How Luke Combs Is Taking Country Music to New Global Frontiers
Pre-pandemic ticket pricing. No pyro. Massive sold-out crowds — on both sides of the Atlantic. How Luke Combs became the genre's global touring "unicorn."
As Luke Combs’ booking agent, WME partner Aaron Tannenbaum, began plotting the European leg of the country star’s massive 2023 world tour, he encountered some promoters, in places like Hamburg, Germany, and Zurich, who were skeptical that a country act would sell tickets in Europe. So he repeated a kind of mantra to them: “You can always count on Luke Combs.”
He was right: Combs sold out all nine European dates he booked (and in substantially larger venues than initially planned). But the mantra — a testament not only to Combs’ dependability as a global touring act but to his rock-solid character — has plenty of less glamorous applications, too. Today, Combs, 33, is sitting in his manager’s Nashville office (a memento-filled monument to, well, him) at the beginning of our interview when a staffer pops her head in. “Nicole [Combs’ wife] needs your keys,” she says. The base of his 9-month-old son Tex’s car seat is in Combs’ truck, and Nicole needs to take the little guy to daycare.
“Do you know how to get it out?” Combs asks hesitantly. He starts to explain, then jumps up. “I’ll just do it, it takes literally one second.” He turns to me. “Baby stuff!”
You can always count on Luke Combs, and that is basically his brand. Without a shtick beyond “everyman,” Combs now fills stadiums nationwide as the Country Music Association’s reigning entertainer of the year, hot off his 15th No. 1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Just your neighborhood consistent, reliable global sensation, on the cusp of bringing country to one of the widest non-pop crossover audiences it has ever had, signature red Solo cups in hand and fishing shirt on as he constructs a kind of fame that’s built to last.
“He’s just Luke, our friend, you know?” says his longtime tour manager, Ethan Strunk, who has been with Combs since he pitched himself to the singer when Combs walked into the Opry Mills Boot Barn in Nashville, where Strunk was working in 2016. “How little Luke has changed is baffling to me. There’s no way I could do it. He’s the same funny, funny guy. People say that all the time, but it’s just the truth.”
With his fourth studio album, Gettin’ Old (which arrived March 24 on River House Artists/Columbia Nashville), and an ongoing 16-country international tour, which kicked off at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on March 25, Combs not only wants to cement his place at the top of the country heap but prove that he can transcend it — without changing anything about himself or his music. As Combs puts it, “The music has the ability to reach a lot more people than the marketing behind it does. We have a little bit of something for everybody, and that’s the way I want it to be.”
The North Carolina native has colored outside of country’s lines from the start. He built buzz on social media and through local live shows before signing with Lynn Oliver-Cline of River House Artists, and though he did eventually do some conventional radio circuits and a little time in the opening-slot trenches, it only took him two years to go from playing 250-capacity clubs to headlining his first arena tour.
His team, which has remained more or less the same since he started touring heavily in 2015, attributes his massive and rapid success in part to the unorthodox approach it has taken from the beginning. “The strategy was, ‘Let’s play the rooms that a rock act would play,’ ” says his manager, Chris Kappy, of the early days. “We didn’t play all the honky-tonks like everybody else did.”
“We had the mentality that we needed to push the limits of what you would think a country artist can and would do,” adds Tannenbaum. He booked Combs outside the genre at festivals like Lollapalooza (2018), Bonnaroo (2017) and Austin City Limits (2017) — and out of the country (in the United Kingdom and Australia), building a foundation for the international draw he has now. “Everything we’re doing as far as expanding globally, it’s not really off-script,” Tannenbaum says. “It’s just a different iteration of the same thing we’ve been doing since the beginning.”
That thing is an ever-growing iteration of Combs, the singer-songwriter, which, to the outsider, hasn’t changed all that much from his 250-person club dates. “Even when we started out in arenas, we didn’t want any fire or any crazy stunts,” says Combs. “You just come out and do the show, right? I think sometimes that can be so powerful in and of itself.” (He adds with jovial self-deprecation: “I’m not running around like Kenny Chesney.”)
Combs started sprinkling in stadium dates when he resumed touring following the pandemic pause in 2021, starting with Kidd Brewer Stadium at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., his would-be alma mater had music not come calling. Some initial trial and error was necessary because no one on his team had ever been part of a stadium tour.
“We always wanted the show to be about the music and to feel intimate somehow — which is a mega challenge in a stadium,” says Combs. “How do you entertain that many people? How do you make it an experience worth coming back to? There are people traveling a long way to come to this.”
Yet so far he has resisted the temptation to entice return customers by adding more eye-popping elements to his set. The show is Combs and seven band members, with strategically positioned video monitors to make everyone in the stadium feel as close to Combs as possible — and that’s basically it.
