After notching six consecutive No. 1s, the "Beer Never Broke My Heart" singer says he's past feeling the pressures of stardom, and he's excited about each upcoming milestone — including his 2020 wedding

By Nancy Kruh
October 15, 2019 01:00 PM
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More than anything, Luke Combs prides himself on being an everyday kind of guy. But there’s nothing everyday about the year Combs has been having, and his latest honor only confirms it.

On Oct. 16, he’ll join Carrie Underwood, Dan + Shay, Kane Brown and Thomas Rhett to receive CMT’s coveted artist of the year award, a distinction earned not by votes but by metrics: ticket sales, music sales, streaming numbers and CMT platform stats.

As big as this year has been for Combs, though, the next several months will only get bigger. Already in the midst of a hot-ticket arena tour, he’ll release his highly anticipated second album, What You See Is What You Get, on Nov. 8. He’s also just announced his first headlining stadium show next May, set for his home state of North Carolina.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the little matter of a wedding. Combs confirms to PEOPLE that he and his fiancée, Nicole Hocking, have definitely set a date in 2020, though he remains mum on specifics.

“I’ll give you a hint,” he teases. “It’s one of the days next year. One out of 365.”

Um, actually 2020 is a leap year.

“Three hundred and sixty-six!” Combs, 29, amends with a chuckle. “The odds are down.”

With the assistance of a wedding planner, he and Hocking are now collaborating on details, and he says, “and we’re actually a lot farther along than I think we both thought we would be with our schedules. I’m excited about it. I really am. I’m looking forward to that day quite a bit.”

RELATED: Luke Combs Is Engaged to Nicole Hocking: ‘Can’t Wait to Spend Forever with You’

Luke Combs and Nicole Hocking

It’s the sort of anticipation that reflects his overall mindset these days — a mindset that’s lightened considerably in just the past year. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Combs admits he did have some trouble sorting through the stress that accompanied his meteoric rise.

“Yeah, I definitely struggled with it at times,” he says. “I dealt with it probably a lot last year as things were really taking off and really getting kicked into high gear. But I’ve definitely pushed past all that stuff now.”

His coping strategy? “I just kinda kept moving forward,” Combs says. “I mean, that was it. There wasn’t any time to stop anyway. So the best medication was just to work through things. And I’m definitely way more at peace now with it than I was a year ago, which is a great thing. I’m definitely in a great headspace now with this new album and ready to put it out and excited for all of the challenges that it presents.”

Luke Combs
David Bergman

With five No. 1s coming off his first album, expectations for this second album have been high, but Combs says he’s been able to mostly ignore the pressure.

“I don’t think I feel it much just because I’m having so much fun doing it,” he says. “It’s not like there’s people standing outside my house going, ‘Hey, this next record better be great!’”

RELATED: Luke Combs Is ‘Very Proud’ of His Success — but Stays Humble by ‘Still Scooping the Cat Litter’

Of course, so far so good: Lead-off single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” has already delivered Combs’ sixth straight No. 1.

The song-selection process for the new album, Combs says, boiled down to “what are the best songs that we have?”

And how does he define the best? Combs offers a little that’s-a-tough-one whistle.

“It’s probably just what songs do I feel like are the most me,” he says after some thought. “But, you know, I focus so much on songwriting and trying to get better at that constantly, and I think what makes these songs good is the writing — like the metaphors and the rhymes and the structure. It’s super-nerdy stuff, for sure, but at the end of the day, I think that attention to detail pays off.”

Luke Combs' upcoming album cover
Sony Records Nashville

In recent days, Combs has revealed the cover art for the new album, a portrait by Nashville folk artist Rob Hendon. Painted from a photograph, the homespun representation depicts almost the opposite of a superstar, and Combs seems to like it that way. In fact, he’s happy if a lot of his fans look at the artwork and see themselves.

“There are so many people in our crowd every night that, if you’re 50 yards away, you’d probably think it was me, to be honest with you,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot of those guys — you know, a chunkier dude with a patchy beard and a fishing shirt on.”

Perhaps even more important, Combs sees himself in them, and he’s holding tight to his everyday-guy identity.

He does so, he says, just by staying close to family and the friends he made before he became a household name. “That doesn’t really give you an opportunity to be viewed as anything,” he says, “other than yourself.”

CMT Artist of the Year 2019 will air at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on Oct. 16 on CMT. Other honorees include Reba McEntire, who will receive an award for artist of a lifetime, and Ashley McBryde, who will receive breakout artist of the year.

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