Luke Combs review, Fathers & Sons: Classic, comforting country with no ambitions to reinvent the wheel

Luke Combs releases his fifth album, ‘Fathers & Sons’, on 15 June  (Zack Massey)
Luke Combs releases his fifth album, ‘Fathers & Sons’, on 15 June (Zack Massey)

The best moment at this year’s Grammy Awards came when country music star Luke Combs performed his version of “Fast Car” with the song’s writer, Tracy Chapman. The bearlike 34-year-old Carolinian appeared bowled over singing along with his childhood heroine, and the famously shy Chapman finally seemed able to enjoy the crowd’s admiration as Taylor Swift stood up to dance.

Filled out with fiddle and mandolin, Combs’s faithful cover took the 1988 hit to No 2 on the Billboard chart last year. It was then named song of the year by the Country Music Association in November, with Chapman becoming the first Black woman ever to receive the prize. Along with the March release of Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter (the first album by a Black woman to top the country albums chart), the Combs-Chapman duet felt like a major moment in the turning of a cultural tide that had, over the past 15 years, seen country music dominated by a white, macho culture nicknamed “Bro Country”.

It is into this seachange that Combs drops his fifth album, Fathers & Sons. Every bit as easygoing and comfortingly crafted as fans would hope, it’s a collection of sincere songs in which the singer pays tribute to his father and grandfather, and sends up hopes that he can offer similar support to his own two young boys, Tex and Beau. Lyrically, he conjures images of “an old man on a La-Z-Boy/ Western on TV” (“Remember Him That Way”), memories of baseball (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), and kids running around with BB guns (“Little Country Boys”).

In an era when we’ve all been unpicking toxic masculinity, it’s rather lovely to hear the easy flow of love between the generations of boys and men. In the tradition of Harry Chapin’s 1974 folk-country classic “Cat’s in the Cradle”, Combs keeps the emphasis on the passage of time and the shifting power dynamics with the passing years. But unlike Chapin, he sees the admiration wax, not wane. So on “Front Door Famous”, he’s proud to tell listeners that, despite his huge success, the best reward he can wish for is a hug from his “Daddy”. Combs does it all without scaring the horses of traditional Southern bloke culture: he hymns the sharing of hot dogs, not lattes, after all.

Stylistically, Combs works squarely within the classic country tradition, with no evident ambition to reinvent the wheel. Each of the 12 solid, mid-tempo songs rolls out with a reassuringly similar, predictable shape. Picking changing gear into strumming, and back. Pedal steel glinting. Breezes of mandolin blowing through your hair. Fiddles swooping down like birds from telegraph wires as the singer leans into his tender narratives, the melodies taking the emotional load and moving it on to allow the listener to sit back and sway along. No wonder Rishi Sunak says he’s a fan – for a prime minister on the brink of losing a general election, this is music designed to ask no hard questions. It’s just there to help you take a load off.

Yes, it’s sentimental. Combs’s critics compare the singer to Ed Sheeran. The pair – who collaborated on “Life Goes On” – share a similar shambling, low-key tendency to rely on formula and everyman references. Combs gives the appearance of trying less hard, and less cynically, to bash out the bangers, though. And in these turbulent times, there’s solace in the fraternal embrace of such reassuring decency.