Although 28-year-old Andrew Combs has an easy-going, laconic manner, there’s passion in his voice when he talks about songwriting. “It’s disappointing to see how little some musicians think about their art these days,” he says. “So many just concentrate on their ‘brand’ or their Twitter reactions. There are exceptions of course, but I think the songs and the thoughts behind the songs were much deeper from my heroes than what we’re hearing right now.”
Combs’ passion not only manifests itself when he’s discussing his heroes — classic songwriters like Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury who pushed the boundaries of country, folk, and pop in the late ’60s and early ’70s — but is also evident in his own songs.
Behind the often genteel and postmodern countrypolitan sound of his new album, All These Dreams, are carefully constructed ballads of love gone right and wrong, reflections on the mundane and spiritual, and the fleeting nature of joy, sorrow, and life.
Combs’ craft as a songwriter and his dedication to capturing the perfect sound to present his words has garnered him rave reviews from critics. It’s also placed him in the vanguard of a new generation of Nashville musicians who have mastered the art of anchoring their sound in tradition while pushing their songwriting into new and brighter fields.
While some might look to Combs or one of his contemporaries as the next great “savior” of country music — the artist of “substance” who will turn back the tide of Bro Country or whatever unfortunate dalliance that the mainstream has focused on — Combs, like the heroes he so often references, is just looking to write and record damn good songs.
A native of Dallas, Combs grew up with a steady exposure to older music. “My dad was a piano player and worked as a DJ when he was younger,” he says. “I grew up mostly listening to what my parents listened to. They turned me on to the soft rock of the ’70s — The Eagles, The Carpenters, Jackson Browne. My cousin was a professional guitar player in Austin. He gave me my first guitar, and my dad taught me my first chords. I was writing my own material by the time I was in middle school and mostly into high school.”
Although he was first attracted to soft rock sounds and the carefully-crafted Southern California pop of the 1970s, he soon discovered a more rough-hewn tradition to inspire
“Towards the end of high school, I got turned on to the songs of Townes Van Zandt and the other Texas songwriters,” Combs says. “The idea that a three-to-five minute song could tell a story or have some sort of lyrical plot really appealed to me. Musically, their songs weren’t complex, but their lyrics were. All of those guys were so smart. Whether it was Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, or Guy Clark, they were intelligent, funny dudes who knew how to turn a phrase. They were truly redneck poets. Kris Kristofferson was the exception, but in his case, he had the Ivy League poet background, but understood how to sound like a redneck, and I loved that.”
By the time Combs finished with high school, he had set his mind on pursuing a career in music. Although Austin might have seemed like a more likely destination for a young Texas singer-songwriter, Nashville became Combs’ destination.
“Austin never called to me,” he says. “I had a lot of family and friends down there, but I was drawn to Nashville because all my heroes came here. Whether they stayed or not is another thing, but it was something I had to do. Although Austin is a very creative town, it doesn’t have the music business structure that Nashville has. It helps me to stay focused to have a structure beneath me telling me I need to be working. Plus, in Nashville, everyone is supportive of each other, but you’re also trying to shine in a town that has the best musicians and best songwriters in the world, and it just makes you better.”
After settling in Nashville, Combs began working the aspiring-songwriter, standard-issue food service jobs and perfecting his craft as a songwriter through long nights and open mics. In 2010, he self-released a five-song EP, Tennessee Time, that skillfully invoked the spirits of his songwriting heroes and the “Sunday Morning Coming Down” aura of Nashville in the early 1970s.
“I hadn’t really played out much at that point,” he says, “but I wanted something that would represent what I wanted to do. I wrangled up some friends and found some free studio time out at The Castle in Franklin. We were all really green and just flew by the seat of our pants. It’s not something I like to show to people now, but there are moments on it I’m proud of.”
Although Tennessee Time certainly didn’t break through to any concept of the “big time,” it served its purpose, announcing Combs’ presence on the Nashville scene. It also gave him the experience to tackle his first full-length album, Worried Man, in 2012.
“Worried Man was recorded during an interesting time in my life,” he says. “I was very poor. I was floating around, sleeping on friends’ couches, and working a day job at a restaurant. I would save up enough money every month to record two songs. Usually I’d write those two songs that month, so there wasn’t a whole lot of preproduction or thinking about the direction of the album. We just went in the studio and did it, and that’s what it sounds like — raw and unproduced.”
