Luke Combs’ story thus far has been magical for the North Carolinian and his many fans. Everything he releases and touches seemingly turns to gold- or in his case- liquid gold in the form of longneck bottles of beer. The genre arguably hasn’t seen such a rise since the careers of Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks began.
This isn’t a slow burn were witnessing. This is catching lightning in a bottle kind of stuff. Combs has shrewdly and strongly taken advantage of a tenuous country music landscape to shape and mold his own direction. But we know that. We know of Combs’ ability to use social media. We’ve seen how Combs’ perceived “every-man” personality has brought hundreds of fans into the mold thanks to relatability. There’s the element of marketing, of course. But most importantly, Combs can write and sing some damn good songs. But this piece isn’t meant to explore the rise of Luke Combs. Rather, I hope to gain an idea of what kind of career trajectory he will embark upon from here.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand why Luke Combs has become a star of this caliber. The country genre was searching desperately for an artist to come along with a dose of authenticity and some homegrown relatiblity willing to record mainstream country with enough subtle pop sensibilities that don’t offend his long-time fans but still offer him a shot at radio stardom.
And yet on the other hand, I have to almost ask why? Jon Pardi has stronger charisma and a much more unique Bakersfield Sound that distinguishes him from virtually every mainstream contemporary. Riley Green’s sound leans a little more into the 90s with an intense neo-traditional focus (and he’s not afraid to call out country radio either). Chris Stapleton, is of course, Chris Stapleton (not to discount his success by the way, but he’s not selling out arenas or scoring number one after number one).
But here we are. With Luke Combs as the golden God of a mainstream country revival. As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I can’t help but feel a little empty. Almost as if what Luke Combs is spear-heading is a little too good to be true. For many, his authenticity is his calling card. But we do we really know? He’s released one full lenth album and one major-label EP. I’m more willing than a lot of my respected peers to just tap the breaks for one second and see what happens with a sophomore album. Not that I don’t believe in Luke Combs’ ability to keep a more traditional-minded sound. Rather, I need to see a more consistent body of work to annoint him a legend before he’s turned 30.
The larger point I’m trying to make is that while he has established himself already as a country hit-maker, I wonder if he has the ability to create and sustain a long, distinguished career. For instance, let’s take a look at his first six singles. “She Got the Best of Me” is the pick of the bunch. Well-written and filled with detail, it’s worthy of a spot on any “Best Country Songs of the Decade” list. It’s also (*hmm*) probably the least well-known of any of Combs’ singles. “Hurricane” relies on the overdone storm metaphor while leaning a little too close to pop country for my liking. “One Number Away” and “Beautiful Crazy” are fine songs but are overproduced and sound better with acoustic arrangements. “When It Rains It Pours” is clever and something that wouldn’t sound out of place in the 90s. And “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is a jam and a half but, unfortunately, much too forgettable after pounding a couple of cold ones. So, for my count, that’s two out of six singles that I’d count as above average.
As far as the album and EP go, I’ve gone back and forth time after time. This One’s For You (and the deluxe re-release) can call several cuts extremely solid. “I Got Away With You” is perhaps the best evidence of what Combs is capable of. Heavy steel. Subtle but sweet mandolin. “Be Careful What You Wish For” is right out of the Eric Church and early-Aldean songwriting playbook. Looking back with just a hint of regret while doling out some advice. Unfortunately there are also songs like “Honky Tonk Highway.” A fun song? Sure! Believable? Eh. I have no doubt Combs feels the call of the road. And yet…I can’t put my finger on it, but I just don’t find ramblin’ man anthems convincing from him. The title track should work well in theory, but it’s been done better countless times before. “Memories Are Made Of” and “Beer Can” are both jams, but I’ve heard those types of songs from five or six different artists in the past five years alone.
The Prequel EP is what gives me a little more hope. “Refrigerator Door,” despite not living up to Jamey Johnson’s high standards of nostalgia found while listening to “In Color,” has a couple of happy tears moments, while “Even Though I’m Leaving” will cause any listener to stop in his or her tracks. Yet “Moon Over Mexico” is fun but could have been recorded by Luke Bryan, and “Lovin’ On You” is rightly more remembered for its production.
Combs, in my opinion, has a tendency to borrow ideas a little too much from other artists. What he’s recording and releasing is good, but not great. He has yet to actually release an earth-shattering single that blows the socks off a listener. Reaching number one on the charts in 2019 is rather meaningless. Put that red solo cup down and sing something to me that I feel.
We need that sophomore album to see what Luke Combs is truly capable of. It will be the biggest album of the young man’s career. Does he have the ability to record and release something impactful beyond smash singles? Maybe. Can he coast for at least another year on name recognition alone? Yes, he can. But that’s not what we should demand from him. At the moment, I’m afraid Luke Combs’ career is being built on a house of cards. It could crash down at any second. An artist can get by for only so long on relatability and authenticity alone. Country music, at the end of the day, will always judge artists on the songs. All the rest be damned. The genre is one built on stories. On three chords and the truth. And it’s up to Luke Combs to prove he can deliver.