Luke Combs was born in March 1990 in North Carolina, gigging hard in bars while in college and able to hold all the cards when a major label wanted to take him on to release his music. His second album was called What You See Is What You Get. It includes songs about blue collared boys, his wife Nicole (‘some things last forever after all’, ‘some things just go better together’) and a great tune called Refrigerator Door which was full of images and even a Mariachi trumpet. Luke wrote I Hope You’re Happy Now, a number one gifted to Carly Pearce and Lee Brice, and he performed a duet with his hero Eric Church after daring to ask him. He has just become a father to a son, Tex, days before the release of his third album. He’ll be playing two dates in South Carolina in October. He has not yet released a Christmas song.
Ed Sheeran was born in February 1991 in Yorkshire, gigging hard as a teenager and winning an Ivor Novello Award for a song about a homeless woman who was ‘in the Class A team’. His second album included songs about love (‘we found love right where we are’) and seeing other musicians while on tour. Pharrell Williams popped up too. Ed wrote hits for Rita Ora, One Direction and Justin Bieber. On his third album, which he toured solo and for which he could sell out Wembley Stadium in his adopted home town, Ed once again referred to his hero Damien Rice, with whom he has never played. He married and had a baby, then put out his fourth album which comes to Wembley this week. He also had a Christmas number one with his pal, Elton John.
In March 2022, Ed Sheeran walked out during Luke’s headline set to surprise Country2Country attendees for a version of his song Dive. I hope I have made my point.
This third album, like Ed’s monster of all monsters Divide, will be a blockbuster. Luke denied himself a chart record when his second album dismounted his first, This One’s For You, from the top of the country album chart. Morgan Wallen, who surpassed Luke, will finally be ejected this month. Even with his career disrupted by the pandemic, Luke is able to play stadiums. His two studio albums, This One’s For You and What You See Is What You Get, have been supplemented by EPs tacked onto the album’s deluxe versions. Every song Luke puts out whizzes to number one within weeks. He is the closest thing to Garth since Garth, but without the Messiah complex.
Growin’ Up is a 12-track collection that contains familiar beats and rhymes. Reviewing a Luke Combs album in 2022 is like reviewing a Garth Brooks album in 1993. We know we’re going to get rock drums, lyrics about being an ornery boy and lots of songs bigging up a lady. Unlike Garth, Luke doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, but he wears his big heart on big sleeves. So how has the formula been fine-tuned or updated?
Middle of Somewhere, down in track 11, opens with chatter about beer and coffee and Jesus and how ‘we like life that way, sweet and slow and simple’. I don’t know how he keeps getting away with it, pointing out that one man’s nowhere is another’s somewhere. Aldean did this before and added crunching guitars, but Luke sets it to acoustic guitar and a gentle sonic bed that sounds like he’s ploughing a field. Randy Montana, one of the most underrated writers in town, comes good again, along with Jonathan Singleton, who co-produced the album with Luke and Chip Matthews.
The impact tracks were typically Combsian: Doin’ This, written with Drew Parker, was about showing up in your town to gig, based on an interview response that Luke would be onstage if he wasn’t onstage already. It’s an arms-aloft chantalong that mixes Honky Tonk Highway with This One’s For You, and it seems odd that he is singing about the act of singing for a big crowd. Luke is meta.
The ultimate praise for any new act is to write with a legend. Dean Dillon, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a few years ago, adds his magic touch to Tomorrow Me, which will be Luke’s career song if he pushes it right and lets the award shows bestow prizes onto it. It’s so gentle, very country and passionately sung: ‘Maybe we should let yesterday be, cos I gotta live with Tomorrow Me’ is worthy of George Strait, the man who would be nothing without Dean’s writing.
Luke later sings, on Used To Wish I Was, about his dreams of being a baseball player like Chipper Jones (good reference!) but he’s a ‘Carolina good old boy’ who plays guitar and makes loads of money selling small-town values back to small-town boys and girls and exporting it around the world (he doesn’t say that last bit out loud). The song is simple enough both to be sung at a campfire and belted out in a stadium. At Country2Country this year, Luke also slipped in covers of 90s hits I Like It I Love It and It’s A Great Day to Be Alive, proving that he both knows his forebears and wants to continue the lineage.
Better Back When continues the reminiscin’ in a different key; it’s a rewrite of A Long Way, with an added reference to Never Wanted Nothing More, a Kenny Chesney song written by Chris Stapleton. That’s what Luke is: Kenny Stapleton. Indeed, The Kind of Love We Make is a funky, lick-driven jam where our hero sings of ‘burning both ends’ and wanting to get ‘some records turning’. Call Me chugs along prettily, with a great first verse that includes the acronyms SOB and BFE, as Luke plays the wounded animal before delivering the punchline: ‘When you’re 2am buzzing…we both know you’re gonna call me!’
Any Given Friday Night has list-ticker-offer lyrics about trucks, drink, ‘denim and makeup’, the Dairy Queen and map dot towns. I also love the use of the word ‘rando’. The supercharged Ain’t Far From It is a stomper in the vein of 1, 2 Many, Beer Never Broke My Heart and Cold As You. On The Other Line is a summer jam that plays on the fish in the sea metaphor and the ‘caller on another line’ one. It’s smart and will fit well with When It Rains It Pours, which will always be Luke’s killer kiss-off.
I would have loved to have been in the room with Luke and Miranda Lambert as Outrunnin’ Your Memory was written. George Strait appears in the first verse and it’s a very Texan-type tune about trying to put an ex out of your mind. It’ll be a smash, and Miranda gets the second verse all to herself, which is very generous of Luke. Add this to her catalogue of top duets following appearances with Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.
Going Going Gone ends the record, which comes in at a perfect 41 minutes, with a thinker that has a sad punchline I won’t spoil. The fact that the title could lend itself to a party song, a reminiscin’ song or a song about a relationship is testament to Luke’s skill as a writer – and he writes everything on this album, as he always does – and as a performer. He’s a fine exponent of country music that sounds like it was made by a guy from Asheville, North Carolina. He remains the biggest star in the firmament and some of these songs will slot into what is already a Greatest Hits set.
I wonder what his ex-future mother-in-law makes of him now.