A few days ago, Luke Combs flew a private plane to Stagecoach. In a few more days, he’ll release his next top five Hot Country Songs hit, “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” And tonight he’ll learn that he has won three Billboard Music Awards. Right now, though, he just wants to show me where he shot a turkey.
On this sticky-hot morning an hour west of Nashville, the 29-year-old country star is maneuvering his red Polaris off-roader down a muddy path on his vast, 140-acre plot of land. “We got four birds on that stand in the last month,” boasts Combs in his relaxed North Carolina drawl as he slows down and points to the perch where he was hunting with his buddies not long ago. “Even if you don’t catch anything, it’s still the best time ever. You drink coffee and watch the sun rise. That’s my favorite thing about being out here.”
Behind the wheel in khaki shorts, a light blue UNC shirt and flip-flops, the Asheville native looks more like a guy who just rolled by for beer and wings than a megastar in the midst of a sold-out, 60-plus-date arena tour. And in fact, it wasn’t long ago that Combs was living in a Nashville apartment, scraping together enough cash to master his first single, “Hurricane.” But in the past three years, the pace of Combs’ career has accelerated to warp speed: He has scored five No. 1 singles and a No. 1 country album, This One’s for You, while his twice-platinum ballad “Beautiful Crazy” just spent seven straight weeks ruling Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. In March, he topped all five of the Billboard country charts simultaneously. And in December, he’ll headline Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where he could have added a second night had the NHL been willing to move a pesky hockey game.
“What’s tomorrow?” asks Combs. “Sometimes it’s changing the cat litter, and other times, it’s playing for 6,000 people, and that’s totally normal. Meanwhile, five years ago, I couldn’t get somebody to listen to me at a barbecue restaurant.”
In today’s splintered world of country music, Combs has shot to stardom by serving as a true north for some and a happy middle for others. He’s a throwback to ’90s honky-pop greats who writes radio-friendly, relatable anthems with skillful wordplay. With his ubiquitous red Solo cup, he presents like the dude who started singing at the party before he even had time to finish his drink. (For the record, it’s actually two cups, stacked: one to pour, one to mix the Jack with the Coke.)
“He’s the everyman, and that’s powerful,” says Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Nashville. (Combs is signed to Columbia.) While many of country’s current stars have embraced hip-hop (Sam Hunt), pop (Maren Morris, Florida Georgia Line) and even EDM (Kelsea Ballerini), and others gravitate toward progressive Americana (Brandi Carlile, Margo Price), Combs stands at the crossroads of it all: At the Academy of Country Music Awards, he went from singing alongside Amanda Shires on fiddle to backing Brooks & Dunn. Whatever kind of country bear you are, Combs’ porridge tastes just right. And in a genre that can feel as though it’s changing faster than you can say “Old Town Road,” Combs and his music are, to many, a real refuge. “People tell Luke, ‘Thank you for saving country music for me,’ ” says Combs’ co-manager Chris Kappy. “They feel like he has been their anchor.”
Combs stops the Polaris to show me some land he plans to farm (corn, wheat, millet), explaining how he eats everything he hunts. “I haven’t bought a pound of ground beef since I moved out here,” he says proudly as we head back to the 4,000-square-foot home he purchased last summer. He opens the garage freezer and pulls out a package of deer sausage labeled “April 20th.” “4/20!” he chuckles. “He-he.”
But while Combs’ everyman appeal is organic, he hasn’t reached this level of stardom by coasting on down-to-earth charm. A carefully cultivated social media presence and streaming-friendly strategy have helped him grow an unparalleled fan base (known as his “Bootleggers”) that exploded once he went to radio. Beginning with six-second videos on Vine, constant YouTube clips and frequent Facebook Live sessions, Combs has racked up 2.7 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music, by being the kind of artist that fans not only relate to but feel like they truly know, who happens to also write hit after hit: a country Ed Sheeran.
In a world of surprise album drops and Taylor Swift Easter eggs, Combs realized early that kind of familiarity was a key to his success -- and while suspense might make for flashier marketing, he has relied on fan feedback to lead the way. He knew, for instance, that releasing a single and rolling out from there wouldn’t work for him. He made that mistake once, when he dropped an EP out of nowhere and got a lukewarm reaction. Instead, he’ll integrate a song into his live show and post it on YouTube and Instagram stories -- even, in the case of “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” name a tour after it. By the time “Beer” is released, it will have been in his setlist for over a year.