Although Worried Man might have fallen short sonically, the quality of his writing and his maturation as a songwriter was plainly evident. Hal Horowitz, writing for American Songwriter, said, “As singer-songwriter first albums go, it’ll be tough to beat this as one of the year’s finest, from a newcomer who is hopefully just tapping into his talent.” In addition to the rave reviews, the album also led to new opportunities for Combs on the road.
“I was touring a lot, but I didn’t have a booking agent,” he says. “It was just me and my manager, who was in Chicago, slogging it out. I was mostly booking my own stuff. I am lucky to have a lot of great friends. Caitlin Rose took me out on three tours, two of them in the U.K. that were especially great. Shovels & Rope, Johnny Fritz, and Houndmouth also took me out, and I got to use their bands on the road.”
The good press for Worried Man also led to a deal with Razor & Tie Music Publishing. “They called me out of the blue one evening and asked if I’d be interested in signing with them,” Combs says. “I didn’t really know a lot about that world. It took about six-to-eight months of them trying me out with their other writers and them seeing what I was writing on my own. Then it took another five months for the lawyers to pull everything together. Since then, I write just about every day.”
By the final months of 2013, Combs was ready to start work on his next album. This time, however, he had a definite sound in mind for the record.
“In terms of words, I’m drawn to the Texas guys, but musically, I’m drawn more to the chords and structure of the California folk-country of the early ’70s — J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash — but sometimes their words are a little too wispy for me. I really wanted to blend the two and harken back to that time without the record sounding like a throwback.”
The sonic feel of the album wasn’t Combs’ only concern. The songs had to match the feel of the sound he wanted. “I’d like to say the lyrics were all thought out to match the sound, but ‘Month of Bad Habits,’ for example, was written very shortly after Worried Man came out,” he says. “At that point, I wasn’t thinking I’ve got to write this kind of song for this record. But because of the publishing deal, I’d written so many songs that I could pick and choose which ones would make a cohesive unit.”
With a definite sound in mind and the right songs in hand, Combs entered the studio with Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson as producers and several of his longtime friends and musical collaborators, including guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, steel guitarist Spencer Cullum Jr., bassist Mike Rinne, and drummer Ian Fitchuk.
“I paid for the first six songs that we recorded, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the next six, so we shopped it around,” he says. “Thirty Tigers was interested in marketing and distributing the album, and my publishing company put up some money to finish it. They both dug what I was doing and didn’t want it to just come out as an EP.”
Released in March 2015, All These Dreams was met by a cascade of praise from music critics who extolled the album’s integration of sharp, intelligent songwriting with a lush, sonic tapestry — drawing comparisons to classic recordings from Roy Orbison to
“The album has exactly the sound I wanted, but the credit for that really goes to Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson,” Combs says. “They made it happen. They can do anything, but that Phil Spector-ish, big, lush sound is what they’re really great at. The songs were far more complex than on Worried Man, and they really lent themselves to using strings and more instrumentation.”
Although the almost-universal praise All These Dreams has received is a heady experience, Combs hasn’t lost his perspective. “The critic’s love it but that doesn’t mean it’s moving units,” he says with a laugh. “I’m really proud of the album, and this year has been really good. I’ve done a lot of touring, but at this stage of the game it’s not very plush. It’s a lot of hard work and long drives, but we’re having a lot of fun.”
Looking ahead to his next record, Combs’ main concern is to keep moving his game forward. “I’m starting to write stuff for the next record,” he says. “I have a general idea of what I want to do, but I don’t want to say what it is because it might change in a week. One of my main goals as an artist is to never make the same record twice. It’s really easy to fall into that trap. I wouldn’t mind spending a little less money on the next record, but that can be really hard when you have a specific vision.”
Although Combs may have the courage or simple stubbornness to continue following his vision, that doesn’t mean he’s comfortable being portrayed as any type of “great hope” for the salvation of country music. It’s a role his heroes had little use for and one that he wants no part of, nor does he see any of his contemporaries rising to that exalting position.
“We’re all just doing what we know how to do, and people are starting to respond to it,” he says. “I’m not a staunch, old-school-or-die kind of dude. I think some of that type of thinking can be really regressive instead of progressive. I don’t like a lot of what’s happening on commercial country radio, but I also think there are talented people in the commercial side of things that are just trying to make a living doing what they know how to do.
“I’m at a point in my life where searching, seeking, and trying to find out what I’m doing here on this Earth is very important to me. That’s the thinking part of what I’m doing, but I’m also trying to write a simple love song from an angle that hasn’t been done before, and that’s really hard to do.”