If anyone owned 2018, it was Luke Combs.
He headed into this year with a second No. 1 song, and he’s ending it with a Grammy nomination. And in between? He released three more bona fide country hits, won a CMA Award, wrote a love song for his girlfriend, proposed to her, headlined a tour, bought a house, and became a household name in all the households that appreciate genuine country music.
When Combs reflects on the bucket list of a year he’s had, he cites humbling gigs, a push from his ex-girlfriend and his ten-year hiatus from country music as the main reasons he is where he is. Our conversation — right before he took the stage at Chicago’s WEBG Country Christmas show at Joe’s Live on Thursday night (Dec. 13) — covered everything from Pearl Jam concerts with his mom to what he sees when he looks at that CMA Award on his shelf.
Q. What were you doing exactly one year ago?
A. I remember feeling really good, because we were ending our tour in my hometown in North Carolina, in Asheville. And there were 6,500 people (at the U.S. Cellular Center). It meant so much, because I used to go to concerts there, I graduated from high school there, I’d been to the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam there. That’s where I saw Pearl Jam.
Q. Wait. Pearl Jam? I don’t know if I hear that influence in your music at all. Did you grow up listening to a lot of rock?
A. Kind of. I asked my parents for Pearl Jam tickets. I was so young that I had to go to the concert with my mom. I think I was only 11. It was right when I was getting out of country music and then rediscovering it.
Q. I didn’t know you’d ever left. What made you turn away from country?
A. I felt a little disenfranchised, I guess. I lived in the mountains, and everyone was singing songs about the beach. It was that era. I love that stuff when I’m at the beach, but not every day. So it meant that there were so many things I missed because I left. I missed the start of Dierks Bentley, the start of Brad Paisley, all that stuff.
I was done with country when I was about 8 or 9 years old, around 1998. I’d loved Brooks & Dunn, and I’m still obsessed with their music. I listened to Clint Black. My first concert was Vince Gill. I grew up on that because that’s what me and my mom listened to that in the car.
Q. Then what?
A. When you’re between 8-11 years old, I think, you just listen to what your parents listen to. It’s not up to you. But then when I was about 13, I was like, “I’m a grown up now, so I want to listen to what I want to listen to.” And Asheville has always had a super progressive music scene, so it just is not set up for people who like country music.
Q. Now that I understand why you left, what was it that brought you back?
A. Eric Church. I was in Boone at Appalachian State University, and a buddy of mine brought his album up to my dorm room. And I was like, “Man. You know I’m not down with country right now.” And he was like, “But this guy went to school here.” So I listened to Carolina from 2009, and I fell in love. Then I went and bought his older one, Sinners Like Me. I got obsessed with the songwriting and the artistry of everything he’d done.
Then I dove back in to everything I had missed. I had this entire vault of the decade of music that I could listen to that was out when I was between 8 and 18. Listening to all the stuff that I let fall through the cracks because I had stereotyped one thing? I felt guilty about that for a while. But I was always jamming with that, and people were like, “Why are you listening to this? It came out ten years ago.” And I was like, “I know, but I just heard it last week, and these songs rock.”
Q. So you and country music broke up, then got back together, and then after college you felt like that relationship was solid enough to make the move to Nashville?
A. The real reason that I made it to Nashville was that I had a little bit of a kick in the ass from an ex-girlfriend. We met in college, and she wanted us to move to Nashville. I don’t know if I ever would’ve otherwise. I get hesitant about big life-altering decisions like that. I get cold feet. But my lease was running out in Boone, so without her pushing me, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on this bus right now talking to you. There are things that I think happen in your life for a reason.
Q. And once you got to Nashville to chase that neon rainbow, was there a welcome mat waiting for you?
A. Not at all. The first eight months I was there, nobody would touch me with a ten-foot pole. I had meetings with publishers and labels, and people would say, “Man, the songs just aren’t that great.” But it was my songs, it was “Hurricane,” it was “When It Rains.”