A week after our jaunt around his property, “Beer” debuts at No. 12 on the Hot Country Songs chart. A week after that, it debuts at No. 2 on Country Streaming Songs with 11 million U.S. streams -- the best first full week of streaming ever for a country song. The first single off Combs’ June 7 EP, The Prequel, the track will set a record if it reaches No. 1: He’ll be the first country artist to get his first six singles to No. 1 in a row. A thunderous Southern rock anthem that’s equal parts twang and grit, anchored by Combs’ rich, deep voice, it’s hard to imagine it going anywhere but straight to the top, especially since, as usual, his fans already have given it a hearty test drive. (It’s now at No. 3.) “I’ve been doing that forever,” Combs tells me of his approach. “Not to give it away, but that’s it. Everybody always tries to make things a big secret. Not me. There’s no secret.”
Inside Combs’ writing room at the house, a small, furry menagerie is gathering around the singer. “Wix! What up, girl?” Combs asks a black cat who just sauntered in. Sitting on the leather couch, surrounded by roughly a dozen guitars, he’s already enthusiastically stroking Bucc, a zaftig striped tabby that his fiancée, Nicole Hocking, found in a bucket at a college party. Later today, he and Hocking will head to Petco to pick up JoJo, a rescue dog they’re adopting, and Combs is a bit concerned about potential sibling rivalry.
“I’m kind of worried, because they’re just so sweet,” he says as Wix snuggles up next to Bucc on Combs’ belly. He realizes this looks a little ridiculous. “I’m like Dr. Evil,” he jokes with a gentle pat, sending a puff of cat hair rolling away like tumbleweed.
The room contains one major reminder of what’s happening in the outside world: a plaque on the wall congratulating Combs on reaching 1 billion career streams in 2018. “I think we’re up to 2 billion now,” says Combs. “But who knows.” (It’s actually 2.7 billion.) Combs says his compound here reminds him of home. He’s an only child, and his mother and father visit from Asheville frequently. His family -- he describes his parents as “very liberal” outdoorsy folks -- moved to the mountain town from Charlotte when Combs was 8, around the same time that Combs, who was raised on country music, started listening to singer-songwriters like Tracy Chapman and Billy Joel. In high school, he got into Dead Kennedys.
“When I did hear country, everything was about beaches,” says Combs of the era heavily dominated by Kenny Chesney and his acolytes. “There was nothing to relate to.”
Then, in college at Appalachian State University, he discovered Eric Church, who appealed to the side of Combs that loved classic rock and Metallica, but also to the part of him that connected with working-class America. Combs’ mother was laid off from her job after 20 years due to corporate restructuring, and Church’s understanding of the small-town common man made Combs see the genre in a new light. Those were the kind of lyrics that he wanted to write -- the drinking songs and the tales of normal folks and their struggles and imperfect loves.
“I related to [country] in a way I couldn’t when I imagined myself in a punk band,” he says. (His co-manager, Lynn Oliver-Cline, still refers to him as “very punk rock.”) “Something about it felt like home.” He taught himself guitar and dropped out of college at 20 to pursue music, moving into an apartment above a strip mall.
In those early days, Combs didn’t have much money, but he did have the seeds of a strategy. By lining up constant gigs and posting on Vine -- where, even in a six-second video clip, he could show off his captivating voice -- he started to build a fan base. By 2015, Kappy had heard from a Georgia promoter that there was a guy on the Nashville scene who resonated unusually well with crowds. When he stopped by a Combs gig at the 40 Watt in Athens, he noticed that fans were not only singing along, but putting their phones down, too. Four months later, Kappy moved to Nashville to manage Combs, eventually bringing his discovery to Oliver-Cline, who was launching her own label, River House.
“In my previous life, I had seen very rabid fan bases -- with Kiss or Paramore,” says Kappy. “[Combs] had that at the club level and even in bars. This guy can sing, this guy can write, this guy is ready to tour and will sit and meet fans every single night. It was a risk, but when you see something like that, you know it’s special.”
To Oliver-Cline, who previously had worked with Americana artists like Jason Isbell, Combs seemed like a “more commercial version of Chris Stapleton” -- and she immediately signed on as co-manager, disarmed not just by his talent, but by his hard numbers. “He had sold over 100,000 singles on his own,” she says. “The streams were 100% on demand, no playlisting.”
They shopped Combs’ music to labels but no one bit, so they decided to put out an EP on River House/Thirty Tigers, staying on the road constantly and funneling every other minute into building a fan base -- which, for Combs, meant developing a high degree of streaming and social media savvy. Kappy broadcast almost every early show to Facebook Live, constantly posted new videos on YouTube and, to this day, still has a two-person staff dedicated to answering fan messages.
Because Combs already had a strong online presence, his team understood that they would have to approach platforms as equivalents to radio -- not, as often happens in country music, as detours from a more traditional promotional route. “We work with everybody just like we would with CMT or iHeart,” says Kappy. “Every aspect of the streaming model is something we are very passionate about, and it is a main source of revenue.” When fans want music, Kappy and Oliver-Cline have pushed them to purchase on iTunes or play on Spotify over buying physical copies -- which resulted in 1 million streams of “Hurricane” before Combs even went to radio. (He has sold 497,000 albums to date.)
