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Can Luke Combs, Country’s Everyman, Grow Up Without Losing Touch?

CHARLOTTE, Tenn. — On a warm, clear Tuesday in May, Luke Combs offered a visitor a ride around his property in rural Tennessee on one of his Polaris utility vehicles. The 140-acre parcel of forests, fields and streams is about an hour from Nashville. It includes a pool, a beach volleyball court, a chicken coop and a large, white house at the top of a hill where he lives with his wife, who was then eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child.

About 50 yards from the house is a huge barn that has been converted into a sprawling man cave complete with a pool table, weight room, beer tap, hunting trophies, arcade games, platinum records and framed sports jerseys. A beautifully restored hunter-green Ford Ranchero sat in the driveway in front of the house. Parked outside the barn was a brand-new, tricked-out tour bus with a deluxe steam shower and a $4,000 coffee maker.

“We used to have a Keurig,” Combs said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I guess that wasn’t good enough.”

Combs is one of country music’s biggest stars right now. His first 14 singles, including “Doin’ This,” the first from his June 24 album, “Growin’ Up,” have all gone to No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart. His last album, “What You See Is What You Get” from 2019, opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with huge streaming numbers, and he’s had 20 songs reach the Hot 100. He recently sold out football stadiums in Denver, Nashville, Seattle and Atlanta, and is the Country Music Association’s reigning entertainer of the year. He’s accomplished this not with virtuosic musical innovation, genre-crossing celebrity collaborations or by hosting a television singing competition, but by cranking out one irrepressibly catchy, widely relatable meat-and-potatoes country anthem after another.

In marketing parlance, Combs seems like the kind of guy you could imagine yourself having a beer with. Now he’s facing an existential crisis that freshly minted stars have often encountered: How do you maintain that man-of-the-people vibe when you’re literally living in a mansion on a hill?

Unlike many country stars of recent vintage, the 32-year-old Combs doesn’t look like the ruggedly handsome model in a Bass Pro Shops ad. He looks like a dude shopping at Bass Pro Shops. He’s a big guy but carries no air of menace. Dressed in a white Vince Gill T-shirt and rumpled khakis, he walked toward the garage where the Polaris was parked, raised a hand in the air and apologized to his visitor. “Just one second,” he said. He needed to relieve himself. Then he stopped near the side door and urinated in the open air, right beside his mansion on the hill.

Combs grew up in Asheville, N.C., a small city with a decidedly bohemian vibe, where he was a relatively indifferent student, and not much of an athlete. He played football in high school, though he admitted that “played” is a generous description. “I rode the bench,” he said. As a teenager, he worked at Asheville’s Fun Depot. “Go-karts, climbing wall, laser tag — it was probably 60,000 square feet of fun,” he said, “unless you worked there.” Although money was never in abundance in his household, his childhood felt stable: “It was pretty super normal which isn’t the most entertaining story of all time.”

One thing which set Combs apart — or which, at least in retrospect, feels noteworthy — is that he always sang: around the house, in church, in his school’s chorus. “I was just drawn to singing,” he said. His parents encouraged his musical interest. When he was in seventh grade, they bought him a guitar. He quit after two lessons and stowed it in his closet. “I hated it,” he said.

Combs enrolled at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., but devoted more time to hanging out and drinking than studying. The summer after his third year there, he returned to Asheville and the job at Fun Depot. “It was brutal,” he said. “Everyone was in high school. I was the old guy there.” One day, sitting on his porch, his mother commented that neither Kenny Chesney nor Tim McGraw started playing guitar until they were 21. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him.

“I still had that guitar my parents had gotten me in the closet,” he said. “So, I pulled it out and taught myself to play.”

The guitar not only occupied his time that summer, when he returned to school in the fall, it solved other problems. “If you’re 300-pound guy in college, how do you stand out to the opposite sex?” he asked. “You can’t really sing at a party and not be weird. But if you play guitar, people are like, ‘Cool!’”

Combs met another student named Adam Church, and the two started playing together. “Luke knew three or four chords, not well, then,” Church said in an interview. The two would cover songs like Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” then upload the videos to YouTube and Vine. “Luke was this heavier-set guy that looked like a normal person but when he’d step to the microphone and open his mouth, everyone’s attention would go straight to him,” Church added.

Combs eventually quit college and began playing more frequently around North Carolina, and later throughout the southeast. At one point, he auditioned for “The Voice.” “I got turned away because my story wasn’t interesting enough,” he said. In 2014, he moved to Nashville. The disinterest he got from labels, publishers, managers and pretty much everyone else connected to the industry there was palpable.

“You walk in the door and it’s an immediate ‘no’ before you’ve said a word,” he recalled in an amiable, slightly bemused Southern drawl. “You’ve got to think, everyone was hot back then. The blueprint was, ‘Let’s get a good-looking guy, Auto-Tune his voice, then put out a song. In a lot of ways, it’s still like that.”

