These days it’s no exaggeration to call Luc Combes one of the country’s biggest stars, but not too long ago the North Carolina native was a ‘baby act’ – the somewhat diminutive term applied to up-and-coming artists on Music Row.
Well, six years and three albums later, Combs has grown a lot; he just hasn’t lost the brutal honesty of youth. The 2021 CMA Artist of the Year, with a record 13 number ones to start his career, Combs released his Growing up album on June 24, and its title suits the newly created full-fledged superstar. Yet despite his success, Combs remains renowned for not being a star. Never quite fitting into the traditional mold – too honest, too transparent, too realistic – Combs is perhaps the closest country artist since Alan Jackson…maybe never. And on Growing upit is more authentic than ever.
As an example, Combs kicked off with a debut single that can only be described as “meta-country,” proclaiming that he would still be the music thing “Doin’ This” if not for the fame and fortune. It was interesting because he broke the “fourth wall” of country stardom, self-referentially revealing how much his life has changed, but at the same time promising that he hasn’t changed at all. And while becoming another (unusual) number one hit, it showed a habit. On the whole, country stars generally ignore the unspoken admission that they live in a separate reality and simply emphasize their “still country-ness” instead. But Combs does the thing you’re not supposed to do, and that makes him more likable.
Elsewhere on Growing up, he takes honesty one step further, using broken hearts, anthems from buddies and childhood triumphs to keep telling it like it is. “Middle of Somewhere” captures hometown pride without the aggressive undertones of culture warfare. And “Better Back When” highlights how we delude ourselves into the grandeur of the good old days, while reminding us of rose-tinted romanticism.
Eventually the formula gives us “Used to Wish I Was” and as Combs puts a new spin on the old am-what-I-am country jam, he creates a feel-good masterpiece for a period identity anxiety. An uptempo hatchback anthem with enlightened ease, it’s both typical chest pounding and so much more, with Combs calling BS on the player for being something you’re not. Take one look at the burly singer-songwriter and you can tell he doesn’t suffer from this blockage. On stage, there are no designer clothes or muscles sculpted in the gym. On his records, the sound is simple and straightforward, with clear influences and a cohesive feel. And “Used to Wish I Was,” with its crunchy Collective-Soul style guitars and comfort in your own skin, is the theme song for a different kind of star.
“I couldn’t be nobody but me / Even if I tried” Combs sings in the chorus. “I wish I was / But I’m glad I wasn’t.”
Country fans are also thrilled.