Predictions 2017: Billboard forecasts the year's breakthrough artists, key shot-callers and industry innovators.
"I’m probably going to dip during this interview,” warns Luke Combs as he sinks into the couch at his label head’s East Nashville home, clutching a can of Copenhagen chewing tobacco. The 26-year-old North Carolina native is burly, bearded and, on this particular morning, sporting a camouflage ball cap and last night’s hoodie and blue jeans.
But Combs’ laid-back look belies a focused approach and a very modern hybrid sound. The singer-songwriter’s blend of rough-hewn twang, guitar-driven Southern rock and contemporary R&B rhythms sent his single “Hurricane” to Billboard’s Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts, where it has peaked thus far at No. 40 and No. 28, respectively. In a genre stocked with suave young men who look a lot like pop stars, Combs is quickly carving out a niche for himself as a millennial everyman.
“If I can reach the guy in Alabama that hunts,” says Combs, “and he hears that song and he sees me -- like, he’s comfortable with me, my image as a person, as an artist -- he’s willing to sit down and give that song a chance.”
Combs isn’t merely spouting a theory. He was accumulating streams into the millions, commanding a sizable following on the now defunct video platform Vine and selling out clubs in Southern college towns by the time country-music executive Lynn Oliver-Cline selected him to be the first artist on her indie label River House Artists -- a deal made in the summer at the dining table roughly 20 feet from where Combs now sits.
“I would never even consider an artist that’s not already out helping themselves,” says Oliver-Cline. “The fact that he had made two EPs on his own and had found a way to release those songs himself and play shows -- maybe he didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew enough.”
By the end of 2016, Columbia Nashville had formed a joint venture with River House to release Combs’ music, Big Machine Music had signed him to a publishing deal, and “Hurricane” was getting its first proper radio push. This spring, Combs will join Brantley Gilbert on an arena tour, and later in 2017, he’ll release his debut full-length album.
Incredibly, it was only five years ago that Combs learned to play the guitar -- a gift from his parents, who exposed him early to both classic rock and ’90s country singers like Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn -- he had stowed away in a closet. At Appalachian State University, Combs burned through majors before eventually starting to perform around town. The school’s most famous country alum, Eric Church, the rare star who wrote his own material, became an example to him. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s the real McCoy,’ ” says Combs. Since then, Combs has had a hand in every song he has released. “I respect [fans’] intelligence and their wanting to hear things that maybe they haven’t heard, or maybe to have their comfort zones expanded a little bit.”
“The younger generation that loves someone like Sam Hunt will identify with Luke’s music,” says Oliver-Cline, “and then someone like me who is in their mid-40s is also going to love it because of some of the ’90s style in there.”
But Combs, wad of dip in his lip, insists that his musical ambitions have nothing to do with trying out trends. “Sometimes people are looking for, ‘What’s the next Tesla car? What’s this really cool, super-specific thing that people are going to want?’ ” says Combs. “But I try to be just like a Ford truck. They sell a lot more Ford trucks than they do Tesla cars.
Luke Bryan talks about his high school crush on Jennifer Aniston and why his favorite food is "all the food" in the video interview below.
Hails from - Asheville, N.C.
Spirit animal - “Garth Brooks. We’re both dashingly handsome, and we’re both great performers.”
Where you’ll hear him - Touring solo through Jan. 28; playing arenas with Brantley Gilbert Feb. 2-April 29; on his Columbia Nashville debut later in 2017.
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