For someone who’s so skillful as a songwriter, Andrew Combs is still very humble about his abilities to tell a story through music.
The 28-year-old Dallas-native-now-Nashville-resident has made it his business to write some of the most earnest and thoughtful songs coming out of Music City, USA today. He’s garnered praise from NPR Music, Rolling Stone and American Songwriter and has performed everywhere from the Newport Folk Festival to the Americana Music Festival.
Combs’ 2102 release, Worried Man, received critical honors for candid songs like “Too Stoned to Cry,” “Please, Pease, Please” and “Devil’s Got My Woman.” His recently released follow-up, All These Dreams, features songs like Pearl,” “Nothing to Lose” and “Bad Habits” that builds on his songwriting prowess.
He was also recently featured in the documentary film Heartworn Highways Revisited – a reimagining of the classic 1981 documentary Heartworn Highways, which celebrated some of the classic Nashville songwriters of the ’70s, including Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark.
Combs returns to Central PA, opening for The Felice Brothers at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center. I caught up with him at his home in Nashville to discuss his songwriting style, his favorite musicians and his passion for fishing.
Michael Yoder: Do you juggle multiple songs at once when you’re working on new ones?
Andrew Combs: Yea, I do that a lot. I find that if I write 10 songs, the 11th song I write will be the best and will be kind of this accumulation of the best parts of all those other songs – which is really frustrating to think that I have to go through all that, but usually it works out that way. One in a while though, a song will just spit itself out and it will be done in 30 minutes, but that rarely happens.
MY: How many times has that happened for you?
AC: Probably two or three times. “Too Stoned to Cry” came out that way, which was interesting. “Pearl” on the new record was kind of like that. It took a whole night, but it happened quickly.
MY: In your travels and discussions with other songwriters, have you found that those types of songs that just seem to happen are the best or most powerful songs?
AC: Yea, I think that’s definitely a common thing that happens to songwriters. Everyone I’ve talked to or are friends with agrees on that point.
MY: It’s too bad you can’t bottle up that formula and use it all the time.
AC: [laughs] Yea, that would be nice.
MY: So the last time I interviewed you in 2012, you told me about the Guy Clark album Keepers. I went back and listened to it, and it’s definitely an underrated album.
AC: [laughs] Yea, man. I go back to that album all the time. It was recorded in this little bar in town here that still does music but definitely doesn’t do anything of that caliber. There’s such an energy about it.
MY: Have you ever had a chance to talk to Guy Clark about that album.
AC: A little bit. I was part of the new Heartworn Highways [documentary], and they had a big finishing dinner party here in town. Guy Clark and Steve Young were the only two guys from the old movie that came. I more just listened to him. I sat at the same table as him. I talked to him a little bit and told him how much I loved his album The Dark in particular, which is one of my favorites. I actually ended up getting to sing a couple of songs in front of him. It was cool. It was fun just to listen to him talk about everything – everything from talking about cigarettes to talking about songs to talking about the food we were eating. From what I’ve heard, he’s not doing too well, so I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get the chance to talk to him again.
MY: How much of an honor was it for you to be asked to be a part of the new Heartworn Highways documentary?
AC: It was great. It was definitely an honor to be asked to be a part of it. I kind of credit Jonny Fritz for getting me in there. If you get a chance to see it, you’ll notice Jonny is kind of the common thread between everybody, and he’s kind of the centerpiece. He’s the funny guy who brings everybody together. I don’t know if they’ll ever make one that will be as great as the first one, but it was nice to be a part of something that followed in its footsteps, for sure.
MY: How close do you think some of the songwriting and musicianship that’s happening right now is to the songwriters that were featured in the original Heartworn Highways? Do you think the songwriting today is as strong as it was back then?
AC: No, I don’t think so. I think there are people who are part of Heartworn Highways that are doing stuff that’s as strong, but it’s just a different ballgame. There’s so much focus on your brand as an artist these days– whether that means your Internet presence or the way you look or dress or anything like that. That’s become so much a part of what we do that a lot of times the actual art behind the songwriting gets lost. Now that being said, there’s a lot of great new, young people. I think Jonny’s one of the must underrated songwriters ever, and I think he’s constantly searching for something new and interesting to say, which is a great thing. And that’s what they were doing back in the day. But it’s hard to gauge. It’s just kind of a different time, but in my opinion, for the most part, the songs were stronger back then.
MY: How much have you seen the Nashville music scene grow over the last few years with bands getting away from the country or Americana mould – bands like Diarrhea Planet [see the April 2015 Fly story] or All Them Witches – and is it an encouraging step?
AC: Yea, I think it is. I think the more different types of creative’s you have in a town, the better it is. It’s almost like Music Row now is almost an outsider – I mean, it isn’t, because that’s where all the money is. But I like it. I’m sure you’ve seen all the hubbub about Nashville growing. There’s all sorts of shitty condos going up, but overall I think the town is changing for the better and becoming a bit more progressive and open minded, which is nice.
MY: I did an interview with Justin Townes Earle a few months ago, and he was going off about the condos.
AC: That sounds about right. I understand that when more people move to the town, things are going to change. I just wish the condos were built with better taste – more in keeping with the buildings that were once here. They look like they’re going to fall down in 10 years, that’s the shitty part about it. But I don’t know what I can do about it.
MY: Have you written any songs about the Nashville condos?
AC: [laughs] No. I haven’t found that muse yet.
MY: Have you been given advice or searched out advice on ways to interact with fans in a live setting by other performers?
AC: No, I haven’t been given advice, but I’ve definitely witnessed people. Todd Snider is really great at it – Hayes Carll and kind of that troubadour crowd. I have a few stories to tell, but I think I need to live longer before I can start to tell good stories. [laughs]
MY: I heard you’re a fisherman. I recently interviewed Les Claypool and asked him about his tallest fishing tale. What’s your tallest fishing tale?
AC: Oh man, I try to stay pretty honest. [laughs] They’re probably not interesting to people who don’t fish. I’m an advocate of buying a license – it all goes towards the fish and game for each state and their agencies. But recently I was in Montana and I had one day, and I was like, “I’m just going to go, and I’m not going to pay for a license.” I pulled up, got my rod all strung up, put my waiters on and immediately the game warden came. He busted me, and it was like a $250 ticket. He was like, “Technically, I can confiscate your gear, and technically, I can confiscate your car,” because I was still hanging out by my car. But he ended up being really nice, so I went into town, got a license, came back out there and caught one fish. It was a nice big brown trout, but I called it my “$250 fish.” That was the first time I ever got to fish in Montana. I like fly fishing, so it’s kind of the Mecca – besides Alaska. It’s like where God goes to fly fish.
Andrew Combs opens for The Felice Brothers at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center on June 10. Tickets are $21 at the door. Check out the Strand’s website for more details.