Andrew Combs is a regular guy. He’ll tell you as much, mentioning that he likes to “read and hang out,” and that his life doesn’t involve any kind of wild stories or deep, dark secrets. His excellent new full-length, All These Dreams, blends distinctly classic country sounds like pedal steel with an easy, carefree tempo. Lyrically, the album places a strong emphasis on persevering and finding oneself, but the narrative element in his songs is less about personal confession and more a general expression of ideas and narratives that fit a a shared human experience.
“It’s not like ‘Oh, I got sober;’ or ‘Oh, I went through a horrible breakup,’” he says. “Of course you go through relationships. There was a point where I wasn’t really, like living anywhere, but I mean I was still in the comfort of my friends’ couches and stuff. It wasn’t like I was homeless, or down-and-out. It’s more just about what we all kind of go through trying to find a bigger meaning to what we’re doing… the common man’s struggle. To me, that’s more interesting.”
Combs’ own story begins in Texas, where a piano-playing father and a cousin who was a guitarist gave him the tools and the appetite to make music. He never had much interest in playing other people’s songs: he wanted to write his own. He fiddled with recording software, citing his first influences as The Strokes and The White Stripes (“rock-n-roll, and what was popular at the time”), but it was singer-songwriters who inspired the storytelling he ultimately took to.
“I remember hearing a Guy Clark song called “Let Him Roll,” and that changed what I wanted to do with music,” Combs says. “I liked how it was this story that your grandpa could tell or something in 15 minutes, but it was condensed into three and a half minutes. And you knew everything about this guy by the end of it, whether he said it or not.”
Combs enrolled at Belmont University, mostly to appease his mother’s insistence that he obtain a college degree. The decision to satisfy that goal in a city known for its songwriting community, though, was Combs’ own.
“I came to Nashville because all my heroes did,” he said. The lineup Combs plays with—which includes Nashville musicians Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum (together, Steelism) along with drummer and co-writer Ian Fitchuck—is evidence enough that the city’s community has made its mark on Combs’ music, but there are more intangible ways that the presence of the music business has driven him to create.
“The cool thing about Nashville I think is there is that friendliness, there’s the love that you can feel, but there’s also this fierce competition that I personally love. It drives people out of this town,” he said. “The business side that people always dog on, the music business, it weeds out everyone who doesn’t really want to be there.”
All These Dreams, Comb’s sophomore album and the follow-up to 2012’s Worried Man, is framed primarily on this struggle, finding purpose and perseverance—just not necessarily within the music industry. Opening number “Rainy Day Song” sets the tone for the record, asking “Ain’t it funny how a little thunder / Will make a man start to wonder / should he swim or just go under?”
“[“Rainy Day”] is the song that is what I wanted the record to say. This treading—Just trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing here,” he said. “Whether it’s finding a god, or love or art or whatever. It’s just about searching and wanting to give up sometimes”
Album track “Slow Road To Jesus” makes peace with the idea of taking your time on the road to redemption, while “Pearl” (one of two tracks on the record that Combs describes as “just mine”) looks at marginalized characters of society, from a whore to a prisoner to a dirty cop.
“I’m naturally drawn towards kind of the misfits and the people who are in the fringe of society,” he said. “Just because they’re more interesting, I think.”
Combs varies between third-person narratives and the way storytelling seeps into our everyday lives. Imaginative track “Strange Bird” theorizes about a romance of the future (“It’s about just having someone out there that you haven’t found yet. And she, he is different than any of the people you’ve been with before.”), and perhaps the most interesting manifestation of everyday storytelling reveals itself in standout track “Foolin.”
“It’s fascinating that we have this thing now—we have Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook—and we have this ability to broadcast to the whole world a picture of ourselves that might not be at all who we are,” he says, speaking specifically of his intentions with the song. “A lot of people—myself included and I think anyone who’s involved in social media—do it to a degree: you portray this picture of yourself that is what you want to be, and not necessarily who you are.”
When you start to question who Combs is, a good place to start is his peers. It’s hard to go anywhere in the big-city-small-town of Nashville without seeing a spark of recognition for the musician when his name is mentioned, and from record store employees to bartenders to fellow musicians. It’s true when Combs asserts that he’s just an ordinary guy, but if his hard work and attention to detail are any indicator, it’s pretty clear he’s on the slow and steady road to extraordinary things. When it comes to his self-ascribed no-big-deal narrative, maybe it’s not us that Andrew Combs is foolin’.