DENVER — Few people expected snow to cake the seats of Empower Field at Mile High in late May.
Especially Luke Combs.
Combs, reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, didn’t shake a crystal ball when plotting the weekend to launch his biggest run of shows to-date.
He already had plenty on his mind, after all: fatherhood, wrapping a new album, called "Growin' Up," and eyeing his first leg of headlining stadium shows. Like his song goes, “Oh lord, when it rains, it pours.”
Still, Combs wasn’t going to let a few flakes slow the momentum he built on a five-year sprint to the peak of country music’s mountaintop.
Inside Mile High a day before gates opened to his NFL stadium debut, Combs sat with his legs crossed on a couch in the center of his green room – AKA “The Still," a hangout decorated with lava lamps, Miller Lite coolers and wall-covering flags that nod to Combs’ North Carolina roots.
In his calm drawl, the burly and ginger-bearded 32-year-old laid out two choices.
“It’s either a hindrance," Combs said, "or we make it an experience.”
Like weathering a snowstorm in May, Combs' unflinching dedication to his craft may be what fueled his ascent from a little-known singer to one of music's mightiest voices and a hitmaking force arguably unlike any seen out Nashville this century. From songwriting to setlists and fan experiences, he sweats small details — and it shows in the steadfast listeners who wholly accept him.
He's a blue-collar hero for a new generation of country fans who see themselves in his rowdy tales and tender-hearted truths. And in Denver, he reached a pinnacle of touring success achieved only by an elite group of entertainers before him: stadium headliner.
"It was, 'I have to go out and f***ing prove it every night,'" Combs said on building his show from bar sets in college towns to sold-out NFL stadiums. "That's what I'm gonna have to do. If I can get in a room with 50 people, guaranteed next time there's 100.
"...That felt very attainable, like every step was really, really small," he continued.
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Combs shared a big laugh and flashed self-aware smiles during the hour-plus interview. He often leaned forward on the couch, adjusting his ballcap or crossing arms as he talked. He added, "It wasn't like, 'I'm here. I have no songs. How do I become George Strait?'"
Gambling on his songs
Before 11 a.m. on the Wednesday ahead of Combs' return to Denver, music was already pouring out of bars that line Nashville's bustling Lower Broadway tourism district. The brunch-time riff crawling from Tootsie's Orchid Lounge would be recognizable by any Combs fan before the singer recites a growling chant that conquered country music three summers ago: "Long. Neck. Ice. Cold. Beer."
Combs isn't singing "Beer Never Broke My Heart" through a weekday morning shift at the honky-tonk, of course. His music just feels ever-present on the neon-soaked strip known for hooking tourists with big-name bars and boot sales.
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But like many Music Row hitmakers, Combs never worked the Lower Broadway circuit. He already cut his teeth in bars before packing his bags for Nashville in 2014.
At that time, Combs had dropped out of Appalachian State University to focus on songwriting and performing. He cultivated a modest independent following behind a handful of self-released songs. Combs continued touring the Southeast but skipped the cover band bar scene in Nashville.
Instead, he cemented a circle of collaborators with songwriting ambitions.
"I felt like my time was better spent trying to write songs all the time, not making money," Combs said. "At least writing my own stuff, I'm trudging in the right direction, as slow and painful as it was."
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At first, Combs watched as his peers, some yet to play a show, signed development deals with record labels. Meanwhile, he "couldn't get someone to sniff around" his music, largely because he didn't look or sound much like the polished, pop-infused bro-country produced in the early 2010s.
Then Chris Stapleton happened.
A bearded Kentuckian with a voice that could blow the roof off any venue, Stapleton rose behind 2015 album "Traveller" after a life-changing performance of "Tennessee Whiskey" with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards that year.
He rewrote what it meant to look like a mainstream country star.
"He opened the door for a guy that doesn't look like everyone else," Combs said. "This guy doesn't fit the mold of what was going on at that time."
Eventually, good songs prevailed. Backed by a handful of believers, Combs inked a joint deal in 2016 with Sony Music Nashville imprint Columbia Records and then start-up River House Artists.
He released his debut full-length "This One's For You" in July 2017. His sound — a tightrope of '90s country influence with modern, expertly-woven hooks and often a dash of arena rock confidence — quickly resonated.
The album started an unprecedented run. Combs sent his first 14 radio singles to No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, a feat untouched by any other artist since the chart launched in 1990. Starting with debut single "Hurricane" in late 2016, he's yet to release a radio song that hasn't reached No. 1 on the chart.
And he brought along a handful of songwriters — Ray Fulcher, Thomas Archer and bandmate Rob Williford among them — to experience chart-topping success for the first time with him.
"For my first five singles, it was everyone's first No. 1," Combs said. "To be able to do that with people who wanted to write with me because they liked me as a guy or they believed in what I was doing, that's why I still write with 99% of the same folks. I didn't have a pot to piss in and they didn't either."
