Luke Combs’ Big Bet: What He Knew That the Rest of Us Didn’t
When Luke Combs announced his Dec. 13 show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in March, he had just four No. 1 hits. Four! That’s like one-quarter of a typical headliner’s set list.
By comparison, Chris Young had nine No. 1 hits, a bunch of Top 10s and seven albums before his first headlining date at the venue in 2018. Dierks Bentley had 15 chart-toppers on eight albums the first time he headlined Bridgestone in January 2017. Count Jake Owen and Cole Swindell as male artists who’ve never headlined the hockey arena despite being around much longer than Combs, a North Carolina native who cut his teeth playing bars and honky-tonks before trying Nashville.
The flannel-prone, dip-quitting, mutton-chopped Combs had one album (albeit a deluxe album) and four singles when the show was announced — perhaps as few as two when the 10-20K capacity venue (depending on configuration) was booked months prior. There were no associated Top 5 or Top 10 hits or cross-genre successes to speak of. Rent isn’t cheap or refundable in Nashville, yet early this year, save-the-date cards for the show went out to country music media and industry, which felt a bit like inviting guests to a wedding before the proposal.
It was fair to wonder, “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”
A recent cover story in Billboard describes the strong streaming numbers and grassroots support the 29-year-old “Beer Never Broke My Heart” singer cultivated over five years, but that’s not too uncommon of a story. Streaming success doesn’t always turn into hard ticket sales — Sam Hunt's success is comparable, but he pulled a pop audience — and the club audience isn’t always willing to pay for more expensive arena shows, plus travel. So what did Luke Combs know?
He knew he had “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The song — the most-added song to country radio ever — is both a real driver of ticket sales and symbolic of others he’s been testing for months if not years. It’s not fair to judge the “Hurricane” singer by his “hits” as defined by country radio. The relatable, infectious nature of so many of his deep cuts creates a unique definition for the word. One year ago you could have heard him play “Beer Never Broke My Heart” live and left swearing you’d heard the song before, somewhere (true story: I searched every streaming platform imaginable to figure out what album it was on after seeing his set at the Ryman Auditorium).
See Luke Combs 10 Best Songs. What's Your Favorite?
Writer Jonathan Singleton says he and co-writer Randy Montana didn’t think “Beer” was a game-changer, but he believes Combs did.
"He's kinda creepy in that," he says. "It might be a lot of wishful thinking on his part but it pays off a lot. His gut's really good."
"He's such a fan of country music he can kind of look at himself as the guy he would want to see, that he would be a fan of. I think he's looking at it that way and he knows what those songs are."
In November Combs told Taste of Country he was naming his tour the Beer Never Broke My Heart Tour, hinting that it would indeed be his next brand new release (the six-week No. 1 hit “Beautiful Crazy” from This One’s for You ended up being a single first). Does anyone doubt that the anthem will be his show-closer for years to come?
Combs also personifies a lifestyle, and he knows it. There’s no doubting his authenticity, a quality that’s high-end catnip for every cross-section of country music fans. That easy, rugged swagger he carries on stage is the same he brings to fans and media when he enters the room for an interview. People like to talk about the way a room lights up when George Strait or Dolly Parton crosses the threshold. That doesn’t happen for Combs — he’s almost an anti-star, which makes talking on the record with him feel like talking shop with your uncle over beers. The conversation is easy, if not always colorful. He's low energy but thoughtful. Some people act in interviews — Combs just is.
Now do the math again. By the time Dec. 13 comes around, Combs will likely have six or seven (if the follow-up to "Beer" keeps his streak alive) No. 1 hits off two albums and two EPs. Don't count him out for a CMA Award in November either, something that would surely sell more tickets if the show isn't sold out already (Billboard reports he tried to book a second show on Dec. 14 but a venue conflict prohibited it). A couple of smart covers (he more or less inspired the Brooks & Dunn Reboot album) and now you've got a full setlist, but that really doesn't matter, because Combs bet on himself and delivered before all of this. It makes you wonder why more artists don't do something similar, and it's here we find what truly makes this guy unique. After surviving the ups and downs of the industry and writing a few major hits, this future superstar isn't just playing with house money.
Luke Combs is playing with "Beer" money.
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