Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Luke Combs' Record-Setting No. 1 Album Debut
On this week’s Billboard 200 chart, Luke Combs scores his first No. 1 album — and he didn’t do so quietly. With 172,000 equivalent album units earned in the U.S. in the week ending Nov. 14, according to Nielsen Music, and 109,000 in pure album sales, Combs’ sophomore LP What You See Is What You Get notched the largest week for a country album in 2019, as well as the record-breaking streaming week for a country album, with 74 million on-demand audio streams for the album’s 17 tracks.
What You See Is What You Get marks the culmination of another major year for Combs, who has established himself as a commercial force that cannot be contained to his genre. How shocking is this debut figure? And what’s the country star’s best recipe for a fruitful future, particularly when it comes to upcoming radio singles and potential collaborators?Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. Luke Combs just scored the biggest streaming week for a country album ever. On a scale of 1-10, how surprised are you that Combs is the one to now own this particular record?
Andrew Unterberger: Like a 5? It's hard to be surprised by any Luke Combs-related commercial achievement at this point -- the guy is clearly the most reliable performer in mainstream country right now, the late-decade successor to Luke Bryan. Still, when you think "streaming-friendly" as it relates to country, you usually think "progressive," or at least "genre-blending" -- Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, occasionally Maren Morris and Florida Georgia Line. For a guy who stays comfortably within his modern-but-not-too-modern country lane to put up those numbers probably just means that down-the-middle radio country owns a bigger piece of the streaming pie than it used to.
Annie Reuter: Definitely 1. This is no surprise to me. Luke Combs is the biggest act in country music at the moment, with seven back-to-back No. 1 singles and his star power only continuing to ascend with his massive sophomore album. While he released several tracks ahead of the project, these early listens only added to What You See Is What You Get becoming one of the most anticipated country projects of the year.
Kevin Rutherford: Would have been about a 5 or 6 last year, but’s a 2 now. This album was basically genetically engineered to score that record. Think about this in album-length terms; there’s often talk of such-and-such hip-hop album with 20-30 songs doing great streaming numbers its first week because the more individual track streams you have, the more units you can snag toward the Billboard 200. Same thing here — it’s a 17-track album from one of the few country artists out there whose new music can routinely score streaming numbers that can run with the pop, R&B and hip-hop big shots. It only would have been more surprising a year ago because he was still a little new on the scene, but even then, the seeds seemed to have been planted.
Taylor Weatherby: With the way Combs’ career has been going, I’m tempted to say 1, but I’ll say 2, just because Combs continues to amaze me with his feats. The week before What You See Is What You Get arrived, Combs tied Shania Twain’s record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart with his debut set, This One’s For You. I did expect this album to do well, but not sure I thought it’d do 74 million streams well.
Jason Lipshutz: I’d say a 4. There are other country artists that perform well on streaming services with longer track records, but Combs is currently capturing the genre’s zeitgeist in the way that Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan have in years past. This record has a little to do with timing: statistically, more country fans are streaming their music now than when, say, Underwood’s Cry Pretty was released last year, and What You See Is What You Get was released during a relatively quiet week for new albums. But that doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive for Combs.
2. What You See Is What You Get’s streaming total was certainly helped by the fact that the album is 17 songs long. Do you foresee more country artists following Combs’ blueprint and using a more-is-more approach to their track lists?
Andrew Unterberger: Certainly wouldn't be shocking, and Combs wouldn't even really be the first to kick off the trend -- Rhett's Center Point Road from this year was 16 tracks, FGL's Can't Say I Ain't Country a whopping 19. Maybe even more likely is that we'll see folks following in Kane Brown's example and continuing to record new songs and add to their old albums' track lists after the fact, constantly giving fans a new reason to go back to the full LP.
Annie Reuter: Combs sets the bar with everything he does. I think he would have still surpassed the streaming total if he had only 12 songs included on the album. He may start a trend with artists considering to add more than the usual 10 or 12 tracks to an album, but I'm not sure as many fan bases would eat up those 17 tracks like Combs' diehard fans.