By 2018, he reached one billion streams across digital platforms. That number increased to nearly three billion by mid-2019 and, at publication time, inched closer to 15 billion worldwide streams, according to the label.
Combs landed last year at No. 9 on Billboard's year-end all-genre artist chart, one slot below Justin Bieber.
"The way he presents himself ... it's real," said Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville. "There's no posing. There's no 'I'm playing a character.' It's Luke, walking out there doing that. It really did open a door."
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‘I don’t deserve to win this, but I’m sure as hell glad that I did’
In 2019, Garth Brooks stepped on stage at Bridgestone Arena and named his successor to a spot he’s stood in more than any other in country music history – CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Brooks humbly accepted the award that year, the last time he would hoist an Entertainer of the Year trophy. He bowed out of the category indefinitely in 2020.
And in that moment, Brooks tapped the bottom of his CMA trophy and told millions of at-home viewers who he believed would soon be etched into Nashville history.
“Luke Combs, wherever you’re at, this has got your name on it in the future, hoss,” Brooks said on stage. “I can tell ya that right now.”
Combs wasn’t nominated for the award that year. He wasn’t even in the room.
Instead, Combs was deep inside Bridgestone Arena making press rounds after winning Male Vocalist of the Year moments before. Nonetheless, when he heard Brooks' gamble, he knew what to do: keep working.
“It was like, man, a lot of pressure,” he said. “You better not blow it now.”
It only took two years for CMA voters to cash in on the bet Brooks placed that night. Combs won Entertainer of the Year in 2021, accepting the award with tears in his eyes and a beaming wife watching from the audience.
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As Combs walked to the stage, Eric Church clapped in congratulations as he flashed a coy smile from behind his signature aviator shades. To win the award, he out-paced a field of modern Nashville titans: Church, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Stapleton, who already won an armful of trophies earlier in the night.
“I don’t deserve to win this,” Combs said from the stage, “but I’m sure as hell glad that I did.”
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Combs — a kid who picked up a guitar just a decade before winning country music’s highest honor — later asked himself: why me?
It wasn’t long ago that he practiced his strumming with Lambert and Church covers.
“There are absolutely multiple ways I look up to all these people,” Combs said. “And I know in my heart that, like, I’m not there yet. They don’t think of me the same way I think of them. And maybe that’s untrue. But that’s just the way I feel, personally. I feel like, how has Miranda Lambert not won that? How has Chris Stapleton not won that? How has Carrie Underwood not won that?
“How did I do this? Why am I the guy?”
Still, the same singer who questions his place in Music Row hierarchy doesn't flinch at holding tight to the spot he swiftly earned after Brooks' prediction.
"It was like, 'My God.' What a huge moment I've achieved," Combs said. "No one can take that away from me. No one can take that away from my team. And I wanna win 10 more of 'em. That's the goal. Continue to push forward."
But awards, streaming records and chart-topping albums? None of it happens without a legion of fans willing to follow Combs as he navigates an unexpected snowstorm of success.
Building Bootlegger nation
As wet, heavy snow slipped off tree branches underneath a cool May sunshine in Denver, fans began to line the Mile High parking lots hours before gates opened on show night.
Cars with plates that stretch from Kansas to California, Texas and South Dakota line the lots. After setting up beer coolers, games of bag toss and charcoal grills, many tailgaters hop in line for only-in-Denver merchandise or a quick selfie with a wiggling, inflatable tube donning Combs’ face.
Whether they finished a 1,000-mile journey to Mile High or traveled down the street, these showgoers line the lots together, throwing down tailgates before settling in to share stories or sing a few songs. One couple traveled from Texas, an overdue Christmas present from husband to wife. Another group lined a dozen cars together for a blacktop party fueled by line dancing and Jell-o shots.
Many wear shirts with “Bootlegger” etched across the chest, the name of Combs’ growing fanbase.
As hard as he may campaign for the next dozen Entertainer of the Year awards, he’d likely toss each trophy into the Cumberland River if it meant doing right by the Bootleggers.
“In Nashville, the fans are sometimes the last people that are thought of and that always bugged me,” Combs said. “It’s [like], ‘How do we put you in a cool shirt and make you awesome?’ You’re focusing your energy on all the wrong stuff. And not that [this] stuff’s not important. It is. But the first thing that should be important are the people [who] come to your shows.”
“That’s the focus. Those people’s experience is over-the-top important to me. I wanted to show them that we really care.”
And whether he’s roleplaying country music’s Kris Kringle by tossing out free merchandise to tailgaters (yes, that happened) or hiking to the stadium’s top deck for a humbling view of the stage below, Combs doesn’t stray from a fan-first ethos that he and his team embrace.