It wasn’t until Combs sold 15,000 downloads of his song “Hurricane” the week it became available on iTunes that Nashville took notice. He signed with Columbia, which rereleased “Hurricane,” the first of his 14 country radio hits. The two albums that followed, “This One’s for You,” in 2017, and “What You See Is What You Get,” were filled with songs that accomplished a deft two-step: They sounded both fresh and instantly familiar.

“I always wanted to write songs that I felt like I wasn’t hearing,” he said. “When I started out, everything was beats or it was really beachy. Not that that’s wrong, but when I grew up, I really loved artists like Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn. So, when I put stuff out, I want live instruments, no tracks.”

Combs’s songs are filled with classic country signifiers — beer, trucks, a gentle yearning for the glories of yesteryear — but they’re filtered through his own lens. “You know exactly who it is from the first note,” said Miranda Lambert, who collaborated with Combs on “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” a mid-tempo duet on “Growin’ Up.”

His music paints a picture of a life that feels defiantly ordinary. His 2017 hit, “When It Rains It Pours,” describes a windfall of good luck in decidedly small-bore victories: “a hundred bucks on a scratch-off ticket,” “the last spot in the Hooters’ parking lot,” “three free passes for me and two buddies to play a round of golf.” The most resonant lines in his monster ballad, “Beautiful Crazy,” are about the object of Combs’s affection ditching her weekend plans and instead falling asleep on the couch watching TV.

Jonathan Singleton, who helped write Combs’s 2019 hit “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” as well as four tracks on the new album, compared the usual songwriting process in Nashville to Bingo: Any song can fit any artist. “Luke’s songs aren’t that way,” said Singleton, who also produced “Growin’ Up” with Combs and Chip Matthews. “They’re very personal. He’ll let you in. He’s a regular dude that sings and writes wonderful songs, but he feels like this unbeatable underdog.”

Combs’s brand as an Everyman with a Midas touch was rattled in early 2021, when images of him performing in a 2015 music video in front of a Confederate flag and sporting a Confederate flag sticker on an old guitar began recirculating online. This followed the emergence of a video of the country star Morgan Wallen using a racial slur, which spurred a fraught dialogue around race and racial equity within the genre that is still ongoing. Combs publicly apologized for appearing with the flag, but in the same troubling way that Wallen’s brief rebuke by the country music industry spurred a corresponding boost in his streaming numbers, Combs’s mea culpa created its own backlash.

“There were fans that were upset that I apologized and fans that were glad I did,” he said. “That was a tough time. Before it was all roses, then this thing happens and it’s like, ‘Hey man, you’re a racist.’ I’ve never been that political of a dude but someone telling me I’m racist was a big problem for me, because I’m not racist.”

It would’ve been easier, Combs said, to do nothing and let the situation fade from view. But the episode struck at the heart of who he is. “I’m a people-pleaser,” he said. “I’m a guy that derives a lot of my happiness from making sure other people are happy. That’s the nature of my job.”

This baseline complaisance informed his creative process on “Growin’ Up.” “Let’s say ‘This One’s for You’ is the record a lot of people that like me fell in love with,” he said. “If I put out an album that’s completely different, those people are like, ‘I bought this grape Gatorade and now it tastes like limes.’ But I also don’t want to put out the same record seven or eight times.”

One manifestation of this modest evolutionary impulse is that — as both Combs and Singleton pointed out — there are no beer songs on the new album. To be clear, beer still makes a few appearances, but Combs’ music has changed alongside his reality. “I’m in this transitional phase where there are days that I’m like, ‘I could crush 100 beers tonight at a bar and play for five hours,’” he said. “Other nights, I don’t want to get off the couch. I want to hang with my wife and get ready to have this kid.”

Some changes are inevitable, but according to Singleton, who first met Combs before he’d signed with Columbia, the only big difference he sees in the 2022 version of Combs is “his bank account.” That’s the thrust behind “Doin’ This,” which imagines a universe where stardom eluded Combs but he still performs Friday nights at his local bar. He enlisted his college buddy Church — who, as it happens, is living the song’s sliding-doors reality — to star in the song’s video.

“I’m still playing in my hometown for the most part,” Church said. “Luke’s on this huge scale but if he went the other route like me, he’d still be playing music. He’s the same dude now he was then.”

As Combs steered his Polaris along a wooded trail, past a 100-year-old tobacco barn on his property, he echoed his friend’s contention. “I moved to Nashville and was like, ‘If I can make a living doing music somehow, that’d be enough.’” He wanted to sing but would’ve settled for less: “Being a songwriter, working at a publishing company, booking bands at a bar, whatever.”

He drove past his giant man-cave, his new tour bus, toward his big white house, then stopped. “I wasn’t smart enough to plan all this in advance,” he said. “I’ve just been smart enough to not plummet the plane into the earth. Well, not yet.”

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