Chris Hollo – Luke Combs
on the cover of Pollstar Nov. 2, 2020
Luke Combs, chunky, red Solo cup in hand, a fistful of earworms in his pocket, may not be the obvious white-hot superstar in today’s country music. But the kid from Appalachian State, who followed fellow North Carolinian Eric Church’s example of “write to the fans, play to the fans,” this year turned into country’s supernova. Without management or an agent, he booked himself regionally, played shows for kids wherever they wanted straight-up ‘90s-influenced country and wrote songs that felt like the life he – and his audience – were living.
When he moved to Nashville to stake his claim, he had “Hurricane,” “When It Rains,” “She Got The Best of Me,” and a work tape of “One Number Away” – all number ones – and “Beautiful Crazy,” a seven-week No. 1 about to be written. Everybody passed when he made the rounds, but Combs didn’t care. He had his sights set on the music, and a big piece of that was finding a home at the Grand Ole Opry.
What the first major publishing executive he met told the eager kid with the even more eager fan base, Combs well remembers the meeting, “He said, ‘I’ve got two things to tell you….’And I got ready. He says, ‘First, you need to write better songs. And you’re never gonna be an artist. No one is going to pay money to see you…’,” Combs was undaunted. He was also right.
Just ask the 2019 CMA Male Vocalist and Song of the Year winner (“Beautiful Crazy”) and 2020 Academy of Country Music Male Vocalist and Album of the Year winner (What You See Is What You Get), as well as Billboard’s 2019 and 2020 Top Country Artist and Top Country Album for What You See. With his Deluxe version – spurred by a livestream of five new songs: “Cold as You,” “The Other Guy,” “My Kinda Folk,” “Forever After All,” and “Without You,”– on What You See Ain’t Always What You Get, the young man whose first two albums have both spent more than 25 weeks at No. 1 on the Country Album charts, and all nine of his singles have topped the Country Singles chart and is crushing all comers at Apple Music.
Gratitude is a big piece of the puzzle for the kid whose father was a maintenance man and his mother a receptionist at a women’s prison. He recognizes the impact of hard work, the reality of how family can get you through and the power of traditions like the Opry. For the 30-year old country Everyman, there are few honors that mean more – and have more enduring impact.
On July 16, 2019, Vince Gill and Joe Diffie, who passed from COVID-19 in April, walked into the Circle – along with a coterie of his friends, peers and Opry family – to induct Combs into the Grand Ole Opry. Having wept on stage upon his invitation to join, he was also exultant in the moment. After Gill told him – and the sold-out-on-a-Tuesday-night-crowd – “This is what dreams are made of,” he stood alone with his acoustic guitar and offered a heartfelt “This One’s For You.”
Even in all the launch craziness for this week’s tidal wave of a No. 1, Combs still made the Opry a priority. Making time to answer Pollstar’s questions about love, life and why the Opry is so very important, he continues honoring the ones who both paved the way and are carrying the tradition forward.
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC – Tears In Heaven:
Luke Combs is overcome with tears in June 2019 after being notified of his membership to the Grand Ole Opry by John Conlee, Chris Janson and Craig Morgan.
Pollstar: Luke, how and when did you first hear about the Grand Ole Opry?
I knew about it at a young age, but it wasn’t until college that I fell in love with listening to it. And then coming to Nashville and sitting in the audience, at that point, I knew I had to play it one day. You know listening it’s special, but sitting there, you want to be part of everything it is.
What do you remember about your Opry debut?
It was a whirlwind for sure… to say the least.
We had the entire team there, from my management, to the label, my agent, my Mom and Dad, and of course, Nicole. Being in Room No. 4 and knowing that so many other people had sat there waiting for the call to go and rehearse with the Opry band. And then walking into the cage and seeing them there, working on my songs and getting to play with them? On and on, until I’m standing in the circle, I mean, come on! It was one of the biggest highlights of my career. I just don’t really have the words to give it justice, you know? Other than it was awesome and exhilarating all in one.
Was your Opry debut what you expected?
It was everything, and more. Sally Williams was there and treated me like a king. We did some content (for social media), and then they left me alone to just soak it all in. I mean, I walked around and looked at stuff, just trying to take it in. But the biggest thing was just being there, waiting to sing. And then you step on that stage and it hits you: this is the OPRY! I am singing in the Circle. What!?
Have you watched video of it since, you know, to actually experience it?
I’ve seen clips of it here and there, but I rarely go back and watch myself.
Were you surprised when you were asked to be a member?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely surprised. I thought they (John Conlee, Chris Janson and Craig Morgan) were walking out to sing on my song for some collaboration. And then they hit me with it.
I crumpled over with emotion. I usually find these things out ahead of time. Someone lets it slip, and I don’t get surprised. But this time, they got me – and they got me good. Even right now, thinking about it, I am getting chills.
Jason Kempin / Getty Images – What You See Ain’t Always What You Get:
2020 Country Supernova Luke Combs, who’s won major honors this year performing to a sold out audience at Bridgestone Arena on Dec 13, 2019 in Nashville.
Why is Opry membership important to you?
Because the Opry is the backbone of country music and Nashville, the amount of legends and icons who have played that stage and brought the sound of Nashville to millions of people around the world, not just the States, is impressive! I love being a member now and being able to help spread the word of country music. And also just how important the Opry is to all of us. It’s something I think a lot of us care a great, great deal about.
What does the Opry represent to you as a young, coming into your own stardom moment as an artist?
It means that true country music will live on long into the future. It gives me the opportunity to make sure the sound carries on to future generations. The Opry isn’t just a place, it’s an idea. It’s something bigger than all of us – and I love that I am a small piece of it.
And on that larger frame, what does the Opry represent in general?
It represents us. It represents Nashville and the best of what we do… It’s all right there when any of us stands on that stage and brings our music to the people, the fans.
What’s your favorite part of playing the Opry?
Playing with the Opry band. I absolutely love playing with them.