Newcomer Luke Combs Blows Into Mainstream With 'Hurricane'

Luke Combs
CK Photo

Luke Combs

The Asheville indie artist gets deal with Sony as new country single racks up SiriusXM spins.

Hurricane Matthew may have been a dominant part of the recent news cycle, but another “Hurricane” whirled into country music’s mainstream during the last week. River House recording artist Luke Combs signed a deal with Sony Music Nashville and rereleased “Hurricane” on Columbia, extending the single’s life — a remarkable occurrence since the track first appeared on the Hot Country Songs chart more than a year ago (July 4, 2015).

Hailing from Asheville, N.C., Combs is approaching “Hurricane” the same way that Zac Brown Band handled “Chicken Fried.”

That’s no mistake. River House founder Lynn Oliver-Cline started working as Zac Brown’s day-to-day manager in 2007, the year before “Chicken Fried” launched the group into the mainstream. By that time, “Chicken” had been in existence in one form or another for seven years. Rather than abandon it, the group rerecorded it and launched the new version as an independent act. ZBB signed shortly thereafter with Atlantic, and “Chicken Fried” became the group’s first No. 1 single in December 2008.

Oliver-Cline signed Combs in 2016 and enlisted Thirty -Tigers for label services, impressing Combs with the “Chicken Fried” story.

“That kind of convinced me to go with [“Hurricane”] as the single,” says Combs, “because it had some proven success up to that point.”

“Hurricane” was formed in December 2014, just three months after Combs moved to Nashville. Friends encouraged songwriter Taylor Phillips, also from North Carolina, to try writing with the new kid in town. Phillips had little trouble convincing fellow songwriter Thomas Archer to join them, once he found Combs’ music online.

“He’s got a killer voice,” says Archer.

When the three met up at BMG Chrysalis, Archer started playing a -descending riff on acoustic guitar. He had introduced it at a couple of -previous writing sessions to no avail. But this time, it clicked.

“Luke said ‘What was that?’ and I played it again,” recalls Archer. “That’s when he started flipping through his idea book and had ‘Hurricane.’ ”

As they started working with it, one of the three related a story about a friend who was struggling with a recent breakup.

“It was one of those Nashville things,” says Combs. “Everybody goes out to the same bars, and he didn’t feel like he could go out to the bar because he didn’t want to run into her.”

The writers connected the title and the storyline as a storm of emotions and started writing with the hook as “the eye of a hurricane.” The first verse set up the character’s fear of running into his ex, avoiding any weather--related imagery. But the hurricane allusions were introduced immediately in the first line of the chorus: “Then you rolled in with your hair in the wind/Baby, -without warning.”

When they reached mid-chorus, Combs sat in near silence for a good 20 minutes, sifting an idea in his head.

“I’ll kind of have these moments where I don’t say anything for a while and I’m kind of working on one line, and I feel like I want to wait to say it,” explains Combs. “I’ll wait to get it perfect.”

Finally, he blurted out an intense passage with a mantra-like melody: “The moon went hiding, stars quit shining/Rain was driving, thunder, lightning.”

They finished a verse and a chorus that day, but decided after about four hours to give it a rest and come back later.

“When I walked out of there, I got in the car and listened to the work tape a couple of times,” says Phillips. “I thought, ‘Man, that song is catchy.’ I just remember that melody sticking.”

Phillips headed back to North Carolina within a few days for an extended Christmas vacation. But they had such a good feeling about the song that Combs and Archer decided not to wait to finish it. They came back to the BMG office and knocked out the second verse and a bridge, texting with Phillips about their work as they proceeded.

While they were intent on keeping the hurricane references out of the verses — which Combs thought would have been “too cheesy” — they started the bridge by classifying the woman’s smile as a “category five.” By the end of that bridge, it becomes clear to the listener exactly how she “wrecked my whole world.”

“There’s nothing more ultimate than actually going to bed with her,” says Archer. “So I said, ‘Let’s throw that in there and see if it sticks.’ ”

During that second writing session, they also changed the hook from “eye of a hurricane” to “hit me like a hurricane,” clarifying the song and -toughening it up at the same time.

“ ‘Eye of a hurricane’ doesn’t make any sense because that’s the calm part of the storm,” says Combs. “It’s kind of counter-productive to where we were going with the title. When I go back and listen to it, I’m like, ‘What were we thinking when we wrote that?’ ”

Combs planned “Hurricane” for a six-song EP, produced by Scott Moffatt, formerly of family band The Moffatts, who recorded country albums for Mercury and Polydor in the 1990s. “Hurricane” was the first song they tackled for the project, recorded in one day in March 2015 at Nashville’s Direct Image. Jon Conley, a member of Kenny Chesney’s road band, -translated the intro riff as a burning passage on electric guitar during that tracking session and chipped in two short, arena-rock solos — one before and one after the bridge.

Combs nailed the basic vocals in two takes, and they moved on to the -remaining material.

Weeks later, Combs needed more money for the project, so he decided to finish one song and release it as a single, hoping to rack up 1,000 sales and fund the rest. He picked “Hurricane” because it was the closest to completion. But one piece of Combs’ vocal was off just a hair. Instead of redoing it, Moffatt fixed it with an electronic alteration.

“The dynamic wasn’t working for that breakdown chorus, so I just tuned it and did something to give it a different tone,” says Moffatt. “Just changing the vibe of the vocal in that section would allow us to take the chorus further when everything else kicked in.”

Combs put “Hurricane” up for sale on iTunes in June 2015 and sold 15,000 copies the first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, enough to garner a No. 46 debut on the hybrid Hot Country Songs chart. It’s sold 70,000 copies to date.

“Hurricane” led to more writing appointments for Archer and Phillips.

“It has opened a lot of doors for all of us,” says Phillips.

“Hurricane” was rereleased by Thirty Tigers to radio through Play MPE on Aug. 9. It currently receives 50 spins a week as a Highway Find on SiriusXM’s channel The Highway and ranks No. 3 on the New & Active chart. Columbia put it up on Play MPE once more on Oct. 3 after he joined the label’s roster. The single is now at No. 40 after returning to Hot Country Songs more than a year after its first chart appearance.

“It’s exciting that someone that no one knows can come out of the chute with a song like this and make such an impact,” says Archer. “It doesn’t -always work that way.”

It did with Zac Brown. And it raises the question: Could “Hurricane” be Luke Combs’ “Chicken Fried”?