Kevin Rutherford: Not sure. I’m not yet convinced that the country industry ecosystem frets that much over first-week numbers relative to the Billboard 200, which is one of the main places where large amounts of album units matter. I suppose getting RIAA certifications, now that it takes units into account, isn’t a bad thing, either. But I don’t know that you’re going to see a slew of country albums with overly inflated track lists in the next few months. Combs’ situation could even be a bit of an anomaly; the first five songs were from an EP released earlier this year. The thought was probably, well, why not append those to the full-length? Without those, What You See Is What You Get would be a much more manageable 12 songs.
Taylor Weatherby: I never really thought about that, honestly. I feel like lengthy albums are less common in this instant gratification, singles-driven musical era, so I was kind of shocked to see that the album was so long. I personally think only superstars are the ones who can get away with albums that are nearly 20 songs in this day and age (like Taylor Swift with Lover, for example), so maybe country superstars will try the lengthy album approach down the line, but I don’t foresee everyone jumping on that train. Also, country is still so radio-driven that I’m not sure country artists or their labels are super concerned with landing huge streaming weeks — but on second thought, after seeing Combs’ streaming numbers soar, maybe this is the start of streaming fully infiltrating country.
Jason Lipshutz: Some country artists might look at that record streaming week for Combs, then look at the 17 songs on his album, pieces two and two together and extend their own track lists by a few extra songs. And just like in the hip-hop world, in which bloated track lists have been counteracted by leaner projects from artists ranging from DaBaby to Kanye West, there will be some artists who forgo the extra streams and keep their projects compact. I’d expect to see some longer track lists in the country world, but not a sea change due to this particular debut.
3. “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and “Even Though I’m Leaving” are already top 10 country hits from What You See Is What You Get. Which song from the track list should Combs consider releasing as his potential next hit?
Andrew Unterberger: Unquestionably "1, 2 Many." Combs is a professional songwriter about many topics, but his excellence primarily shines through when he sings about getting soused. It's not a coincidence that "Beer Never Broke My Heart" is his best single to date, and it's no surprise that this Brooks & Dunn-assisted ode to downhill drinking is the most fun song on the album to not already be a country radio smash.
Annie Reuter: "Refrigerator Door" and "Moon Over Mexico" are good contenders and songs he's been playing out live in concert for months now, and the fiery drinking song "1, 2 Many,” featuring Brooks & Dunn, is also a fun one and no doubt a hit in the making. If I had to narrow it down to one, though, I'd say "Dear Today." It's the perfect song to release before the holidays, and an important lesson to live in the moment and spend time with loved ones instead of making the excuse that you're "too busy." It's the most vulnerable we've heard Combs, and a heartwarming ballad to usher in 2020.
Kevin Rutherford: I’ve been partial to “Refrigerator Door” since it first surfaced on The Prequel; it’s yet another one of those full-sounding, catchy tracks from Combs whose lyrics can connect with an array of people – nearly everyone’s got a fridge with photos old and new hung up by magnets, at least where I’m from. But the actual answer’s either “1, 2 Many,” which is not only another tried-and-true Combs drinking song but also features familiar voices in Brooks & Dunn, which the format’s older demographic certainly isn’t gonna turn down, or album closer “Better Together,” which debuted strong on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart upon the album’s release and is a ballad in the vein of Combs’ previous hit “Beautiful Crazy” – and you know a ballad has to be coming soon as a single.
Taylor Weatherby: “Every Little Bit Helps” feels like the follow-up to “When It Rains It Pours,” which is one of Combs’ biggest songs from This One’s For You. The tempo of “Every Little Bit Helps” is the perfect balance of the in-your-face electric guitar of “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and a heartfelt ballad like “Even Though I’m Leaving.”
Jason Lipshutz: “Reasons” contains some of the most compelling personal details of Combs on the entire album, as well as shimmering guitar work and a chorus that’s big enough to slot in next to “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” if not exactly rival it. Gotta love that moment on the final hook where the instrumentation mostly drops out, Combs owns the moment with a couple guitar strings, and the band comes roaring back in.
