Did you know Luke Combs is an only child? That seems so rare among country musicians as to be remarkable. This fourth album, or second part of his third project that began with last year’s Growin’ Up, arrives with Luke adjusting to fatherhood and preparing a world tour which will take the two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year to London in October. A hat-trick is assured for the Garth Brooks of the 2020s.
In the modern country landscape, the human being making the money is as important as the music itself. It did seem a little People Magazine when he announced the news that he will become a father for a second time 48 hours before the release of this album. Never mind Garth, Luke is gamely playing the role Tim McGraw has played for 25 years: the family man selling rural songs back to rural audiences while spreading country music around the world.
Yet on this album there is a cover (brought down a semitone from A to A-flat) of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, which will be a nice little earner for Tracy, just as the Jonas Blue dance version was a few years ago. This goes to show what Nashville is comfortable with nowadays. It’s also the only solo write on the collection, which goes to show that Nashville still loves to give songwriters cuts in a world where Luke could put out some 100%-ers.
We heard the opening track Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old (both with no G) before the album came out. As you’d expect, the voice is in good nick; I think the success of Luke mimics that of Ed Sheeran because he can be introvert and extrovert sometimes in the same song. Here, Luke says he’s ‘slowing my roll’ but he can still (predictably) ‘raise hell all night with the boys’ and do all the usual on-brand Luke Combs stuff. It’s also a carpe diem song which mentions time in an ‘hourglass’.
Back 40 Back is an acoustic ballad full of reminiscin’ which updates The House That Built Me. It is one of six tracks Luke wrote with his buddy Ray Fulcher, who must have bought a house with the cheques from being in the room for the number ones When It Rains It Pours, Even Though I’m Leaving and Lovin’ On You. The other five Fulcher cuts include the big hit Love You Anyway, which thanks to its warm arrangement is so much better sonically than the first album that it reminds me of how the production on Garth’s blockbuster albums made them sound so much more punchy compared to his debut. Money can’t buy you love but it can buy you better production desks.
There’s also See Me Now, an imagined conversation which updates an old friend on the progress of little Luke’s life (check out the tongue-twisting assonance of ‘a creek-fed pond and a food-plot stand’); Still, a finger-pickin’ campfire ballad full of metaphor and imagery (‘the North Star’, ‘summer honeysuckle’ and ‘flying high’); and the album’s closing track The Part, a companion piece to Honky Tonk Highway that has the narrator missing his beloved like crazy. After 17 tracks full of vim and vigour, the theme of that track is vulnerability. If he wants to push this, Luke could win awards with this song.
Tattoo on a Sunburn reminds me a lot of the Tim McGraw song Red Ragtop. In fact, it replaces that song’s abortion narrative with ‘the hum and the buzz and the sting of that needle’. Luke’s narrator doesn’t even remember the name of the girl but a ‘saltwater breeze’ helps him recall the night of passion and tattin’. Combs and Fulcher wrote that one with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, who having written for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton knows how to sculpt a song for a voice reared on rural things.
Fellow A Listers Jessi Alexander and Chase McGill helped Luke with Five Leaf Clover, which charted on the UK Top 100 and is another one of those ‘shucks ain’t I a lucky man’ tunes that Combs has probably written hundreds of. This one is a song in 12/8 time which mentions ‘cold beer’ and ‘good friends’. No doubt Ed Sheeran reminded Luke that Galway Girl was a big global hit so it wouldn’t hurt him to appeal/pander to the Irish country lot in his fanbase.
Casey Beathard was there to birth the song A Song Was Born, whose first word is ‘Haggard’ and which includes the T-shirt friendly advice for young writers: ‘Hitch a good rhyme to a mistake’. Another writers’ round song is My Song Will Never Die, which reminds listeners that when Luke will shuffle off this mortal coil, we’ll still have his catalogue and ‘someone else can sing my songs’.
In a move which seems odd for a prolific songwriter such as Luke, that song is an outside write: a gift from Eric Church and Travis Meadows, who wrote it with the album’s producer Jonathan Singleton. The big t-shirt lyric here is ‘It ain’t about the leaving, it’s in what you leave behind’. If he wants to push this, Luke (and Eric and Travis and Jon) could win awards with this song, which has an inbuilt coda perfect for stadium singalongs. It’s a strong start to the album’s second side, which is followed by the other outside write.
