Andrew Combs doesn’t want to repeat himself. It’s his number one rule, his guiding principle, the only thing he’s really sure of as an artist. The first time I interviewed Combs, in 2015, he told me he never wanted to make the same record twice. When we met in Manhattan earlier this year to discuss his new album, Canyons Of My Mind, he said the same exact thing, more than once, in fact, stressing that despite his traditionalist approach to songwriting and despite the fact that iconic 70’s singer-songwriters like Guy Clark and Paul Simon get tossed around every time he’s written about, Combs has little patience for musical retro-revivalism.
“I like art to push you in new directions and make you think and not just regurgitate what’s already been done, even though we all do that. I’ve done it, and still do it; To a certain degree, you can’t not do it. But I try,” says the 30-year-old songwriter.
“What Andrew’s really great at is challenging himself,” says longtime friend and producer Jordan Lehning.
Over the past five years, Combs has pulled off the trickiest of feats for a singer-songwriter, releasing three markedly different albums that nevertheless share a deeper sense of continuity in voice. Whereas his 2012 trad-country debut Worried Man presented a world of mid-twenties mishap and young Nashville man blues, 2015’s follow-up All These Dreams established the singer as a polished crooner gradually coming into his own as a narrative storyteller.
On Canyons Of My Mind, however, Combs blooms into a proper adult songwriter, one daring enough to both probe inward and reach outward, to hold a mirror up to one’s own interior insecurities and anxieties while at the same time acknowledging, for the first real time, that there are topical and societal concerns out in the world that are more pressing than one’s own personal life.
Part of Combs’ newfound maturity is due to some pretty earth-shaking changes he’s undergone lately. Over the past year, Combs and his fiancée bought a house, got married, fled to Northern Minnesota for a six-week honeymoon, and conceived their first child. “Bam-bam-bam,” is how he puts it. “I just think I grew up a lot in the last year or two.”
“Andrew is going through changes, and his songs really reflect that,” says Skylar Wilson, who co-produced Combs’ last two albums with Lehning.
Canyons Of My Mind marks a gentle, if determined, split from Combs’ past work. For his new album, he decided to ditch the studio perfectionism of Steelism, the retro-minded Nashville band helmed by Combs’ longtime pals Spencer Cullum Jr. and Jeremy Fetzer that played on All These Dreams. He regrouped with an almost entirely new studio band, and more importantly, a newly determined sense of vision.
“This time, Andrew was much more heavy-handed in saying ‘no’ to things,” says Lehning. “We’d start doing stuff in the studio and he’d go ‘No, I want to stray from that kind of thing.’ On All These Dreams, Skylar and I got to do whatever we wanted, but this time he had much more of a sense of standards.”
One of the rules Combs brought to the studio was that he refused to use the same classic country chord changes he had relied on so heavily in the past. Combs had brought one of his new songs to Lehning before they entered the studio when Lehning pointed out to him that all of his songs on All These Dreams went to the same exact chord on the chorus. Apart from the gorgeous country duet “What It Means To You,” co-written with Caitlin Rose a few years earlier, Combs proudly points out that zero of his new songs feature that same diminished chord.
It’s all part of the songwriter’s ongoing project of avoiding the traps of genre, something both him and his producers are keenly invested in. In conversation, both Wilson and Combs use the phrase “Genericana,” or, as Combs might also call it, “Blahmericana,” as a way of talking about the type of roots production style that has become so universally in style over the past few years.
When Combs, whose new album is his debut for Americana juggernaut New West Records, indicates that he felt a small bit of pressure from unspecified sources to work with a big-name producer for Canyons Of My Mind, I ask him, half-jokingly, if it had been ever suggested that he work with Dave Cobb, the Americana producer-du-jour who’s become best known for his work with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton.
Combs smirks. “No comment,” he says.
The idea behind Canyons was to pay homage to Marty Robbin’s Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs: “acoustic, light drums, upright and some oohs and aahs.” But before long, Combs had tossed out most of his initial ideas and began experimenting in the studio, adding various instrumentation until the result was something much different: a sophisticated, cerebral folk-pop record that recalls 70’s eccentrics like Nick Drake, Jim Croce and Bill Fay much more than typical reference points like Clark and Kris Kristofferson.
“What was funny was Andrew kept saying that he wanted the album to be really minimal,” says Lehning. “I’m like cool, so do you want strings then? And he’s like, ‘Oh, hell yeah.’ Okay, right on … What about background singers? And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’ Minimal? We pretty much ended up throwing the whole kitchen sink in there.”
When I suggest that each of Combs’ records has moved further and further away from classic country, he nods.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he begins, before I’ve even finished the question. “I get really bored with that, and I have a really hard time with the idea of trying to write the quintessential country lyric song, the whole ‘crying in my beer’ type of song. I’d rather listen to Lefty Frizzell sing that than me or any of my friends.”