“I’m not flying in on a motorcycle,” he quips. “Live band, no tracks. Everything going out of the speakers, we’re f–king playing it when you hear it.”
That’s not to say Combs doesn’t see the value in elaborate stadium production — it’s just not for him. “Taylor Swift is like going to see Ringling Bros., and my show is like going to a demolition derby,” he jokes. “You’re coming to drink beer and be like, ‘Hell yeah.’ ”
There has been something of a learning curve as Luke Combs Inc. has adjusted to a stadium-size setup. For example, the thrust stage used at Combs’ first stadium shows — Kidd Brewer in 2021 and Atlanta, Denver and Seattle in 2022 — was 8 feet tall, making it nearly impossible for Combs to see, much less connect with fans in the pit.
“Especially coming off doing the 360 arena thing, where you’re right in the middle and everybody feels pretty close, you go out in the stadiums and man, once the spots hit you out there, you almost can’t see anything,” says Combs. “You can see two rows of people, and then there’s just like infinite blackness.”
This time, the thrust will be both larger and at a lower level than the main stage. “You’re more in the crowd,” Combs adds. “I really wanted to feel that. I love playing small clubs, and feeling like people are right there is really nice.”
“Fans first” is the slogan of Kappy’s Make Wake management company, and one that permeates its decisions. Combs’ fans, called the Bootleggers, are so named for one of his early “hits” (his scare quotes), “Let the Moonshine,” and its ties to his Appalachian upbringing. He and Kappy started a private Facebook group for Bootleggers in 2015, the same year Kappy began managing a then-unsigned Combs; today, it has over 175,000 members, despite being entirely separate from the official Bootleggers club that fans can now sign up for on Combs’ own site to access perks and presales. One of those perks is the VIB (Very Important Bootlegger) meet-and-greet giveaway — which is the only VIP offering on Combs’ tours and completely free.
“I’ve always just felt really weird about, like, charging people to meet me,” he says. “Maybe that’s just me feeling like, ‘Well, it’s not worth it.’ ” By making meet-and-greets almost completely random (25 fans are chosen per show through a lottery on Combs’ site), Combs gets to see “a real representation of who’s there,” as he puts it. “I just want to meet people who came to the show, whether it’s their first show or their 50th show. It’s like people who would have never gotten the chance to meet me or could never have afforded it. Because I couldn’t have afforded that growing up.”
His manager is willing to put it more bluntly. “That’s not the type of people we want,” Kappy recalls telling a banker when turning down a $5,000 offer to meet Combs at the AT&T Stadium show. “I’d rather have the guy who can barely afford to come to the show because that’s more of a real fan than you wanting a picture with Luke for your Instagram.”
“I always want my fans to understand that I’ve never made any decisions based off how much money I can get out of them,” Combs says. “It already costs so much to do anything, right? I want them to love the music and feel like they saw a great show that someone put a lot of f–king thought into and did it at a price that was affordable to them.”
That’s why he has kept ticket prices at pre-pandemic levels (an average of $88) and has a section of $25 tickets at every show; why he has free preparties and tailgates attached to most of his stadium dates; why he refunded fans after a set in Maine last year because he felt like his voice wasn’t up to snuff (despite the fact that he did perform a shortened set); why he doesn’t only tour in the places where it’s most straightforward and lucrative. Combs is playing the long game.
“We’re trying to build a career so people can meet at a Luke Combs show and then eventually bring their kids to it and be like, ‘This is how it all happened,’ ” Kappy explains.
“Could I have gone out and done super-mega platinum tickets at even more stadiums and made an assload of money? Probably so,” Combs adds. “But I think eventually the fans will be like, ‘I’m not doing that again.’ ”
And it’s still more efficient for him: nearly 1 million tickets sold for 2023, for the fewest dates (39) he has worked in years. For 16 weeks, he’ll bus into North American cities on Thursday night, rehearse Friday, play Saturday and return to his home outside Nashville on Sunday. Then, after three weeks in Australia and three weeks in Europe and the United Kingdom (with a sizable break in between), he’s done for the year, without needing to bring Nicole and baby Tex along for the ride. “One show a week is like … dude!” he says. “People dream about doing one show a week.”
Combs’ international appeal is rooted in that same fans-first ethos. He went to play in Australia when it wasn’t profitable; now, the only reason he’s not booking multiple nights at stadiums there is because his trip coincides with the Women’s World Cup and all such venues are booked.
“There was a trust factor between he and I,” Kappy explains. “I said, ‘Look, I need you to do this, and you’re going to lose money. But instead of going and playing Raleigh every July at the amphitheater, you’re going to build markets.” Now Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia, are among Combs’ top 10 streaming cities worldwide; some of the cities in Oceania where Combs is selling out arenas on this year’s tour, he has never even played before.