Where The Wild Things Are was written by Luke’s friend Randy Montana. We know it’s an outside write because Luke doesn’t have a big brother, who is the song’s main protagonist who left the country for Hollywood. Luke’s narrator visits him but realises he can’t leave the country behind. The proper nouns in that song will delight critic Grady Smith: ‘Indian Scout’, ‘American Spirit’ and ‘an Airstream trailer and a J-45 guitar’. If anything, the melody, the mix of rural and urban (the Hollywood hills) and the ‘woahs’ in the chorus remind me of a Zac Brown Band song. (Fun fact: Randy’s real name Randy Schlappi, which would have been fun if he’d married Kimberley Schlapman from Little Big Town. He won’t, because he’s a happily married father-of-two.)
This conflict between rural and urban has been, and continues to be, the big challenge for country music a century after it was first put on to shellac discs and sold to music fans. The end result is that Luke Combs gets to play London for two nights this autumn while also going down to Australia in August. He’s also playing Stockholm’s Avicii Arena, so maybe he’ll sing Wake Me Up while he’s there.
Elsewhere on the album, Take You With Me is another Zac Brown-alike which turns the words from Luke’s own dad and puts them in his own mouth. It seems certain that, like his dad, Luke will ‘sneak out back’ to drink some beers away from his wife’s watchful eye. I love the image of young Luke ‘clinging to his leg’ because his dad is off to work with ‘a cooler and a sandwich’. The Beer, The Band and the Barstool actually sounds like a title a computer would come up with after being fed Luke’s first three albums. The song itself is what the theme from Cheers would sound like if it were rewritten as a country song, with our ‘broken-hearted fool’ clinging to those three helpers ‘cos he’s been here before’. Garth would have taken this song if he’d been offered it in 1992.
You Found Yours starts with a nineties rock riff and continues in an anthemic manner (‘woah-woaaah!!’), with a brilliant groove and lyrics which will enable couples in the crowd to hug their own ‘living, breathing reason you’ve been looking for’. Fox in the Henhouse (great title!) turns up the amps, adds a Hammond organ and sticks some natural echo on Luke’s vocal as he moans of the ‘sinful deceiving’ of an unknown trouble. Tonight, Matthew, Luke’s going to be Chris Stapleton!
James T Slater brings his wisdom to Joe, a song in a dropped-D guitar tuning about a working man (average Joe, let’s call him) who is pious, hangs out with his buddies and toasts ‘good days, better tomorrows and a light at the end of the bottle’. You bet there’s a reference to serving overseas in the second verse, because this is prime cut Music Row product, delivered with poise and control by a man making money for Nashville just as Garth did in 1993 when, not coincidentally, he went on his world tour.
Hannah Ford Road is track two on the album and was the second track in his setlist when he played Texas the weekend the album was released (note well: Texas for a paying crowd, not Nashville for free like Wallen did). The opening drumroll and guitar licks are radio-friendly, while the lyric is a three-minute movie about young Luke meeting Hannah and taking her for a drive in spite of her father’s protestations. So far, so Springsteen, but if you’re playing stadiums you need to write this sort of anthem and Luke’s got about ten of them now. I bet his setlist guide goes ANTHEM-BALLAD-ANTHEM-BALLAD-DRINKING SONG and he just slots the songs in where they’re needed. It has made him a very rich man.
Rather wearisomely, this album will be compared to One Thing at a Time in a sort of hillbilly-off, especially as Combs and Wallen come to the UK either side of Thanksgiving. But it’s a false comparison: Luke appeals to the common working man with arrangements full of fiddle and live drums, while Wallen does whatever he can to maximise his streaming numbers, including bringing pop sounds and postures.
I think history will be kinder to Luke, who covers Diamond Rio in concert and is single-handedly breaking the band 49 Winchester, than Wallen, The Guy Who Used That Word. Both of them are laughing all the way to the bank and will give their kids, just as Garth gave his three daughters, a nice life.