Song by song, country star Luke Combs grows into stadiums
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Singer-songwriter Luke Combs is making big leaps this year in his unprecedented rise to the top of country music, both personally and professionally.
The North Carolina-born singer, who holds a Billboard record with 14 consecutive No. 1 country airplay singles with hits like "Beer Never Broke My Heart" and "Beautiful Crazy," graduated from arenas to selling out football stadiums this year.
But as the 32-year-old Combs was preparing to sing in front of a packed-out Nissan Stadium during last month's CMA Fest, he had something more personal on his mind.
Inside his truck parked at the stadium was a hospital bag, waiting for word that his wife, Nicole, was ready to deliver their first child. As it turned out, Combs became a first-time dad with the birth of their son, Tex Lawrence Combs, on Father's Day.
"When we walk off stage tonight, it's like the next journey is being a parent, you know?" Combs said, while backstage at Nissan Stadium earlier in June. "That's like my sole focus after this."
The reigning CMA entertainer of the year has spent the last decade concentrated on getting to where he's at now. But as he's ascends a peak most country artists will never reach, his mind is on the unknowns of being a new parent.
"I've never operated in any other way in the last 10 years besides trying to be the best I can be at this thing I do now," Combs reflected. "So trying to figure out the balancing act of those two things is mildly stressful, but also really exciting."
His aptly titled new record "Growin' Up," out now, shows Combs recognizing what a transitional period it's been for him. "Doin' This," the lead song, is an autobiographical reflection on the idea that even if no one had discovered him, he'd still be singing in a bar in a no-name town on a Friday night.
"It was never about the amount of success or how many awards you have," he said. "You just appreciate being able to do it at all."
What's kept him grounded despite scaling up is his loyalty to the people who believed in him at the beginning, as well as bringing along those he felt deserved a chance in the big leagues. He's the kind of guy who records songs he wrote with his guitar tech, Jaime Davis, and then cut a duet he wrote with fellow superstar Miranda Lambert. His manager, Chris Kappy, had never managed an artist before he convinced Combs to let him represent him.
"A lot of those band members, a lot of those players that are playing the stadium are the same ones that were playing the clubs with him at the beginning," said Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville.
Goodman said when he signed Combs, the young singer already had a strong fan base who were packing out shows.
"What he had even in that moment was a seasoned aspect of it, a maturity, a self-awareness about his instrument, his voice and the songs that he was singing and the connectivity," Goodman said.
This year's tour only features three stadiums, the first shows in Denver and Seattle earlier this year and one on July 30 in Atlanta, so it's become a test run for what is likely many more stadium gigs to come. Combs admits that he's been more on the cautious side than some of his team when it comes to booking stadiums.
"If the failure happens, it's on like such a grander, like more public display than like if you were to fail in a bar," Combs said with a laugh.
He also wanted to have time to finish the album and focus on bringing the best songs to whatever venue he was playing.
"We don't have any pyro. We don't have any fire. We don't have any bells and whistles," he said. "If you can't live and die by the song in this business, then it's not going to last. And I think that's so paramount to what we do. There's always a moment in the show that's me and a guitar. It's been that way since we played in bars, and it's still that way in the stadiums."
In a format that has been slower than others to shift from traditional radio to streaming as the primary music discovery tool, Combs has excelled at both. And he's watching streaming numbers very closely as he plots out those setlists.
"I'm not too proud to look at analytics," he said. "It's not hard to go, '˜Well, the fans are listening to this song more than they're listening to that one.'"
Goodman's goal in the coming years is to put Combs on the global stage. He's already made inroads by touring in the United Kingdom and Europe pre-pandemic, and fans there have found him primarily through streaming, Goodman said.
"I see Luke, in the near term, doing in the rest of the world what he's beginning to do right now in the United States, and that is play venues, arenas and stadiums that heretofore most country artists would have never even thought possible," said Goodman.