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Music

Meet Luke Combs, the country superstar you probably haven’t heard of

INDIO, CALIF. -- SUNDAY, APRIL 30, 2017: Luke Combs performs on the Mane Stage on the third day of
Luke Combs has jumped several notches with his booking for the 2019 edition of the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Calif., where he first performed in 2017.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

If Nashville music business insider Nicole Hocking ever needs a reminder of just how much her fiancé loves her, she can flip on pretty much any country radio station and hear it.

These days it wouldn’t be long before she’d be listening to Luke Combs’ smash power ballad “Beautiful Crazy,” which the country singer and songwriter thought up long before the two got engaged in November.

“I wrote that song before we started dating,” Combs, 29, said in an interview from Missouri earlier this week, a few days ahead of his spotlight performance Saturday in Indio for the 2019 edition of Stagecoach, the world’s biggest country music festival.

“We’d been hanging out for a while, and even then I knew there was something special about her,” the North Carolina-bred musician said of Hocking, whom he met while she was working in the Nashville office of Broadcast Music Inc., the publishing rights organization. “It’s kinda neat to have a platform not only for the world to know how much she means to me, but also to have so many people see their relationship in the same light as ours.

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“People will come up and tell me that they danced to this song at their wedding. We’ve had proposals in the crowd during that song. It really struck a chord.”

Combs immediately precedes Saturday’s headliner, Sam Hunt, whose top-of-the-bill Stagecoach booking cements his status as one of country’s newest top-line stars and positions the center festival spot as a showcase for Country Future. Friday’s headliner, Luke Bryan, and Sunday’s festival closer, Jason Aldean, are both making return appearances as top draws on this year’s slate of some 75 performers and DJs.

For Combs, whose music finds a comfortable middle ground between the traditionalist grit of Chris Stapleton and the genre-pushing modernity of Kane Brown, his second-billed placement constitutes a considerable promotion from just two years ago, when he made his Stagecoach debut playing low on the bill. Now he’s set to perform in front of a capacity crowd of 75,000 people and a heartbeat away from headliner status.

Just as Combs said he saw something special in Hocking from the outset, so Stagecoach talent buyer Stacy Vee did before she put him on the festival’s bill two years ago.

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“What drew me to him? That voice. Plain and simple,” she told The Times in a separate interview. “Luke was going to be huge; I could feel it. He knows who he is. I think that is why so many people are gravitating towards him.”

“Beautiful Crazy” is holding down its eighth week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and it’s closing in on a full year on the chart — testifying to the slow, steady build it has exerted since its release last year. The official video has logged more than 122 million views.

It’s just one more manifestation of the rapid rise Combs has experienced since the release of his 2017 major label debut album, “This One’s for You,” which yielded three Top 5 hits: “Hurricane,” “When It Rains it Pours” and “One Number Away.”

His two most recent singles, “She Got the Best of Me” and “Beautiful Crazy,” have been folded into a subsequent deluxe edition of the 2017 album along with other bonus tracks.

For Combs, the whirlwind rise has been a heady experience. “The biggest challenge is definitely the schedule,” he said. “Making time for rest alongside making sure fans get everything they deserve — that’s the challenge. I’ve got a fiancée too. It’s pretty crazy still.”

Two things help keep Combs’ feet on the ground despite all that’s swirling around him: the example set by his parents, to whom he expressed admiration for “going to their jobs every day for 40 years, and jobs they didn’t necessarily wake up every day looking forward to.”

The other reality check is his experience at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in 2017, where the worst mass shooting in U.S. history left 58 dead and 851 injured. Combs had finished his performance shortly before headliner Jason Aldean took the stage, during which the shooting began.

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“I have a thick skin,” he told The Times several months later when the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show at the same hotel where the shooter holed up. “But, man, it hit me more than I thought it would. I really felt it — and it’s good that I did.”

Earlier this month, Combs was named best new male artist at this year’s ACM ceremony, after picking up a Grammy nomination in the overall best new artist category.

One facet of his music that’s helped draw in fans in significant numbers is his broad concept of what might work in country, from the occasional hip-hop cadences of his vocals to the reggae undercurrent of “Don’t Tempt Me” to the Jimmy Buffett good-time country-rock flashback in “When It Rains It Pours.”

“What matters is that you’re making the music you want to make. As soon as you try to change your sound based on what somebody else is thinking, that’s when music gets watered down.”

He does harbor mixed feelings, however, for Lil Nas X’s country-informed hip-hop single “Old Town Road,” which has generated much controversy over whether it belongs on country radio, or on the Billboard country charts, after the publication pulled it from consideration, saying it didn’t contain enough “country content.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty catchy,” Combs said. “But I feel there’s a little bit of sarcasm there I don’t necessarily appreciate. I feel like I’m being poked fun at a bit. Country music is near and dear to my heart, and one of the things that’s most important to me is that the music should be taken seriously.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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