When Luke Combs played his current single, “The Kind of Love We Make,” for his wife, Nicole, her reaction was perhaps not what one would expect to the mid-tempo slow burner about a sexy evening of romance.
“She was like, ‘Geez,’ and she gave me one of those eye rolls,” the low-key country superstar says with a chuckle, relaxing in a low-slung chair in Los Angeles during a press stop. “We have a great relationship and we’re totally not afraid to make fun of each other either. We get a lot of laughs out of stuff like that. She’s great. She just takes everything with a grain of salt. She keeps me humble, let’s put it that way.”
Marrying Nicole is just one of the major changes for Combs since he released his blockbuster sophomore set, 2019’s What You See Is What You Get. He also turned 30 in 2020 and, on this Father’s Day, because a dad for the first time to son Tex Lawrence Combs. Given all those significant life milestones, calling his new album Growin’ Up seemed more than appropriate.
“Sometimes I feel like a college kid, and some days I feel like I’m 65 or 70 — I wouldn’t say I’m middle-aged, but it’s like I feel like a real adult,” says the reigning CMA Awards entertainer of the year. “When I walk into a room, no one’s like, ‘That can be a guy in college.’ Nobody thinks that… It’s like, time to kind of get it together fully, and dig into this life thing.”
Combs co-produced the River House Artists/Columbia Nashville album, out tomorrow (June 24), with Chip Matthews and Jonathan Singleton. Its 12 radio-friendly tracks range from the autobiographical “Doin’ It” and “Used to Wish I Was” to the rollicking ode to blowing off steam, “Ain’t Far From It,” and salute to small towns, “Middle of Somewhere.” Regret-filled ballad “Tomorrow Me” lets Combs show off his fine husky twang, while on the irrepressibly catchy “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” he and Sony Nashville labelmate Miranda Lambert rue not being able to escape your ex no matter how much distance you put between the two of you.
Combs wanted the album to come out before this week, but the pandemic had other plans. Plus, playing concerts in the age of COVID-19 took a bigger toll than he expected. “The tour we did last fall was just the most draining from a mental and physical standpoint,” he says. “Now it’s way more relaxed, but at that time it was like, ‘Oh, should we even go?’ ‘Are people going to show up?’ ‘Does everybody get vaccinated?’ It was all these different things that I had never had to deal with before. I was flying by the seat of my pants, and it was like, ‘I don’t really get to work on this album. I just can’t. I don’t have any mental space’.”
Of course, it’s not like Combs even remotely disappeared from the radio airwaves in the meantime. “The Kind of Love We Make” entered the Country Airplay tally at No 18 for the chart dated June 25, making it his second highest debut. It follows Growin’ Up‘s first single, “Doin’ This,” which reached 1 in May, becoming Combs’ record-setting 14th consecutive No. 1 in May 1 single on the chart (13 efforts with Combs as lead artist, plus his feature on Jameson Rodgers’ “Cold Beer Calling My Name”).
Similarly, his albums have taken up residence in the top 10 of Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart. After his 2017 debut, This One’s for You, has been on the chart for 263 weeks – more than five years – and sits at 6 this week, while What You See It What You Get is No. 5 in its 136 week. (Unlike with those two sets, Combs says there will be no deluxe version of Growin’ Up. “I’ve done it twice now. It’s just time to do something else,” he says.)
As with his previous efforts, Combs co-wrote all the songs on the new album, including “Tomorrow Me,” which he penned with one of his songwriting heroes, Dean Dillon, who is best known for writing multiple hits for George Strait. How the co-writing session came about sounds like a plot out of a James Bond film. After playing a songwriters night, Combs’ friend and fellow artist Ray Fulcher told Combs a woman had slipped him her number asking if he wanted to write with Dillon several months from then on a yacht in the Bahamas. Intrigued, but skeptical, Combs told Fulcher he was in.
“Then it’s a week before we’re supposed to go, and still I don’t really have any details,” Combs says. “It’s like, ‘Go to the airport and there’s going to be a private jet that you’re going to get on.’ We end up in the Bahamas and get on this little boat for two hours. And there’s this 40-something-foot yacht floating out in the Exumas, and Dean Dillon’s just on there smoking a cigarette.”
The circumstances of how he and Lambert wrote “Outrunnin’ Your Memory” is much more routine, but the results were just as thrilling. Getting together at Lambert’s manager’s office, Combs recalls, “We had met each other in passing, [but] we’d never hung out or anything like that. So, we spent the first hour just talking, having coffee or whatever and just exchanging pleasantries.”
The day before, Combs and his friend and co-writer Dan Isbell met with another artist with the intent of writing a song for that act. “We had come up with this idea called ‘When It Rains in Seattle,’ which was going like, ‘I’ll only miss you when it rains in Seattle, which is all the time.” We really thought this person was going to be like, ‘Yes!,’ but they weren’t into it.”
Combs declines to say who the artist was, but the next day as Lambert and Combs were discussing ideas, he brought up the theme of “When It Rains in Seattle,” which Lambert loved. As the pair began crafting a new song based on that idea, Isbell hopped in his car and rushed to the writing session. “By the time he got there, we had the chorus for this song, which was a completely different song,” Combs says, “so we ended up not even writing the ‘When It Rains in Seattle’ thing.” Once he got into the studio to cut the track, Combs reached out to Lambert to ask if she’d make it a duet.
While he says he’s not opposed to recording songs by outside writers — and even cut one for Growin’ Up that didn’t make the final track list — Combs adds, “I just like that part of it so much, the writing thing. I’m sure that my albums would probably be even more successful if I cut outside songs because [there are] songwriters a lot better than I am, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
As Combs’ current single climbs the Country Airplay chart, he knows that eventually his No 1 streak will stop. “Whether it’s the next one or 20 from now or 50, it inevitably will end,” he says. “So, I think you have to just be okay with that. I don’t just sit down and go, ‘How do I write something that’s going to be a big old 1,’ you know?”
Combs played his first headlining stadium date in May, and after playing a handful of dates in July — including Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium — he will begin a four-month arena tour in September that will be much more manageable than last year’s outing. Taking a page from Eric Church, he will play two dates every weekend in the same city then head back home until the next weekend. Despite escalating gas prices, he committed to not raising the ticket cost.
“It’s going to cost me a lot, but all I wanted to do is make a living doing music,” he says. “And I make enough money to not have to worry about anything and be really comfortable, so I don’t ever want to get greedy. It’s more competitive out there than it’s ever been, so it’s two-fold for me: I get to go, ‘Hey fans, I love you. I’m not going to gouge you,’ and it’s about a full room, it’s not about making money. I didn’t get into it to be Jeff Bezos and be the richest guy in the world.”