In 2015, after two EPs, Luke Combs' single "Hurricane" sold 15,000 copies in the first week. After an improbable rise to the top of the streaming heap, Combs teamed up with Sony Music Nashville to take the next step.
"Hurricane" has since made its way to the top of radio chart dominance, moving almost half a million copies to date. Not bad for a guy from North Carolina who considered being a homicide detective before becoming a country artist.
Three years after his first EP, Combs is officially releasing his first record, This One's For You (the previous work with that title was an EP). And it's been a long time coming for fans, not to mention Combs, who recorded the record prior to his relationship with Sony.
Fans should recognize five of the songs already from the EP, plus seven new tunes. And while he doesn't stray far from the formula that makes "Hurricane" such an infectious hit, Combs presents a truly genuine set of songs.
Without a doubt, Combs' voice sets him apart from much of the pack. As the genre adopts more and more boy band-esque vocalists, Combs' gravelly southern rock offers a palate cleansing.
Coming up with a good comparison for his voice isn't super easy. In fact, a friend and I discussed it not long ago. We both agree there's a strong Blake Shelton aspect, particularly in the accent. The way he delivers "o" and "i" vowels mimics Shelton quite a bit, even if one hails from Carolina and the other Oklahoma. But then it gets muddy. She suggests a bit of Cody Johnson's guttural tone. I can hear it, but I also hear a lot of Chris Robertson, vocalist for hard southern rock band Black Stone Cherry (if not dialed down in intensity).
Compared to his early EP releases, Combs really hones in on his bluesy vocal runs (similar to Stapleton). There's an obvious, audible and enjoyable growth.
There's a certain believability in Luke Combs' music that lends itself to his overall success. When he sings about a "Honky Tonk Highway," it doesn't feel hokey, even if the song lays the Waylon on extra thick. Nostalgic tunes like "Memories Are Made Of" and "This One's For You" could easily escape most singers and fall flat on jaded millennials (and jaded baby boomers, because let's be real, we're all pretty jaded at this point).
Much of the record relies on familiar country tropes, but without coming across as played out. Combs takes a bit of a risk by offering his own take on the "wise bartender" story line on "Lonely One." It's a theme that, honestly, is hard to tackle considering how few times it's been done well -- but how well it was done (think Kenny Chesney's "The Good Stuff").
Combs manages to pull it off, even if a 27-year-old playing the sage barkeep seems a stretch. The internal rhyme and turn at the end ("You're not the only lonely one") is one of the most pleasant moments on the album. Other high points include "When It Rains It Pours" and "I Got Away With You."
The latter may never see the light of radio day, but an outlet like SiriusXM would be wise to at least test it with the audience. It's a great example of melody playing into lyric perfectly, reminiscent of George Strait.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Combs' career so far is his ability to operate in the mainstream pop country world (and write mainstream pop country songs) while still feeling like a complete outlier.
Much of This One's For You relies heavily on tracks and polish, just like any other radio ready product does. And in most cases it feels perfect for the songs, as opposed to overdone. It kind of proves that when people get upset about hearing drum loops and shine on their country, maybe that's not really what they don't like about it.
While there's a notable new level of texture on the record (suggesting perhaps some re-mixing money from the EP), much of the album still came when Combs was an independent and working on limited resources. The album competes with the big dogs. It's a calculated and well-executed decision.
Overall, Luke Combs really isn't doing anything unheard of or new. Most of the songs sit in the same range, same tempo and same key. He's just doing it all really well.
Good songs delivered by a great voice and produced in a way that (for the most part) lets the best moments shine. This One's For You is sure to establish the newcomer as one of country's most promising new acts.