What Luke Combs ultimately represents is a recalibration of mainstream country music. Less traditionalist than traditional-ish, Combs presents a more mainstream-palatable iteration of Chris Stapleton. The genre still hasn’t reconciled Stapleton’s commercial success vis-a-vis the rest of the trash they’ve been playing on the radio, where he remains an inconsistent presence and aesthetic outlier. Combs, then, splits the difference between Stapleton’s soulful Southern rock style and the contemporary influences of acts like Florida Georgia Line. So something like The Prequel EP, while not in any way great on its own merits, moves the needle for mass appeal closer to the likes of Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, and Eric Church, and away from the likes of Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini, and Chase Rice.
With his scratchy, but not polarizing, vocal style, Combs brings a bit of heft to songs like “Lovin’ on You” and “Refrigerator Door.” That vocal heft serves the songs well, since they’re solid, competently-written, and wouldn’t be remarkable in the hands of a lesser singer. Combs doesn’t offer any sort of vision — there’s certainly no indication that these songs represent a prequel to anything in particular — but he’s a likable presence on record, and he capitalizes on his Everyman-made-good persona. That makes Combs easy to root for, even while wishing that The Prequel offered something more substantive to justify Combs’s record-shattering commercial momentum. “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” the set’s single, is fine, but setting the standard at fine means that The Prequel EP continues to allow Luke Combs to function better as a slight seismic shift within mainstream country than as a great artist on his own merits.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 5