December 10, 2017 03:55 PM

Luke Combs is one of the year’s biggest breakout country stars, and nothing illustrates his fast rise more than looking back at where he sat during last year’s CMA Awards show.

“A year ago,” he tells PEOPLE, “I was watching TV, eating pizza at a buddy of mine’s house, and we were talking about how I was hopefully going to be there next year.”

This year, he not only got a nod from the CMA with a New Artist nomination (a prize Jon Pardi took home), but he also was tapped to be an onstage presenter. Last year’s couture: probably a T-shirt, the 27-year-old artist recalls. This year: a stylish all-black formal wear with exotic fish-skin boots, with girlfriend Nicole Hocking on his arm.

John Shearer/WireImage
Nicole Hocking and Luke Combs
John Shearer/WireImage

How did the “When It Rains It Pours” singer get from there to here in a year?

Combs offers a simple explanation. “I think that I’m just a regular guy,” he said. “I think people can really relate to that. I’m very non-threatening. And I don’t mean that in a disarming way. I mean that in a way that says, ‘Hey, that could be my buddy that I hung out with in high school.'”

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That appealing Bubba-slash-big brother combination has been attracting a growing fan base that has “drastically” changed Combs’ life.

“I mean, in all facets,” the “Hurricane” singer said. “Getting recognized at truck stops and rest stops. The whole tour is sold out. We sold out Billy Bob’s in Texas, which is 5,500 seats. We sold out my first arena in a week, which is back in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina — almost 8,000 tickets. We sold out in a week.”

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