In a shocking upset over the likes of January Jones, Heidi Klum, Ariana Grande, and Lebron James, the award for Best Halloween Costume of 2019 goes to Nicole Hocking, fiancée of young country music superstar Luke Combs, who dressed up as her fiancé.
The resemblance is uncanny. The trucker hat. The beard. (His is much bushier, of course, to better flaunt its trademark pickled-leprechaun shade of red.) The short-sleeved black Columbia PFG shirt Combs wears onstage every night on his various arena tours, chosen because it both ventilates nicely and connects him to his blue-collar fan base. (He explained this in 2018 to soul singer Leon Bridges shortly before their CMT Crossroads episode, while wearing a T-shirt that read, “Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for L.A.”) And just as crucially, a red Solo cup, just like the one Combs brandished for much of his genially growly performance of a semi-rowdy honky-tonk song called “1, 2 Many” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week. The song title refers to beers. The great ones generally do.
Neither boorish bro nor overly dapper gentleman, Combs is a burly bear-hug of a young Nashville giant, a North Carolina native and sentimental everyman belter whose debut album, 2017’s tender and only slightly raucous This One’s For You, has spent a total of 50 weeks at no. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, tying a record set by none other than Shania Twain. Which is to say that This One’s For You, which has already spawned a deluxe reissue, is nearly two and a half years old, and yet it was the biggest album in country music last week. Amid somewhat of a visionary-country-dude power vacuum—Sam Hunt is mired in a slump, Kane Brown is chasing pop crossovers with Marshmello, Sturgill Simpson is abandoning the genre entirely—Combs is now leading the charge by proudly standing still.
Indeed, this dude is huge in as unflashy a manner as humanly possible: “Meet Luke Combs, the country superstar you probably haven’t heard of,” the L.A. Times offered in April. The omnipresent hat and well-ventilated fishing shirt aside, his superhero costume is no costume whatsoever, and the trick here is how humble and relatable you can be while still being a chart-topping colossus. “I’m an easy read,” he announces on the loping title track to his second album, What You See Is What You Get, out last Friday. “But I ain’t no open book.” Debatable. But the only debate worth having is whether anyone can knock this dude off the top of the charts, other than himself.
Beer is a reliable muse for the extra-reliable Combs; “Nothing picks me up like a beer can,” went one of the cleverer choruses on his debut, which also includes a song called “Don’t Tempt Me” (“with a good time”) that describes nirvana as “next stop is a spot with a fridge stocked on the back porch.” Out of his mouth, that is a humble but sneakily lovely series of words, soused and sonorous, a sharp turn of phrase that doesn’t have to turn at all. My favorite song of his to date is “When It Rains It Pours,” a cheerfully mean-spirited post-breakup battle hymn from the first record that merrily brawls with the title’s cliché and somehow wins. It’s something about how casually elegant Combs sounds stringing together the syllables “deep sea señorita fishing down in Panama.” The drawl, the good cheer, the peaceful easy six-pack wit of a guy who once described himself to Rolling Stone as “super regular.”
You can take the super-regular approach too far, of course: More recently, Combs described What You See Is What You Get to Rolling Stone as “more of the same,” but “in the best way possible.” Debatable. It is a perfectly fine Tuesday-night house party of an album, albeit quite long (packing 17 songs into an hour) and quite humble even relative to his star-making reputation for humility. Best in show is a monster tearjerker called “Even Though I’m Leaving,” a classic bit of country-songwriting precision: verse one is a kid at bedtime begging his father not to leave him to fend with the monsters under the bed, verse two is the kid all grown up and leaving his father to go off to war, verse three takes place on the father’s deathbed. It gets to you even if you see it coming, which is a valuable skill for a guy whose burgeoning brand is that you can always see him coming.
There is nothing on this record that qualifies as innovative, though I like the way the thoughtful “Dear Today” (which politely suggests, from the perspective of “Tomorrow,” that you call your mother, get hitched already, and generally make something of yourself) kicks off with just Combs’s voice and an acoustic guitar, like an open-mic performance where nobody showed up, like he’s barricaded alone in a house-party bathroom having crushed one beer too many. Even less varnish is a viable strategy for the unvarnished. No nods to hip-hop, or for that matter to the actual rowdy hard rock his contemporaries like Jason Aldean or Brantley Gilbert like to flirt with; no pop-crossover-minded guest stars, just ’90s-borne giants Brooks & Dunn and 21st-century outlaw Eric Church. What You See’s big strategy is to make the middle of the road feel like a towering peak, or at least a little more like the edge. It will likely be enough to sustain Combs’s monster run for a while longer, a while here defined as another year or two, for starters. If you’re looking to get a jump on your 2020 Halloween costume, he’s the safest bet around.