As a kid who could only afford nosebleed seats to concerts once or twice a summer, he knows the importance of an entertainment dollar. With that in mind, Combs and company curated a rolling convention of country songs, whiskey shots and like-minded fans that extends beyond a few hours on stage.
On concert day, Combs enlisted tastemaking Nashville showcase Whiskey Jam to host a free parking lot stage featuring upcoming Nashville talent. The night before each stadium outing, Bootleggers could retreat to a local venue for the tour’s pre-party social, headlined by longtime Combs buddy Adam Church.
And at each show, he holds a section of $25 tickets for those who are squeezed by parking, travel and concession prices.
“We just try to think of everything we can to make people feel like we give a s*** about their experience and time and coming to this thing,” Combs said. “I think there’s people in the fan club that flew here from Scotland. I wouldn’t be OK letting somebody like that down. That’s a huge commitment.
“We’ve wanted to create a community amongst the fans where they talk to each other – they become friends – because of the music.”
For manager Chris Kappy, Combs’ relationship with the Bootleggers can be described in one question: Who would they walk up to in a bar – Luke Combs or Bruce Springsteen?
“They would have no problem walking up to Luke and asking him anything,” said Kappy, a Nashville outsider who gambled on Combs as a little-known singer in 2016. He since launched Make Wake Artists, a Music City firm breaking the mold of traditional management.
Kappy continued, “But they’re gonna be like, ‘I wouldn’t do that to Bruce.’ I think that's what the special part about Luke is. They’re like, ‘He’s just one of us. He’s us.’ He’s theirs. Those fans are like, ‘No, Luke’s our guy.’ That's the beauty of it. That's what makes him special is that he’s given himself to the fans. That’s special.”
'Cares about what he does'
Backstage minutes before his set at Mile High, Combs rolls back-and-forth on the balls of his feet. He's nervous to perform, but not in an "I can't handle the pressure" way. He just wants to hit the stage.
Band members and crew gather in The Still to pour drinks, share jokes and pass around bear-like hugs. Jack Harlow, The Eagles and Eric Church play through a touring entertainment rig anchored by Combs' Xbox on one side of the room. On the other, a bar rig houses a chest of dark liquors, light beer and candy jars.
Strands of patio light cast a glow on flags that line the greenroom walls — from nods to Combs' favorite Carolina Panthers and Appalachian State to illustrated mountains and a skeleton flashing a "peace" sign. A day earlier, Combs coyly described the room as his take on Millennial mall favorite Spencer's gift shop.
For the first time in years, Combs isn't wearing his signature short-sleeve black Columbia button-down on stage. Instead, he's combating chilly temperatures with a pullover hoodie. Or, as Combs joked in a nod to late art-rock icon David Bowie, wearing sleeves marked a change wild enough to be described as the beginning of his "Ziggy Stardust" phase.
Outside, roughly 53,000 people wait to grab hold of every word he'll sing.
They'll hold up cans of Miller Lite with his face on it and clutch old-time souvenir pennies — low-cost keepsakes crafted for Combs' inaugural stadium tour.
Combs knows he won’t leave each ticket-buyer with a jaw-dropping impression, and that’s OK.
“Not everyone’s gonna be like, ‘That was my favorite show ever, he’s the best guy ever,’” Combs said. “That’s unrealistic. You want some of those people, and I think we’ve achieved that. You also want people to go … ‘I really enjoyed that. That guy is talented and cares about what he does.’ That’s still the goal. I think that’s how we got to here.”
And he’s backed by a cast of fellow underdogs who followed him from songwriting circles to stadium stages, including: Kappy, who never managed an artist before Combs; Ethan Strunk, a tour manager who Combs met when he tried to sell the singer a pair of shoes at Boot Barn inside Opry Mills mall; and Jake Sommers, Combs’ dedicated drummer who introduced himself at a one-off night inside Midtown bar Tin Roof before his career took off in earnest.
They each punched a front-row ticket abroad Combs' rocket from clubs to amphitheaters and arenas before taking a leap that few artists in any genre achieved as quickly as Combs did – sold-out stadiums.
Kappy thought he could’ve gotten there quicker, if it weren’t for the pandemic derailing live entertainment for most of 2020.
“When we sold out two nights at Madison Square Garden on a Monday and a Tuesday in September of ‘19,” Kappy said, “I was like, ‘We’re ready to go. It’s time.’”
Coming out of lockdown, Combs’ fast-climbing tour trajectory picked up where it left off.
In 2021, a bounce-back year for live music, Combs landed at No. 13 for global ticket sales, according to trade publication Pollstar. He moved more than 520,000 tickets last year after returning to the road, Pollstar reported. Combs sold an estimated 115,000 tickets in one day when stadium shows went on sale in Denver, Atlanta and Seattle, per his team.
