Luke Combs is country music’s biggest new star, and its fiercest defender

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Luke Combs wants you to understand this about country music: If you’re making fun of it, there’s a good chance you just don’t get it.

He’s heard it all plenty of times before. You’re probably going to say that all the songs sound the same, or that all the lyrics are about drinking cold beer and driving down dirt roads in your dad’s old truck. Combs has heard every criticism, which puts him in the unusual position of a superstar who is shaping the future of the genre while also serving as one of its fiercest defenders.

“It’s never been about the small town you grew up in, it’s knowing where home is; it’s not about the dirt roads you ride down, it’s the freedom you feel. The physical thing is not the thing that we’re talking about. It’s the emotion that’s evoked by what that moment speaks to,” Combs, 32, said in a recent interview. “It’s not about your dad’s truck, it’s not about the truck — it’s about your dad. That’s the thing where I think we’re a little misunderstood sometimes.”

Combs did this venting on a warm Friday evening in July while sitting in a suite overlooking an empty Ohio Stadium football field. The next night, around 63,000 people would pack the stadium to watch Combs headline Buckeye Country Superfest, the biggest audience yet for the genre’s newest mega-headliner. But that’s the thing about being a Nashville star — no matter how successful you are, some people from other genres hear “country music” and roll their eyes.

“I challenge any of those people and their acts to come in here and fill this place up,” Combs said, gesturing to the stadium below. As soon as the words left his mouth, he burst into nervous-sounding laughter, and quickly glanced back at his publicist sitting in the corner — he knew how that might sound, especially for someone whose down-to-earth humility has been a big part of his mass appeal.

But he’s not wrong: You would be hard-pressed to find musicians in competing formats who have risen to stadium status as quickly as Combs. Since the release of his debut album five years ago, Combs has shattered sales and streaming records in a way rarely seen in the genre.

Each of his 14 singles has reached No. 1 on country radio, with the swooning “The Kind of Love We Make” (from his new album, “Growin’ Up”) at the top of the Mediabase chart this week. He had the best-selling country album of 2019 with his debut, “This One’s For You” (originally released in 2017) and repeated the feat in 2020 with “What You See Is What You Get” (released in 2019). Already on a sold-out arena tour this fall, he just announced a 2023 world tour that will take him to 16 stadiums stateside starting in March, followed by arenas from Australia to the U.K.

Combs’s rapid rise explains a lot about the contemporary country music landscape: After the bro-country craze of a decade ago, fans are embracing ’90s nostalgia and favoring performers who seem like real, down-to-earth people. For his part, Combs oozes everyman relatability, with more listeners seeing him as a reflection of their lives and experiences than many of the genre’s more entrenched stars.

“Luke was always such a giant fan of country music, and it affected him in the way that drove his lifestyle and work and the way he talked to people and the way he interacted with people and the friends he picked and the clothes he wore,” said Jonathan Singleton, his longtime co-writer and producer, noting that there are “a bunch of suits in town” that aren’t living an authentic country lifestyle. “And here’s a guy that is — so what happens if we don’t mess with that and let it be what it is? It’s purely, beautifully raw. … If you’re trying to understand modern country music, you would take a big long look at Luke.”

So if Combs sounds defensive for someone so successful, it’s because he knows that even though he’s reached the height of success in his field, he will still sometimes feel like a “pariah” in the larger music industry thanks to the preconceived notions about country music.

“I don’t want to come off as a jerk, because it’s not an arrogance or cockiness,” he said. “I just — I care about how our genre is perceived by the world. And I don’t think people really give it a fair shake.”

Following Combs around for an afternoon often feels like a family-friendly version of “Entourage.” Old friends populate his road crew, trading inside jokes and making fun of Combs for his terrible golf game. (After one particularly frustrating round at Green Gables on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, Combs chucked his golf balls into the scenic body of water next to the course.) When reflecting on his career trajectory, Combs is back to his usual low-key demeanor.

“I don’t know how to feel or think about it. I mean, besides grateful, and humbled,” he said. “To be able to be sitting here, and look where we’re at … I think about it literally all the time.” To Austin Harper, his childhood friend growing up in Asheville, N.C., who now works as his executive assistant, the surreal nature of a moment like this still hit home. “What are we doing here?” he yelled, looking out over the giant stadium.