Q. Ouch. How did that initial rejection feel?
A. It was fuel for me. That motivated me so much. I don’t ever want to get to the pinnacle of my success and gloat to anybody. That’s not the right thing to do. I’m proud of what we have, and I’m proud of how it all happened. Those things that didn’t work out for me probably mean that at the time, I wasn’t ready yet.
Q. What changed?
A. I met Chris Kappy. He’s my manager, and he was the first person who really saw something in me. After I’d moved to Nashville, I played shows in Georgia, one at the Rome Brew House in Rome and one at 40 Watt in Athens. That one was over Labor Day weekend in a college town, so there were maybe 80 people at the show. I remember the owner telling me not to let it bum me out, and I said, “It didn’t bum me out. This is cool. Now 80 people know who I am.” Then he told me that when Nirvana first played there there were only about 20 people. “If that’s any indication of where you’re headed, it’s gonna be great,” he said. But I met Kappy that night, and he told me he was going to quit his job in Atlanta, move to Nashville and manage me.
Q. And now you have a whole team of like-minded people around you. Were those people your record label just assigned to you?
A. It’s never really been about me, per se. So no. I’ve always been about being able to provide for the team I have, and everyone on this team has been found in the most perfect way. A couple years ago, I was buying boots at the Boot Barn at Opry Mills. It was before I got my record deal. And I liked the guy selling me the boots. So I was like, “You’re cool. What’s your deal? You want to be our tour manager?” Everything that I can do better, it means all of us get better.
Q. And it is definitely getting better, right? Last year at this time you only had two big singles, and now you’re the CMA new artist of the year and you have an all-genre Grammy nomination for best new artist of the year.
A. Awards are great. But I’m not gonna sit in my house 25 years from now and look at my CMA Award and be like, “Man, that award is what makes me feel like my life has been well lived.” I know it’s gonna be the memories I made with the people I care about.
Q. Has the fame that’s come along with all the success been hard to wrap your head around?
A. You can never prepare yourself for it. Never. You can have 100 people tell you about it, but you never truly understand. What it’s allowed me to do, though, is buy a house, and help my parents out.
About a year after I’d moved to Nashville, I’d saved up money in a coffee can and bought a new Ford Fusion. I literally had all the cash in this coffee can. I hadn’t made any money off my music yet, but when we’d play live shows, whatever money I had left over after I paid everyone else went into this coffee can. Every month, I’d count it. At the time, I was driving a 2000 Dodge Neon with manual windows and manual locks. So any car with air conditioning was real nice for me. Then a year later I bought a truck, so I gave that Fusion to my parents. I even paid cash for my new truck. I hate being in debt, and I don’t like owing people stuff. I just paid my student loans off this year. I’d been paying it down very month, and when you’re trying to be a singer-songwriters, that’s really rough.
Q. What lessons did you learn from some of your earliest gigs?
A. I never played the honky-tonks up and down Broadway, but I did those same kinds of gigs in North Carolina. And those are definitely the humbling experiences you need to have. Anyone who starts out at some kind of heightened level is missing out. You need to feel that whole thing of how hard it is when you’re playing a room, a bar or a restaurant, there’s about 250 people there, and most of them don’t even want to hear you. They want you to turn it down. That’s brutal.
Q. You recently shared that you and your girlfriend Nicole Hocking are engaged. Do you think that being in love and then being a married man will change the way you approach that blank sheet of paper?
A. It already has. I wrote “Beautiful Crazy” about Nicole. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, but we’d hung out. We were in no way dating. But I was falling for her so hard. I wrote “Beautiful Crazy” and played it for her. To me, that was the moment when it changed. It wasn’t going to just be hanging out after that. I’d never written a song that personal. But I don’t think it will change things in the grand scheme of things. You’re never gonna listen to one of my albums and think, “This guy is such a total love nerd.” That’ll never happen. I’ll always love a good honky-tonk drinking song as much as the next guy.
Combs is nominated for best new artist at the 61st GRAMMY Awards. The live awards ceremony will be broadcast on CBS from Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday (Feb. 10).