Music Row executives like to refer to Nashville as a 10-year town. From the day a hopeful artist arrives, according to that guideline, he or she should plan on taking a decade to finally get the big break.
It’s against that backdrop that Luke Combs is living out a rather improbable ascent. Last September, as he got ready for a show at the Top Hat in Missoula, Mont., he finalized a recording deal with Sony Music Nashville.
“They just faxed my deal to the bus,” he says, sounding a bit amused by the technology — and by the randomness of such a big moment happening in an unfamiliar city 2,200 miles from the North Carolina town where his career path started. “Like, they faxed it to a fax machine.”
Combs hadn’t waited 10 years at all. That September marked exactly two years since he had moved to Nashville, and in an unusual turn of events, he’d written “Hurricane” — his breakthrough song, now seated at No. 1 on Country Airplay for a second week — just three months after his arrival. With his debut album, This One’s for You, out now, he’s part of a wave of relative newcomers changing the genre. Four of the top six songs on Country Airplay — including the current titles by Sam Hunt, Brett Young and Dan + Shay — are by artists working their first or second albums.
Combs’ emergence, however, happened a bit differently than the rest. This One’s for You was originally locked in for an Oct. 7 release on the independent River House label using indie Thirty Tigers for label services. But “Hurricane” charted on Hot Country Songs thanks to its initial sales as a single in 2015 and returned to the list after significant airplay on SiriusXM’s channel The Highway. In the aftermath, Combs got courted, he says, by five different record companies. He picked Sony, in part, because it took the most aggressive approach.
“They had this plan, and it felt like to me that they were the only ones that came with a solid plan of action,” he says. “I could feel the passion that they had for what we were going to try and undertake together, and that was the biggest selling point for me, because when we’re out here on the road, we work hard. I put a lot of sweat into what we’re doing, so I wanted a label that was going to reciprocate that kind of work ethic.”
Combs was aggressive in his own right before he ever arrived in Nashville. While attending Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., he lived in an apartment above a nightclub, and he approached the owner about performing. The owner passed, so Combs went to a rival venue and packed the place. It became a thing — he played two or three nights a week in town and typically sold out the bar he was playing. And that first night was enough to get him focused on his own plan.
Combs began touring in the Southeast, but he also started honing his songwriting skills, studying the craft from a distance, though he downplays his efforts.
“[I was] messing around with songwriting — not really fiercely songwriting, because there was nobody to write with,” he says.
But he knew the quality of his material would be key if he intended to make a living in the music business — “It wasn’t like I love certain artists,” he explains. “I was a song guy.” — and he studied songs written by the likes of Dean Dillon (“Tennessee Whiskey,” “Ocean Front Property”), Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me,” “Raise ’Em Up”), David Lee Murphy (“Big Green Tractor,” “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”) and Jonathan Singleton (“A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” “Yours If You Want It”).
It shows in This One’s for You. “Beer Can” invokes clever, classic-country wordplay; “Out There” employs conversational, blue-collar language; and “Honky Tonk Highway” captures road life well. Just as importantly, Combs’ melodies — couched in a modern-country framework that folds in ’90s country influences, arena-ready sonics and hints of Southern rock — are consistently singable and interesting.
“It’s always been kind of an instinct thing for me, because I’ve never really been technically sound at music,” he says. “I couldn’t read music now if you paid me $1 million. I used to be able to stumble my way through it when I was doing the chorus and stuff, because I kind of had to. But now, the guitar parts are always simple and things always come naturally to me, and so the melody aspect of it was always something that was something that I felt I was good at.”
Combs had enough confidence in the songs that when Sony came calling, he refused to cave on the material. There was some discussion about recording some new tracks for the project, but Combs insisted on sticking with what he had.
“I was at this awesome point where I had a little more leverage than a lot of people who are about to sign their first deal,” he says. “So I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got these four or five deals. I’ll sign with you guys, but I’m not changing the record.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we think the record’s great,’ and that was kind of it, luckily.”
Thus far, Combs has beaten the odds in the 10-year town, and with his three-year anniversary still four months away, he’s looking at next month’s CMA Music Festival as another potential milestone. His made his 2016 debut on the smaller Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage. This year, he’s got six performances planned over three days, topped off by a set at the Chevy Riverfront Stage, the largest of the festival’s daytime platforms. All of that comes in the week after his debut album hits the market, riding the wave of that No. single with “Hurricane.”
“That’ll be interesting to see how many people come out to see that,” Combs says. “Our crowd was really good last year, but I think this year will be on a whole ’nother level.”
Potentially a 10-year level, accomplished in 32 months.