Luke Combs is not the William Faulkner of country music. He’s the Grisham, or the Clancy. Ripe for mass consumption, easy to get into, riveting in moments, it’s a much more healthier alternative to a People Magazine or some trashy romance novel for a long flight, but it’s not exactly material for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s country, it’s easy on the ears, it’s above average quality for its weight class. But most importantly, it’s the undisputed most popular thing in American country music during this the streaming era.
It’s hard to quantify or put into words the kind of impact Luke Combs is having, because what he’s doing is so unprecedented, and because we’re still trying to tweak our perspective to the streaming medium. But it doesn’t matter what the metric is, Luke Combs is dominating it at the moment. He’s setting records for album sales. He’s monopolizing the country streaming market. He sold out an arena tour during his first stint as a headliner. His singles are so hot on radio, they shoot the number one too quickly, screwing up his label’s rollout plans.
Not Taylor Swift, not Garth Brooks, not Sam Hunt or Florida Georgia Line saw this kind of success out of the chute. The numbers are indisputable, and it’s fair to assess this run as historic, even if the Luke Combs name doesn’t elicit the kind of passionate response other popular or polarizing names in country music do. Luke Combs is not sexy. Luke Combs makes for terrible tabloid fodder. Nobody writes think pieces about the cultural impact of Luke Combs, even though his impact has arguably been greater than any other mainstream country artist in the last half-decade. Luke Combs just wins.
Now Luke is replacing himself on his already-historic run on the country albums charts with a new record called What You See Is What You Get. What a perfect name for a guy who doesn’t rely on gaming celebrity media channels or trying to make a spectacle of himself to garner attention. Some folks forget, but Luke Combs started as an independent artist, built his career up from grass roots, was signed to the insurgent Thirty Tigers distribution label for a short time, and still wears that everyday, average dude attitude on his sleeve with honor. No matter if he’s singing for a honky tonk or a sold out arena, or how many zeros are on the paycheck, Luke Combs is just working for the next opportunity to take a six-pack fishing.
In an era of music when it’s often extremes and risk taking that define the most popular artists, Luke Combs just sits right down in the middle, and keeps it “vanilla” as Hank Williams used to say. And in many ways that is what What You See Is What You Get is all about. Luke Combs is not a throwback neotraditionalist honky tonker, and if he tried to be, he would be worse off for it, because it wouldn’t be true to him. Combs has mentioned how he didn’t grow up on Merle Haggard, but on a cool mix of 90s country like many of today’s Millennials. And that’s okay. And that’s what you get on this new record. You get slightly shallow and cliche quarter century-old country music paid forward to today, performed and produced well, with enough twang to keep you happy, while avoiding pitfalls like electronic drum beats or mumble lyric rapping that regularly ruins otherwise decent popular country.
You are kind of surprised just how country this record is—probably more country than Luke’s breakout album This One’s For You. You still definitely have some of that post Bro-Country list-style lyricism lingering on a host of these songs, but not enough to make you switch it off. Is it as twangy and country as Jon Pardi’s Heartache Medication? No it’s not. Does it have the number of quality songs as Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard? Oh God no. But it’s also way more consistent than Wildcard. A Luke Combs song will never cut deep. The last thing he wants to do is lump himself in with the Americana crowd, and erode the blue collar/high school-educated cred that’s at the heart of his appeal. He’s also never going to offer a replacement to your favorite records if you’re an independent country/Americana fan. But a Luke Combs song will never make you feel stupid for listening like most of mainstream country.
You hear a song like the lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and think, “Okay. Pretty Bro-ish.” Then you hear the second song from the album “Refrigerator Door” about memories magnetized to a Maytag and say, “Alight, I see what he did there.” Then you hear the third song from the album “Even Though I’m Leaving” and say, “Okay, I’m impressed.” And so goes the Luke Combs listening experience. Each song has enough substance to get by, but doesn’t get in the way of the meat and potatoes aspect of Luke Combs that has made him so popular.
This canonizing of the average man is what Luke Combs sings about specifically in the title track, in his collaboration with Eric Church, “Does To Me,” and another one of the Bro-ish tracks on the record, “Blue Collar Boys.” Beyond his refusal to rap or adopt 808 beats, what separates Luke Combs from the Bro-Country crowd is that you believe him when he sings about beer and fishing. About the only place on the record where the production feels bothersome is at the beginning of the song “All Over Again,” and that doesn’t come until the 15th track. Oh, and what’s up with the cover art? About the only positive thing to say about it is that it will be great inspiration for all the aspiring elementary school artists out there. Sure, that’s probably the aesthetic they’re trying to go for, but yikes.
Its the Luke Combs consistency that has been the key to his success, and it’s a successes that is now stretching into five years without missing a #1 on country radio. That’s what makes the Luke Combs phenomenon even more impressive than the Chris Stapleton run that preceded and overlapped it. There was no warming up period needed for Luke Combs and radio. Instead, radio is looking for more of what he’s serving, causing the entirely of mainstream country to start leaning more rootsy and twangy due to the copycat nature of the business. Combine this with the Chris Stapleton impact, and doughy bearded dues are on one hell of a roll right now, and country music is better off for it.
There is listening to an album for the enjoyment of the music, and then there is regarding an album or artist within their importance to the health of country music at large. There’s nothing wrong with shirking the latter concern. There are so many other things to worry about in the world beyond the state of country music at the moment, some listeners just want to find something they like and push play. For the toughest country connoisseurs out there, Luke Combs will remain on the outside of their listening rotation, and for fair reasons. But for a greater number of general listeners every day, Luke Combs is who they prefer over Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line. He is the biggest country music artist in 2019, and will hold that title into 2020 barring unforeseen circumstances. And regardless of what you think personally about him, that assessment bodes well for the future of country music.
1 1/2 Guns Up
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