Instead, on his new record Combs shifts his focus outward, mapping a world of political dystopia on “Bourgeois King” while he channels environmental concerns on “Dirty Rain.” Taking on larger socio-political issues wasn’t any sort of grand departure; in fact, it was simply a case of adhering to the old songwriting adage: “It was just obvious to me. Everything is so in your face these days with the world and the state it’s in, so I couldn’t help but write what I knew.”
For Combs, writing what he knew meant negotiating the trauma and headache of modern American politics. On “Bourgeois King,” Combs delivers a frenetic five-minute vision of an autocratic republic folding in on itself: “Parasites and politicians/ Intertwined and holding hands/ Feed us fiction, fabrication/ Make this great country again”.
Part of growing up over the past couple years for Combs has meant starting to care more about the world around him. He’s the first to admit it, and he’s more than willing to own up to his past apathy. When I mention Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, who has expressed frustration with what she perceives as an utter lack of interest in politics amongst her Americana contemporaries, Combs agrees readily.
“I mean, literally, until 2016, none of my friends were talking the way they talk now.” As an example, Combs points to his and his wife’s insistence upon obtaining absentee ballots for Tennessee when the couple knew they’d be out of state during the Presidential election, something he wouldn’t necessarily have insisted on doing in years past.
“It’s good that now we’re aware, but we have to keep it up, we can’t just talk the talk,” he says, including himself in his own warning. “Hopefully this is a wake up call for everybody.”
Andrew Combs grew up playing music as a young teenager in Dallas. He played rock and electronic music before getting hooked on folk and country after a friend turned him on to Townes Van Zandt. He devoured Heartworn Highways, the documentary that depicted the bygone romance of the 70’s Nashville that Guy and Susanna Clark cultivated, a world — populated by then-budding songwriters like Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle — that revolved around art, chain smoking, poetry, and liquor-fueled guitar pulls.
Combs clung hard to that mythology, and made the same decision that many young artists with dreams of following in the noble path of Guy Clark and company were making in the first decade of this century: He moved to Nashville.
Funny thing is, when Combs first moved to town in 2006, at the age of 18, his idealized impression of the city and its endless songswaps ended up more or less becoming his own reality. He soon found himself surrounded by an entire new generation of singers, musicians, and songwriters like Caitlin Rose, Nikki Lane, and Jonny Fritz, and for his first five years in Nashville, Combs’ Heartworn dreams pretty much came to fruition.
During that period, Combs worked assorted day-jobs in restaurants, picked up catering gigs, and took on one-off manual labor jobs hauling dirt for ten bucks an hour. In 2009, he even interned at this magazine, where he met his co-manager and ran away with tons of free promotional CDs. “I had no morals at that stage in my life,” he says.
One can hear the dreamy excitement of those early Nashville days on Tennessee Time, Combs’ debut EP from 2010. The slow-burning title track sets the scene of Southern musical bliss: the song’s narrator sits on a rocking chair, sweet tea by his side, as he sings “old country songs to the passerby.” Nearly a decade later, the song feels like a document of an innocent, long-past time full of wonder and excitement, but as a genre exercise in old-fashioned country songwriting, Combs earliest songs like “Tennessee Time” and “Too Stoned To Cry,” hit all the marks. Part of why Combs has since become so bored with this type of songwriting may be due to the fact that by the age of 22, he was essentially writing note-perfect slow-waltzing country weepers in his sleep.
Combs’ early work caught the attention of the publishing company Razor & Tie, which signed him in December 2012, two months after he released his first album, Worried Man. Since then, Combs has been able to live primarily off his publishing deal, which offers him a surprising degree of creative freedom and requires him to write 12 full songs each year for the company (a co-write counts as half a song).
“I write for myself,” he says. “If someone else happens to like it, then that’s great. But if you don’t believe in what you’re writing, then no one’s going to believe the song. That’s the thing about the guys down on Music Row who have all the hits. God bless them, because they truly believe in what they do, and that’s awesome. They know what they’re doing, and it’s because they studied it and honed it in, and they enjoy writing that stuff. It’s very witty and impressive in a different way. To each his own, that’s not my thing. But you meet all these young songwriters, and they’re like, ‘Man, I just said fuck it, I’m just going to start writing bullshit and make some money.’ It’s like dude, unless you really believe that what you’re writing is the shit, that’s just not going to work.”
Instead, Combs has spent the past half-decade becoming one of the focal points of Nashville’s contemporary roots-based singer-songwriter community, though he’d swiftly deny any such claim. All he knows is that the golden-era of free-flowing mid-twenties partying and endless camaraderie has come and gone, and he doesn’t miss it. “That Nashville exists somewhere,” he says, “it just doesn’t exist in my world right now, and I’m okay with that.” For now, Combs will stay at home, where he’s happiest, with his new family and write more songs as he becomes a new father. Whatever he ends up doing next, it’s safe to presume it won’t sound like anything else he’s ever done.
This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition, which hits newsstands July 11. You can read the July/August digital edition on americansongwriter.com here with a membership log-in. You can also purchase the iPad version in iTunes, and the Android-compatible version through Google play. Subscribe to the bi-monthly print edition here.