Album Review – Luke Combs – “Growin’ Old”

Luke Combs may be the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, but you get the distinct impression that he’s barely aware of it. There’s no cocksure attitude as he stands up there on stage in his Bass Pro fishing shirt with the flap across the back. He’s just a grown up pudgy choir kid from North Carolina who loves to fish and hunt and hang out with his buddies and drink beer while picking a little guitar. He never wanted to be rich and famous. He just wanted to be Luke. But he had some pretty good singing and writing chops, and next thing he knew, he tripped head first into country music career that eventually earned him superstardom and a super hot wife. That’s country music and American for you.

Country fans have always wanted to believe that their favorite artists are really just like them, and with Luke Combs, that takes no stretch of the imagination. Combs spells it all out in the new track “Five Leaf Clover” where he sings, “I know I’m a lucky man, but I ain’t sure why I am. ‘Cause it ain’t like anyone deserves the world in the palm of their hand.” It’s his everyman vibe that has ironically made him one of the top country stars of our generation. And in a world where most people hate most everything, it’s hard to hate on Luke Combs, even if his music isn’t your thing.

Luke’s last album Growin’ Up didn’t even receive a review here at Saving Country Music. It’s wasn’t that it was terrible. It was just a Luke Combs album filled with Luke Combs songs, which if you’re reaching for a quick description, you might land on something like “safe” or “nondescript.” This isn’t like Morgan Wallen whose albums are a wild-ass ride through bellicose redneck odes, tractor rap, and the occasional country ballad curiously mixed in. The Luke Combs experience is much more mild-mannered, and perhaps to some independent country fans (and Morgan Wallen fans), a bit boring. But it’s never offensive, and will surprise you in moments.

Growin’ Old leans even heavier into the surprising moments, even if it’s not entirely devoid of the boring ones too. Capturing the 33-year-old looking at life as a recently-minted full-blown adult with a wife and kid but still not entirely ready to give up his old rowdy ways, it’s a refreshing perspective for the country mainstream where we’re used to 40 and 50-somethings like Luke Bryan and Keith Urban still trying to act like they’re 23 and perpetually on Spring Break.

The opening track from Luke called “Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old” really lays the groundwork for the 18-track album, while also bestowing co-writing credits to Channing Wilson and Rob Snyder—two deserving songwriters who’ve been beneficiaries of Luke Combs co-writes previously. Another co-writer is Erik Dylan, who along with James Slater, helps Luke Combs turn in what might be the best track on the album called “Joe.” Combs may not be sober himself, but recognizing how sobriety is part of the maturing process for many, he pays homage to all those who had a problem, but kicked it successfully, yet still struggle with it every day.

That leads into another one of the album’s standout tracks called “A Song Was Born.” There isn’t a more trendy (and tired) trope in country music at the moment—mainstream or independent—than building a song around name-dropping the titles of other country songs. Combs and his co-writers recognize this trend, but instead of falling for it, take it to a new place by introducing the true-to-life stories behind how legendary songs were penned and weaving them into the writing, making something much more inventive and entertaining.

Most every song on Gettin’ Old is co-written by Combs. But there are a few exceptions. “My Song Will Never Die” is a good reminder of the power of a good country song, and how it carries on well after the author. It’s a little cocky though to assign such a legacy to your own songs as opposed to letting history decide that, especially for someone like Luke Combs. It’s not surprising then that the credits reveal that Eric Church and his usual cohorts are responsible for the track.

Though we started this conversation talking about how Combs can be safe and predictable, covering Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is anything but that, and really adds a unique dimension to this album that it needed, even if the Combs version isn’t especially unique. He didn’t “make it his own” as people love to say about cover songs. But he definitely does it justice.

Then you also have some of the more mundane moments of the album, including the rather passionless feeling “Love You Anyway,” which strangely was selected as the first song to be released from the record, and probably won’t help Luke’s standing with the folks who think he’s tiring. The album surprisingly avoids the list-like approach to writing pretty much throughout, but “Tattoo on a Sunburn” leans in that direction while failing to evoke the feeling of nostalgia it yearns for. Also, the California-inspired “Where The Wild Things Are” really doesn’t fit sonically with the rest of the record, and not-so-surprisingly is one of the few songs not co-written by Combs.

For sure, Growin’ Old sounds like a country record, even if those sounds are softened and generally safe throughout, similarly to much of the writing. But Paul Franklin adds some really sweet steel guitar on a host of songs, while guys like Bryan Sutton and Charlie Worsham give the album an acoustical warmth that is welcome on a mainstream country record. It may not be super country, but it’s certainly organic.

Still, what you end up with is something that feels safe, with the edges shaved down, and the harsh words removed. Luke Combs may name drop cool independent country acts like 49 Winchester and The Wilder Blue, and co-write with folks like Channing Wilson and Erik Dylan. But you always want a little more from Combs, even if Growin’ Old feels like continued improvement from him.

Sure, Luke Combs could be edgier or more traditional country, but that’s not him. He’s not the troubled soul waking up in a pool of his own filth, and then pouring his soul into heart-wrenching songs. He’s not some throwback hipster evoking 60s country styles in a vintage tweed suit, or a redneck twanger in black leather slinging a hot Telecaster, or an Appalachian hilljack braying about coal and cocaine. The appeal of Luke Combs is that he’s just a Joe up there singing easily relatable and likable songs about his life that also mirror the lives of many in his audience. As his fans are growin’ up and gettin’ old, so is Luke.

It was Luke Combs himself that after he won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award last November, stood at the podium and said, “This is my 5th or 6th year being at this awards show, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time, and I think we all wanted that.”

This quote feels like one that will define this era in country music, whatever it goes on to be called, just like the music of Luke Combs will. There is no doubt that with Luke Combs at the apex of the country genre, mainstream country music is “more country” than it’s been in a decade. It still may not be your ideal, or what you think country should be. But it’s honest, grounded, and at times, pretty good.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)

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