Strunk was Combs’ first crew member in 2016, when he and the band toured out of an RV. Now, he’s one in a staff of more than 50 traveling in six tour buses.
“You don’t even know it’s happening,” Strunk said. “You’re opening for an artist in an amphitheater like Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean and the promoter’s tellin’ you, ‘People are here early. This is not normal. People don’t get here early for these shows.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, OK. They wanna come see Luke. Awesome.’
“Next thing you know, we’re playing fairs in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the summer of 2017 and every one is breaking an attendance record," he added. "That’s when you’re like, ‘OK. This is a pretty big deal.’”
So in Denver, when Combs brings together his band and crew for a pre-show huddle and swig of whiskey, he keeps his speech short. After this long, they know what's at stake.
“Big show, man,” Combs said as a dozen or so people raised cups around him. “If I gotta hype you up for this one, something’s wrong with ya. Seriously, insane. ... That’s the only thing I have to say.”
Kinetic energy builds as Combs walks a few hundred feet through a tunnel in the underbelly of Mile High to a towering stage. A rush of unseasonably cool May air hits the group on a small hike up the side ramp and into a shadowed wing behind the mammoth platform.
Except for his wife of nearly two years, Nicole – who expected to give birth any day – Combs surrounds himself with those who’ve watched him take on each new stage of his career: Kappy, Strunk, his bandmates and mother, Rhonda Combs, who he helps tuck in an in-ear monitor moments before walking on stage.
The crowd jostles in anticipation, howling in waves with each fading song from the house mix. For most fans, collectable merchandise, cheap tickets and a tailgate party come second to one thing: The songs.
Combs climbed the country charts and smashed streaming records with songs that expertly capture the lives of his listeners. His co-writing harnesses a down-home earnestness that resonates through each love-tinged ballad and hard-drinkin' party song.
"When I started writing songs ... I wanted to write stuff that I felt like I wasn't hearing on the radio," Combs said. "That I felt like if I wasn't singing these, I would wanna listen to 'em if somebody else was singing 'em."
He walks a line traveled by only a handful of country artists: Real enough to be accepted by listeners who often police authenticity in a format fueled by carbon-copied men; and commercial enough to dominate charts often polluted with the aforementioned copies.
He's the kind of musician who can kick out a surprise duet with pop star Ed Sheeran, cut a song with bluegrass virtuoso Billy Strings or share session time with beloved Nashville artist Amanda Shires.
And now, he's growin' up.
Combs brings on tour this summer songs from a third full-length album, "Growin' Up." The 12-song collection hears Combs at times push his songwriting into an uncharted direction — like the inevitable open-road anthem with Miranda Lambert, "Outrunnin' Your Memory," the pensive, small-town tale "Middle Of Somewhere" or a curtain-closing nightcap "The Kind Of Love We Make."
Behind a '70s rock groove Combs sets the scene on "The Kind Of Love We Make" for a candle-lit getaway most working couples dream of catching: "We've been burnin' both ends/ Keepin' the lights on/ So I've been thinkin' we need/ A little time alone ..."
But he doesn't forget to take listeners to familiar territory, either. Combs serves up a dish of guitar-fried party music with country-rocker "Any Given Friday Night" and goes honky-tonkin' with backroad neon ripper "Ain't Far From It."
On "Any Given Friday Night," Combs channels big riffs and a booming voice for another fist-pumping addition to his catalog. He sings, "Boys chase girls going 30 mile an hour/ Circle up at the Dairy Queen/ Later on the wild gets louder/ Like a rural route movie scene ... on any given Friday night."
He cut roughly three dozen songs in a year-and-a-half for the album, only finalizing the tracklist after being told, "OK, we need the record, man."
As the album title suggests, Combs balances a duality of being the same guy who brings an Xbox on tour and builds a full-proof baby nursery in his spare time.
"I wanna continue to grow as an artist," Combs said, adding: "In a lot of ways I love artists that change and in a lot of ways as a fan I'm like, 'How dare you change on me? How dare you explore your creativity?' ... I wanted this album to be dippin' the toe in the pool."
He continued, "I want the fans to know, 'Hey, I wanna grow up with you.'"
When Combs finally takes the stage in Denver, it shudders under the weight of excitement from thousands of cheers. He slowly walks past his band, taking in the view of glowing lights and ear-ringing approval as he grabs the microphone stand.
The spotlight finds him as he starts to sing.
The Bootleggers hang on every word, lifting him as a stadium of voices attending a country music communion. Whether it's 50 people or 50,000, they're his people — and come snowstorm or sunshine, he'll do his best by them.
Like he sings in this "Doin' This," the night's opening number: "At the Grand Ole Opry or a show in some no-name town/ I'd still be doin' this if I wasn't doin' this."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Luke Combs' rise from little-known country singer to stadium headliner