own, you hold the power in your hands.”
Speaking as a country star, how well understood do you feel as an artist – are there any misconceptions that drive you crazy?
“I think when you’re a country artist, sometimes there are people who don’t listen to country music, or have some sort of pre-conceived prejudice against the entire genre, that think I’m like a big dumb animal. Which is probably true most of the time, but not all the time! [Laughs] I think there’s a little bit of that, like, ‘Oh, he’s this big oaf from North Carolina who’s waving rebel flags around and spitting on people.’ And that’s not the case.”
You love to write songs about beer – have you encountered any snobbery because of that?
“I definitely hear stuff about that, but people like beer a lot… [Laughs]. I had a Spotted Cow last night, it was delicious. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t need to be like, ‘Man, I should write a song for that one guy that didn’t like the beer song’. At the end of the day, if you really broke down an Ed Sheeran album and changed the production on it, it would be a country album because of the songwriting. I’m waiting for somebody to prove me wrong on that: all the songs are about his family and going out, meeting a girl and drinking…”
You’ve been hugely successful on radio in the States. In recent years, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood have all told Music Week that women aren’t given the same opportunities on country radio. What’s your take on the situation?
“It needs to be looked at. Especially right now, there are a lot of really great female artists that are coming out with some really great music. I love Ingrid Andress, I love Maren. But to me, it breaks down to the songs. There are a lot of great women putting out great songs right now, and that will do a lot. It’s not necessarily that they should get played for one reason or another; they deserve the same amount of opportunities that we get as men. That’s the overall issue, that over the last few years they weren’t given the same opportunities that we were given to be successful at radio.”
So what can male country artists do to help with that situation?
“I’ve got Ashley McBryde out with me right now and I’m a huge fan. If I were to bring just female artists out, obviously that would help, but it’s not getting to the root of the issue in my opinion. You have to let the listeners decide. You have to play as much female music as you do male music and give people an opportunity to choose. If a song is not going to perform well at radio, it shouldn’t be because the artist is a woman. It should just be, like, ‘Well, you put that song out and people didn’t like it’. That should be the ultimate thing. And I don’t think those opportunities are at an even par right now for us. I’ll be the first guy to tell you that, that we do get more chances to succeed. For sure.”
You’re headlining C2C. For a long time country acts rarely visited the UK because they could enjoy an amazing career solely in the USA...
“Dude, you can have an amazing career just in Texas...”
So, finally, why is it so important for you to spend all that time, energy and money to embrace the global picture?
“Competitiveness comes into play a little bit, but also I enjoyed my experiences [abroad] and it’s such an under-served thing. And no-one’s ever done it. No-one’s ever been like, ‘I’m going to go tour arenas in the UK as a country artist!’ It’s a bit of curiosity, like, ‘What could it be for artists 40 or 50 years from now?’ Could it be a thing where it’s like, ‘Man, you’d be crazy to not be going to Europe’? That’s the thing for me: What could the genre be if it becomes a worldwide thing? Are we going to have fans in Russia at some point? Is that possible? I don’t know. It’s worth trying. I don’t want to be that guy that ends up sitting on my porch when I’m 60 years old going, ‘I didn’t do everything that I could have done to be the best.’”