Combs still writes with the core group of Nashville songwriters who supported him in his unknown early days when others questioned his potential. He estimates he spent $2 million paying his band and crew’s salaries when touring stopped during the pandemic.

“I’m not trying to brag,” he added quickly. “I just wanted those guys to not have to worry about what happened next, and I’m lucky enough to have made enough money at that point.”

“He’s the guy that all the fans love, and also the people in town that like, are kind of too cool for school — or not mainstream or whatever — those people love him, too,” said songwriter Ray Fulcher, one of Combs’s frequent collaborators. “So he’s the people’s champ.”

Combs, after all, isn’t that far removed from the person just attending a concert himself. He viewed singing mostly as a hobby in school and started playing guitar when he went to Appalachian State University, entertaining patrons at a bar where he worked. He left without a degree, moving to Nashville in September 2014 while scraping together enough money to record a couple of EPs and tour.

His music started picking up steam on Facebook, Vine and YouTube, and club owners around the Southeast noticed he was bringing in serious crowds. Eventually, word filtered back to the major Nashville labels that there was a low-key guy with a big voice who already had a fan base.

“Luke came into our office and sang, and when he walked in, he did not look like a lot of the archetypical male artists within country music at the time,” said Randy Goodman, chairman and chief executive of Sony Music Nashville, not naming names but alluding to the muscled, coifed singers (perhaps the Sam Hunts or Florida Georgia Lines of the world). “But the voice that came out of him was one of those kind of things where everything else kind of melts away. … It was so powerful to be in his presence and have him playing his acoustic guitar. It was pretty overwhelming.” Soon, he had the first of many No. 1 singles with “Hurricane.”

Combs’s booming vocals come from a place deep within his chest. That voice sets him apart from the other singers that populate country radio. “He starts out at 10 and then he goes to 11, 12,” Goodman said. “It feels like a bear is coming at you,” Singleton added.

“He’s got one of those big, gravely strong voices, but it doesn’t strike you that he’s hurting himself. … It doesn’t feel like he’s over-singing. You hear a lot of people screaming when they’re trying to sing hard,” said Kix Brooks, one half of Brooks & Dunn. “He kind of sings hard all the time, but it’s his natural voice, natural delivery.” Brooks & Dunn serve as one of Combs’s biggest influences — he incorporates a similar traditional ’90s country sound with modern production, feeding the current nostalgia craze without coming off as a carbon copy. Combs collaborated with the duo on a new version of “Brand New Man” for their 2019 “Reboot” album.

Brooks recalled writing the 1991 hit “Brand New Man” with Dunn, and finds it very appropriate that Combs has adapted the song.

“It’s in your face from the first note: ‘I saw the light, I’ve been baptized.’ It just punches from the get-go,” Brooks said. “And that’s what Luke does and how he’s built his career — it sorts of fits him perfectly.”

While Combs thinks that non-country fans are liable to have stereotypical views of the genre and its fans, this leads to the question: Maybe that’s due to stories about that genre that break through into national news? A casual observer won’t see the overdue efforts for the industry to be more inclusive, or what Combs points to as the diverse origins of the format. Instead, they’ll see a TMZ story about how country star Morgan Wallen was caught on video saying the n-word, and how his popularity has only grown since then.

A few weeks after the video of Wallen was released in early 2021, Combs participated in a conversation about “accountability” at the annual Country Radio Seminar with his fellow country star and labelmate, Maren Morris. Combs apologized for appearing in a 2015 music video where the Confederate flag is shown repeatedly, and for a photo of the flag on his guitar, saying there was no excuse for those “painful” images.

“I want people to feel welcomed by country music and by our community,” Combs said during the discussion. “At the time that those images existed, I wasn’t aware what that was portraying to the world and to African American artists in Nashville that were saying, ‘Man, I really want to come in and get a deal and do this thing, but how can I be around with these images being promoted?’ And so I do apologize for that.”

Looking back, Combs said he was extremely nervous about the panel: What if he lost fans? What if he said something stupid? Afterward, some applauded him, though others called him a “sellout” for participating.

“I was like, me being a sellout would be not saying anything. Because then I would just go on my merry way,” he said. “When someone says, ‘Hey man, you’re a racist,’ that’s a big accusation to say. And I felt to me like I did need it to be addressed. … I feel the need to explain myself and explain why I’m not.”