That momentum was enough to get bidding wars in town started. At his first meeting with Sony, “He had dip in and maybe a Merle Haggard shirt,” recalls Mary Catherine Kinney, Combs’ former label publicist. “He had a full scope of who he was, what he wanted his music to sound like and who his fans were. By the time he got to us, he’d already done the work.”
“He was doing great, commercial country music in this incredible voice,” says Goodman. “But he didn’t look like a normal GQ guy in our format.” Sony entered a joint venture with River House in an unusual pairing of a major Nashville label with an independent. When Combs released This One’s for You, it shot to No. 1 on Top Country Albums. (It has since gone double-platinum.) Kinney calls it “one of the greatest rise stories we’ve ever had in the format.”
Combs got this far in large part because his team adheres to a strong idea of what Kappy calls “the lane.” “We’re always trying to ride that line between commercial and credible,” says Oliver-Cline. “That keeps us up at night.” No sharp turns or unexpected detours: When Combs does a collaboration, it has to make sense, playing up an aspect of his artistry that’s already there. Joining Leon Bridges on CMT’s Crossroads and an upcoming duet with H.E.R. bring out Combs’ soulful side. “Neither of us were told we were traditionally handsome or talented or cool,” says Bridges. “Just two dudes from the South who really loved music.” Combs would love to work with Post Malone, and Adele and Sheeran are on his bucket list. But an EDM collaboration? “Those cards aren’t even on the table,” says Oliver-Cline.
Combs realizes it’s time to go pick up JoJo, but first, he wants to play me The Prequel on a pair of wireless speakers. He runs through a set of songs that sound like surefire blockbuster hits. They’re radio catnip -- melodic, fun, clearly country -- but also smart and even a little sentimental. Both commercial and credible, all the way.
“I can’t wait to play this fucking song live,” he says after blasting the ’90s honky-tonk of “Lovin’ You.” “Yeah,” he adds with a smirk -- he’s trying to be modest, but he knows when he has a hit on his hands. “That rocks.”
It’s Cinco de Mayo in Frisco, Texas, and Combs is in the middle of a fitting for a new pair of jeans. Aboard his white tour bus parked at the Off the Rails Country Music Fest, Hocking sits at her laptop, while JoJo -- clearly already at home in the family -- lolls on the couch. (The cats, presumably hanging in there, are at home.) Content with his denim, Combs settles down next to a custom record console. Church’s Carolina is playing, and Willie Nelson’s Stardust (“Probably my favorite album ever”) is on deck.
Tonight, Combs will play the second-to-last set of the festival, after Morgan Evans and before his pal Hunt. But right now, he and Hocking are reminiscing about the Grammy Awards back in February. Combs was nominated for best new artist (Dua Lipa won), and they walked the red carpet behind Cardi B. “Literally no one cared about us being there,” says Combs with a laugh.
Still, he’s at home among pop stars. Or Ed Sheeran, at least. The two recently hung out at Twin Peaks, Nashville’s answer to Hooters. (Attempting a British accent, Combs channels Sheeran describing its clientele as “a bunch of lonely blokes who want to look at titties”). Sheeran, who once posted an Instagram story of himself singing Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” happens to be a Tennessee Titans fan, and he has been known to frequent the place to watch games, so Combs met him there. Sheeran was confused when the lonely blokes -- who usually let him go incognito -- started asking for pictures with the duo.
“I said, ‘Buddy, if you were in a wine bar in East Nashville, people would come and take a picture with you, because those are your fans,’ ” recalls Combs. “ 'But you have brought me into essentially a NASCAR race. This is where my fans go.’ ”
As ever, Combs understands his audience, which is clear two hours later when he walks onstage in full Luke Combs regalia (black shirt, cap, Solo cups). In the pit, a cross-section of fans -- a young girl on her father’s shoulders, a pink-haired woman in checkered Vans, a group of drunken bros and a female couple who kiss during “Beautiful Crazy” -- seems to know every word. When Combs finally plays “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” they all sing along, three days before the single has even been released.
They listen just as intently when, throughout the show, Combs tells stories onstage -- about how, three years ago, he had never been on a plane; how he constantly heard “no”; how he’s just like them. About midway into the set, Combs’ band walks offstage, leaving him up there alone, like back when he played those barbecue joints, trying to catch a break.
“I like to play a song by myself every night to remember how this all started, so I hope you don’t mind,” he says, before launching into “This One’s for You.” “Which is just me, a guitar and a song that I wrote.”