“People in our genre have always been so content with just doing [the] lower 48 because that has been good, that has been great. That has been safe. That’s where the money is,” says Combs. “But I feel like country music has such a place in the world outside of just the States.”
There is no template for what Combs has been able to accomplish internationally, and the biggest hurdle, according to his management team, has been getting promoters on board without any comparable artists to reference — mostly by insisting repeatedly that the demand is nearly insatiable. “We didn’t come here to punt,” Kappy says. “So the goal is like, ‘Let’s throw a Hail Mary.’ And a lot of our Hail Marys are getting caught.”
A favorite anecdote among Team Combs is about when the singer played Quebec City’s multigenre Festival d’Été last summer — a booking that apparently made some of the event’s organizers nervous.
“I had personally been aggressively pursuing that opportunity for Luke for five years, and I kept getting back, ‘No, country doesn’t really work up here. He’s not a headliner,’ ” says Tannenbaum. Combs drew upwards of 70,000 people.
“Everybody was singing every word to every song — even the deep cuts — but then he would stop and everyone was speaking French,” Kappy recalls.
“He’s a unicorn,” says Tannenbaum. “I don’t really know how else to say it.”
That Quebec City date helped raise their expectations for this international tour. “We believed we had something really big with this,” Tannenbaum explains. “However, there wasn’t much precedent for the promoters to calibrate their expectations on, and the comps the promoters did have didn’t perform very well.”
So Tannenbaum and his colleagues at WME agreed to book European venues they felt confident Combs could fill several times over, because those were the ones they could get promoters to sign on with, and were prepared with options to upgrade all of them to larger rooms if tickets sold well enough. Every single European date got upgraded. Combs’ Copenhagen show in October, for example, was initially booked in a 1,500-capacity club; due to demand, it was upgraded to a 12,000-seat arena. “We’re not stopping there — South America is our next big, big goal,” says Tannenbaum. “By and large, this is virgin territory for artists coming from the world Luke has established himself in. But we’ve overcome similar barriers and precedents elsewhere in the world, and we expect to achieve the same success in these markets.”
And incredibly, Combs has been able to reach pop star levels of global success with nary a whiff of pop crossover, aside from a CMT Crossroads special with Leon Bridges and a cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Dive.” (He does cover Tracy Chapman on his new record, a decision made partly out of his personal fear that some people today might not know “Fast Car.”)
“Luke Combs is a country artist, and Luke is very happy being just a country artist,” says Kappy. “If the opportunity presented itself to do something in that world, sure, but we’re not looking to take a song to [adult top 40] or something like that when we’re still reaching new ears. Three chords and the truth work everywhere.”
Though he might make it look easy, taking over the world as Luke Combs, regular guy, has its challenges. “I think what has been one of my biggest assets has also been one of the things that was the hardest for me,” Combs says. “I am just me. There’s not, like, an act. My driver license says ‘Luke Combs’ on it. I’m 300 pounds with a neck beard. I can’t go out and not wear a hat and people don’t know who I am.
“I struggled with that a lot because I almost felt trapped, like a zoo animal or something,” he continues. “Now I don’t even think about it anymore.”
So Combs signs the autographs and takes the pictures, accepting them as a sometimes invasive part of the job he signed up for, and reminding himself that he would much rather people hate his music and think he’s a “pretty sick dude” than the opposite. He would prefer to insulate his son (and, soon, Tex’s little brother: Combs and Nicole just announced they’re expecting) from the craziness that comes with superstardom but knows that it’s only a matter of time before he has to explain why people come up to them in the grocery store.
“I don’t want him to be like, ‘My dad’s so great because he’s a country singer,’ ” he says. “I want him to be like, ‘My dad’s so great because he gives a f–k about me and goes fishing with me and listens to my problems and helps me when I’m scared.’ ”
It’s hard to find a chink in Combs’ grounded armor, a reason not to buy in the way that hundreds of thousands of fans now have — trusting that whether or not they speak his language, or relate to his songs’ Southern touchstones, or also wear hunting gear and cowboy boots and Crocs (with whom he has collaborated on a comfy clog), they can count on him to make them feel something. They can do that without spending their savings because accessibility is a top priority for Combs and his team, right after the music. “Look at how much money we’re making,” he says. “Does it really even matter if we make double? What’s the difference between having $5 million and $500 million? How much happier are you? Is it that much? Or is it like 1% happier?”
Instead, he wants to chart a career, and a life, that’s extraordinary in its very ordinariness.
“I didn’t get into music to be famous or rich,” Combs concludes. “I got into music because I love singing. I love singing for big crowds of people, and I feel like I’m good at it. People like to hear me do it. And I want to continue to do that as long as possible.”
This story will appear in the April 1, 2023, issue of Billboard.