“I don’t consider myself a super political guy. I didn’t get into this business to be a social justice warrior,” he added. “I just got into this to play music that I love. But there are times when I think it’s pertinent to, you know, there are moments that are like — you just have to say something.”

NPR’s Ann Powers, who moderated the panel, noted that while Morris has always been outspoken, it was unusual to see a star at Combs’s level participate in such a discussion, and that the burden usually falls on the Black artists in the industry. “It was a very volatile moment,” Powers said. “I appreciated the authenticity of Luke’s participation in the conversation and willingness to say, ‘I honestly made a big mistake.’ ”

Goodman, his label president, noted the easy road would have been to say nothing.

“I would never try to censor or edit one of our artists, because that’s really not a part of what our job is — whatever they decide to talk about and the causes they decide to promote and support are really up to them,” he said. “I’m excited if I can help build a soapbox that’s big enough for them to go out and do that, and maybe move us all toward a more civilized society. ”

Another topic that makes frequent mainstream headlines is country music’s close relationship with gun culture, made more complicated in recent years by the fact that one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history occurred at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas almost exactly five years ago. Combs doesn’t need to be reminded — he was standing sidestage when the gunman started firing into the crowd. The seemingly endless spate of school shootings has been on his mind.

“Kids, children are dying. So how do we change the conversation to that? It’s like at a base level, how does a parent not fear to send their 5- or 6-year-old kid to kindergarten? That’s the sadness of where we’re at in the moment. And what’s the answer? I don’t know. I really have no clue,” said Combs, who, like other country stars, enjoys hunting. “I mean, I have tons of guns. I love them. Never shot anybody, don’t plan to. But at the same time, I’m open to hearing realistic options. It’s just openness, like, willingness, to hear something that maybe you don’t want to hear or aren’t interested in hearing.”

It’s about time to take the stage on Saturday night, and Combs is partaking in his usual pre-show rituals: shots of Jack Daniels with his bandmates, blasting Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” as they walk down the tunnel. The stadium that yesterday Combs dared anyone else to pack is filled with 63,000 people who sound like they are on the verge of losing their collective mind by the first notes of “1, 2 Many” and the four-time platinum “When It Rains It Pours.” By the second song, people are openly weeping. By the fourth song, a man has proposed to his girlfriend and Combs has shotgunned a beer, about half of which he drank and half soaked his shirt.

Combs casually walks around the stage, belting out lyrics about drinking too much (“Any Given Friday Night”), being in love (“Beautiful Crazy”), losing love (“One Number Away”), the pain of saying goodbye (“Even Though I’m Leaving”), and, as he put it about halfway through the nearly two-hour show, “all of you underdog, blue-collar, country-ass folks.”

“I always felt like an underdog when I wanted to do this,” Combs said, introducing “Does to Me,” his duet with his hero Eric Church, about small moments in life that mean a great deal. “I know it might not seem like it tonight,” he said. “But to me, it still feels that way.”

This is where Combs’s relatability is most apparent. It’s one reason he doesn’t mind talking about personal topics such as his family or body image.

“There’s probably some other chubby kid out there that is self-conscious about the way he looks, and he’s a great singer — and if he digs into that and does that, and it’s because of something he heard me say,” Combs said, “that would be a win for me to give somebody hope that things are going to be all right.”

He knows that there’s a small but intense internet obsession with his relationship with his wife, Nicole, who has become a social media influencer in her own right. Families frequently become an integral part of a Nashville star’s brand, though Combs is hesitant to post any photos of his baby on social media. As a new dad, he half-joked that sometimes he thinks about pulling a Garth Brooks and temporarily leaving music to focus on his family.

“That should be the No. 1 thing on the Garth resume,” Combs said. “It shouldn’t be ‘30 No. 1 songs’ or whatever it is. It should be ‘gave up his entire career and existence for 14 years to make sure his kids had some semblance of a normal upbringing.’ ”

For now, however, early retirement is a distant dream. After a brief medley of ’90s country songs, he explains to the crowd that people sometimes tell him that “country music’s about the same thing all the time”: beer, getting drunk, small towns and back roads.

“Who the hell do you think listens to country music?” Combs rhetorically asked the audience, which screamed back in approval. “I’m not ashamed of the kind of music I like and the music I write. … I write it for me.”

But it was clear by the roar of the crowd — they knew he also writes it for them.