Luke Combs exceeded his expectations.
When the North Carolina native moved to Nashville in 2014, he noticed everyone around him was “hot,” tall and had “abs,” causing him to second-guess his decision to pursue a career in country music, as he admitted in a recent interview.
“I didn’t have a chance, bro,” he said with a laugh on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. “I’m going, ‘Well, cool, I’ll just write songs for these handsome cats. … That’ll be fine with me.’”
And so Combs got to work, putting in countless hours to perfect the complex art of songwriting in between booking gigs of his own for some extra cash. It paid off — in more ways than one.
Now a two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year who sells out the same football stadiums as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, Combs is on his fourth album, “Gettin’ Old” (out Friday). It’s a master class in lyricism and the strongest evidence yet that he was born to do this.
The 33-year-old co-wrote 15 of his 18 new songs, flexing his tried-and-true skills with a pen and paper while also letting his robust voice soar like never before.
The opening track, “Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old,” serves as a bridge between Combs’ latest record and its frankly underwhelming 2022 companion, “Growin’ Up.” He sings about learning to adjust to middle adulthood, with poignant lines like “That hourglass we have don’t last forever.” (One could argue it’s his “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”)
“Gettin’ Old” has all the key ingredients of a standard country album: a reflective midtempo about a rural town (“Back 40 Back”), a piano ballad lamenting the price of fame (“The Part”), an acoustic ditty about a summer fling 15-some years ago (“Tattoo on a Sunburn”) and even a cover of one of the greatest songs of all time (Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”).
But Combs’ magic touch makes the coming-of-age project so much more than yet another run-of-the-mill release out of Music City.
His writing is straightforward, leaving no room for misinterpretation and ensuring that each track has the same sense of relatability that has made him one of the most beloved artists in his genre for nearly a decade.
Combs belts about the euphoria that comes with discovering one’s purpose on the surefire, single-worthy “You Found Yours,” and the string-laden “Love You Anyway” — the most stunning entry in his songbook full of first-dance favorites — is an ode to the undying adoration he has for his wife, Nicole (“If you turned your back on me and walked away / Not a thing about the way I feel would change,” he marvels).
There are also personal touches on “See Me Now,” a boot-tapping tribute to his late grandfathers and the things they didn’t live to experience, as well as “Joe,” a celebration of his loved ones who’ve achieved sobriety (“Here’s to good days and better tomorrows / And a light at the end of the bottle”).
At times, Combs is more vulnerable than he’s ever been.
On “Take You With Me,” the soon-to-be dad of two yearns for his 9-month-old son, Tex, to stay young forever so that they can keep doing “everything together.”
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The superb “5 Leaf Clover,” meanwhile, finds the Grammy nominee trying to make sense of his massive success not just as a musician but also a husband, father, son and friend.
“I know I’m a lucky man, but I ain’t sure why I am,” he muses. “‘Cause it ain’t like anyone deserves the world in the palm of their hand.”
While the bulk of “Gettin’ Old” focuses on the present, Combs would’ve been remiss not to include some nostalgia on an album about entering a new chapter.
He takes it back to high school on the Springsteen-esque stadium-rock jam “Hannah Ford Road,” which is about sneaking around town for some after-class hanky-panky with a girl who’s “hot as Alabama in June.”
Combs even manages to make the fictional “Where the Wild Things Are” sound autobiographical, telling a wistful tale of two brothers who live on opposite coasts and refuse to let physical distance get in the way of their bond — until one of them, the vagabond who’d moved out West, meets a tragic end.
The idea of mortality looms throughout the fantastic “Gettin’ Old,” as it does in life.
Take “My Song Will Never Die” for example. On the Eric Church-co-written tune, Combs shares his hope that his catalog will have a lasting impact even after he’s dead and gone.
“I’ll lay down this guitar,” he croons, “and someone else can sing my songs.”
And what a legacy he’ll leave behind.