The accolades didn’t stop there though. The 2019 CMA male vocalist of the year’s first seven singles would all reach No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart. The success of the first five singles off his debut album -- “Hurricane,” “When It Rains it Pours,” “One Number Away,” “She Got the Best of Me” and CMA song of the year “Beautiful Crazy” -- made Combs the first country artist to send his first five chart entries to No. 1. It’s hard to believe that it was just nine years prior when the North Carolina native first picked up the guitar.
Ahead of his show on Thursday evening, Billboard’s Top Country Artist of 2019 reflected on his monumental year. Dressed in blue jeans, a black hoodie and cowboy boots, Combs settled into a leather couch backstage at Bridgestone Arena as he looked back on his career, while remaining optimistic about the future. While he has yet to decide what song he will release in 2020 as his eighth single, he is more confident than ever that the decision to pursue a career in country music remains the right path.
“I've tried so many things in my life,” he tells Billboard while stroking his beard. “So many different hobbies and interests and jobs. Singing was the first thing where I was like, ‘Oh man, I think I could get a lot better at this.’ But I think there's a lot of people that don't ever find the thing that they feel they're good at. When you find that thing, it's really important to expand on your affinity towards whatever it may be."
Below, Combs discusses his memorable year and his hopes for 2020 and beyond.
Congratulations on all your accomplishments this year, and being named Billboard’s Top Country Artist of 2019. Have you had any time to enjoy your success?
Honestly, I haven't really had the chance. We had a month off in August of this year, but then that ended up becoming full of so many other things that I hadn't had time to do. Whether that was catching up with family or just catching up on loose ends on the business side of things.
I'm sure there's a mountain of stuff I could do every day if I went into the office, but we've been so busy on the road that you don't have time to get to those things. I spent most of that month really doing stuff to catch up on every other facet of my life. After tomorrow we're off for six weeks so I'm interested to see how that goes. I'm not sure if I'm going to go crazy from boredom or if I'm going to wish it was 10 weeks or four months, so I guess we'll see and then we'll find out. I'm having a great time so I can't imagine not wanting to be doing it at all.
You’re really carrying the flag for country music on streaming services, with What You See Is What You Get breaking the streaming record for a country album.
I think it’s awesome. Obviously I love country music, that's what I do and what I set out to do: to play country music. Eventually it was going to happen, so to be one of the people that's helping bring us up to the modern age, it's pretty neat.
Out of all the records you’ve broken this year, is there one that holds significant meaning to you above the rest?
Tying the album record [with Shania Twain for 50 weeks at No. 1] was really cool. It's pretty interesting that we kept ourselves from getting the record, because the next week we put the new album out. So that was pretty awesomely poetic in a lot of ways. I'm not a guy that sits down and tries to really scheme, “Well, we need to try to do this and break this record.” I definitely want to be the best at what I do, and I have the drive to be constantly improving at things, but in no way is that something that dominates my thoughts.
I, of course, would love to beat it. Everybody would love to beat it -- but I'm also not going to be upset that we didn't. I just try to be appreciative of everything we have. There's so many people whose kids have a better life or families have a better life because of what we're doing out here, and that's what I'm the most proud of: Being able to bring everybody up who helped me get to this point with me. That’s the fun part of it for me.
You’re a songwriter as well and have had seven consecutive singles that you co-wrote hit No. 1. Is there one song that holds the most meaning to you?
“Beautiful Crazy” definitely is that song, because I wrote that about my fiancée. Winning song of the year at the CMAs was a huge, huge thing. I still can't believe that happened, and that was here [at Bridgestone Arena], so that's just a really special song for us. We're getting married next year and it's just a cool story for us to have forever. And so that one is really special to me for sure.
That same night, when Garth Brooks accepted his CMA Award for entertainer of the year he said you’ll be up there accepting that trophy in the future.
Yeah. [Laughs.] That was crazy. Someone actually told me about it, because I had just won male vocalist, so I was [backstage]. That's pretty awesome. That's Garth. He’s the best-selling artist in history. That's pretty hard to believe, that somebody can do that and be a country singer. That's pretty wild.
Who are you listening to outside of the country genre that is inspiring you right now?
I listen to Ed Sheeran pretty routinely. That's what's on in the car and that's what's on in the green room. When I find something, whether it's new or old, I'm really bad about wearing it out and then I'm like, “Okay, I won’t listen to that for a couple of weeks now ’cause I listened to it so much.” Right now it's DaBaby. That's my guy right now. I like Post Malone a lot. The Avett Brothers have always been one of my favorite bands. Adele, I love her songwriting, singing. There's so much.
This is my current jam [plays DaBaby’s “Goin Baby”]. I know it doesn't seem like I would be a DaBaby fan, but he’s from Charlotte. I’m from North Carolina. You gotta get hyped before the show. Everybody's got a chance if they’re from Carolina for sure.
Huge Eric Church guy. I've always loved his stuff. I try to not listen to a ton of country, because I don't want to accidentally copy somebody. There's no way that I haven't done that. Someone will be like, “That sounds like something,” and we can't figure out what it was. We'll keep writing and then someone's like, “Oh, that's this” and we’re like, "dammit." Sometimes, I'm just like, “Scrap it,” at that point. I don't want to give anybody an opportunity to go, “Oh, he's copying this thing and he's doing that thing.”
You’ve accomplished so much this past year. What else do you have left to prove?
No. 1 for me is always to write better songs. We've had a lot of success and I'm very thankful for that, but I always want to get better at that. And then always making the show better and that's something that we still have a lot of work to do.
We haven't been doing this that long comparatively to ... I mean, you go watch an Eric Church show. He’s been headlining arenas for seven or eight years now. Garth has been headlining shows that big for 20-something, 30 years almost, so there's a lot of catching up to do in that area. I'm really looking forward to the challenge of, how do we make every night feel like the best show we've ever played? I'm very intrigued by what that is, and how to figure those things out -- and there’s no other way to figure it out other than going out there and doing it.