Singleton had no idea that soon it would be tough to find a country music listener who didn’t know the answer. But at that moment, as he heard Combs’s powerhouse voice belt out a song called “Hurricane,” he knew that he wanted to work with the guy. A few months later, Singleton signed Combs to a publishing deal with Big Machine Music. And “Hurricane” would eventually go triple platinum.
Fast-forward to now, and Combs, 28, has shot to stardom so quickly that it’s startling to almost everyone, including him. After he landed a record deal with Sony Music’s Columbia Nashville in fall 2016, his first four singles reached No. 1 on the radio, with the fifth (“Beautiful Crazy”) expected to soon hit the top of the chart. His debut record, “This One’s For You,” was the highest-selling country album of 2018. Most of the dates on his first arena headlining tour are already sold out. On Sunday, he’ll be in the national spotlight at the Grammy Awards, where he’s nominated for best new artist.
“I genuinely think for him, it’s nothing but the lack of trying to have a brand. It’s literally authenticity at its core. It’s unabashed, ‘This is who I am.’ It’s the lyric, it’s the melodies, it’s the production, it’s the guy that goes onstage in a black PFG shirt every night,” Williford said of Combs’s signature performance fishing gear apparel. “It’s 100 percent authentic. You can’t fool people when it comes to that.”
When Combs moved to Nashville in September 2014, a “brand” was the furthest thing from his mind. A North Carolina native, Combs had enjoyed singing in middle school and high school but first picked up a guitar in college at Appalachian State University about 2011. He started out playing gigs at the same bar where he worked in Boone, N.C., and persuaded his boss to charge $1 a ticket — he made $200 one night, and it dawned on him that maybe, one day, he could earn a living playing music.