Watching Luke Combs give his all during a sweaty, jam-packed show in Nashville for rowdy fans and radio power-players is to understand why he’s come so far, so quickly. Both onstage in front of thousands or alone in a room with his guitar, the North Carolina singer-songwriter knows who he is, where he comes from and where he wants to go. And on his debut album for River House Artists/Columbia Nashville, This One’s for You, he invites listeners to share in his remarkable journey.
Like its title suggests, the album is a sincere offering of thanks: to his mom and dad who gave him his first guitar; to the friends who made up his first band; and especially to the fans who supported him since his humble days singing in restaurants in Boone, North Carolina. It was those very gigs, nightly three-hour marathons at eateries around the college town, that taught Luke how to grab – and hold – the attention of his audience.
“My strategy was if I could sing my ass off on cover songs like Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man,’ that’d get people to put their food down for a minute. Then I’d play an original song right after that and I’d have them,” says Luke.
The shrewd idea worked, and soon the young artist with a knack for crafting imagery-rich, real-life songs was building a solid fan base, one that would follow him to bars throughout North Carolina or online via the viral YouTube and Vine performance videos he posted. Aware that he was capturing lightning in a bottle, he assembled some of his most popular tracks for a series of successful EPs and, with their impressive sales, was able to finance a move to Nashville.
Luke, who was working two “mega brutal” jobs, at a go-kart track and at an outlet store, gave his notice and split. “I quit my jobs and haven’t had one since,” he says “That was ‘making it’ to me.”
But the ballcap-and-boots singer is selling himself short, because the exceptional This One’s for You and its hit single “Hurricane” portend much more is to come.
A collection of 12 songs all written by Luke, often with frequent collaborators Ray Fulcher and James McNair, This One’s for You paints the most relatable of pictures. Songs like the driving “Hurricane” and the cautionary “One Number Away” capture the essence of heartbreak and bad decisions, while the winking “When It Rains It Pours” and boozy “Beer Can” celebrate life’s little victories. In every song on the album, there’s at least one lyric that will elicit a knowing “I’ve been there” from fans.
And that’s the other secret to Luke’s grass-roots success. His fans see themselves reflected in both his songs and his everyguy demeanor. Just like them, he busts his back so he can appreciate even the smallest of luxuries.
“I’m a guy you can go have a beer with and not worry that I’m gonna talk about Maseratis and exotic vacations,” he laughs, exuding a refreshing innocence. “I would love to go to the Cayman Islands as much as the next guy, but I don’t even have a passport. I had never been on a plane until I was 25. So the fans see I’m a lot like them. They see I’m working hard – especially with my songs. I didn’t just go pick out a bunch of songs that I thought people would relate to.”
Instead, he lived them and harnessed those experiences for his lyrics. In the moody, vulnerable “One Number Away,” he’s tempted with dialing those forbidden digits. “How many people have ever had too much to drink and picked up their cellphone and called someone they shouldn’t have?” he asks. “Everyone has done that.”
Likewise, everyone has cringed when they have unexpectedly bumped into their ex at a bar. Which is why “Hurricane” was such a breakthrough for Luke: he captured that universal awkwardness perfectly, not in a ballad, but in a roof-raising sing-along that has become a cornerstone of his concerts.
But even Luke will tell you that his best songs are the ones that bust common phrases wide open. In “Don’t Tempt Me,” he dares you to show him a good time; “Be Careful What You Wish For” laments the things he no longer has; and in “I Got Away With You,” he delivers a manly love song about making off with his lady’s heart.
It’s the Nineties country homage “When It Rains It Pours,” however, that best shows off Luke’s way with words, as he celebrates a deluge of good fortune after a breakup. It’s an exceptionally thought-out song, with lyrics that eschew the abstract for the concrete. A winning scratch-off ticket, a waitress’s number on the back of a check and a used four-wheeler all figure into the narrative.
“It reminds me of a Brad Paisley song, when he does those really cheeky, clever songs like ‘I’m Gonna Miss Her,'” says Luke. “I’m influenced a lot by the smart lyrics of Paisley and especially Eric Church. I love writing about old sayings and colloquialisms and flipping them upside-down.”
Luke does likewise with “This One’s for You,” the album’s title track and its high-water mark. While its title may hint at a beer-drinking anthem, it’s actually a love note to the ones who’ve supported him along the way. “There are a couple people that I owe a beer to / and three or four I owe more than a few,” he sings in the opening line.
“My friends, the guys in my band and my parents helped me through so much and were always very encouraging. That’s where this song was born from and why it’s very special to me,” he says. “I named the album that because it sums up my whole life.”
In the end, This One’s for You, produced by Scott Moffatt, showcases a singer and writer unafraid to tell his story without pretension or from behind a false front. In a genre that throws around words like “genuine” and “real” with abandon, few artists so earn those adjectives like Luke. He is the walking, writing and singing embodiment of three chords and the truth.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors with me. There was never any point where I picked up the guitar and said, ‘I want to be a country singer.’ I just wrote songs and they were country songs,” he says. “Now I get to live my life writing and playing for people around the country. What a cool thing, right?”