4. Combs features Eric Church and Brooks & Dunn on his new album. What country heavyweight would you most like to see him work with next?
Andrew Unterberger: Maybe not quite a heavyweight yet, but how about recent CMA Awards best new artist recipient Ashley McBryde? She knows her dive bars as well as anyone, and she and Luke could certainly have a time attempting to drink one another under the table on record. And of course, as a thoughtful female singer-songwriter in her mid-30s, country radio basically won't touch her --so let's pair her with the most bulletproof hitmaker in country right now and get her the airplay smash she deserves.
Annie Reuter: I'd love to see Combs record a duet with a female powerhouse like Carrie Underwood. I think it'd be an unexpected collaboration, but Combs' deep belt paired with Underwood's massive vocal range could set the stage for a memorable song. It'd also make for a sure-fire spectacle at future awards shows.
Kevin Rutherford: A Chris Stapleton team-up would be killer, especially if it was in the vein of something like Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You.” I’d love to hear a Combs- and Stapleton-penned tune that’s more of a somber drinking song. I don’t even need Stapleton as a featured vocalist on it per se, though I’m not opposed.
Taylor Weatherby: I’d love to hear how Combs’ voice blends with a female voice. Shania Twain was the country queen of wordplay the way that Combs is the king of it now — it’d be pretty badass to see the two pair up. But I could also see his gritty tone pairing well with Miranda Lambert’s fiery attitude. Regardless of which female singer it is, I’m just eager for another classic male/female duet, and Combs has a great voice for that.
Jason Lipshutz: Dan + Shay are riding high thanks to their new Justin Bieber collaboration “10,000 Hours,” as well as smashes on their own like “Tequila” and “Speechless.” The duo’s polished country-pop contrasts with Combs’ more rugged storytelling, but the juxtaposition of their sounds could play out winningly with the right blend of their respective strengths.
5. At the CMA Awards, entertainer of the year winner Garth Brooks predicted that Combs would earn the award in the future. Do you agree with Garth, and if so, how soon do you think it could happen?
Andrew Unterberger: Never question Garth. The man knows of what he speaks, and I'd expect Luke "Hoss" Combs to be accepting top honors at the awards pretty early into the 2020s -- perhaps as soon as next year.
Annie Reuter: Combs has steadily moved from performing in dive bars and clubs to headlining arenas over the past five years. His diehard fan base will no doubt pay to see him at stadiums within the next year or two. I think it is inevitable that within the next three years Combs will be named entertainer of the year.
Kevin Rutherford: There’s no way he won’t. Combs’ upward trajectory has been so impressive – bear in mind that he didn’t even start charting until midway through the decade – and he really hasn’t had a miss yet, with each of his promoted singles reaching No. 1 at country radio and his individual songs streaming particularly well. Of course, the live show is a big part of entertainer of the year, but this is a guy who’s already playing arenas on his second LP, and the general consensus on his concerts seems to be altogether positive. I’m guessing he’ll win it sometime around album three.
Taylor Weatherby: I totally agree with Garth, and I could see Combs being up for entertainer of the year even next year. With the insane level of touring Combs has been doing in the last couple of years — and the fact that he’s pretty much sold out every show, including the 11 What You See Is What You Get Tour dates he’s announced for 2020 — a nomination isn’t far-fetched. Plus, the CMAs clearly love Combs, as he followed up a best new artist win in 2018 with the male vocalist of the year and song of the year honors this year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up for the biggest honor next year. And frankly, Brooks won entertainer of the year the first time he was nominated in 1991, so that could very well happen for Combs in 2020 — legends know legends when they see ‘em!
Jason Lipshutz: Yes, and I’d be shocked if Combs isn’t up there within the next two years. If the next 12 months of his career are as momentous as the last 12, I’d fully expect Luke to be onstage shouting out Garth in 2020.