“Knowing that your fans came from far and wide because they want that experience as much as I want that experience, it’s pretty awesome,” the "One Number Away" singer tells PEOPLE

By Nancy Kruh
February 12, 2018 07:45 PM
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Luke Combs wears Columbia Sportswear as he makes his Ryman Auditorium debut on the”‘Don’t Tempt Me With A Good Time Tour” on February 2, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.
John Shearer/Getty

Luke Combs crossed not one, but two items off his bucket list the first week of February. Sure, he played his first headlining concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — an essential rite of passage for any successful country artist. But check out those sweet wheels that carried him to that hallowed venue: a pristine 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle coupe.

The 27-year-old rising star paid for the glistening pearl-white gift to himself earlier in the week, then picked it up on the day of the first of his two sell-out shows, and he left it parked in front of the Ryman the entire evening.

So was this how he chose to celebrate his career milestone?

“I don’t think I planned it to be,” Combs told PEOPLE as he hung out in his tour bus before the show, “but in a way it is.”

The singer-songwriter was sipping his go-to drink, a “Jack and Diet” (Coke, not Pepsi, please), to settle his pre-concert butterflies, but they were nothing, he said, compared with the first time he stepped on the Ryman’s stage last year for a Grand Ole Opry appearance.

“I don’t get nervous — ever — but I was nervous,” he said. “I sang at halftime at a Vikings game for 70,000 people, and I wasn’t nervous, but the first time on that stage, I was nervous.”

And who wouldn’t be — at the Mother Church of Country Music, following in the footsteps of Cash, Haggard and Combs’ personal hero, Keith Whitley?

“This is everything that everybody has ever wanted to do,” he said. “Knowing that your fans came from far and wide because they want that experience as much as I want that experience, it’s pretty awesome.”

Luke Combs
Jason Kempin/Getty

On the first night, the North Carolina native was rewarded with a house packed with superfans, hundreds of whom stayed on their feet for the entire 19-song set, which lasted about 90 minutes. Many of the songs, especially chart-toppers “Hurricane” and “When It Rains It Pours,” instantly turned into massive singalongs.

Riding the success of his debut album This One’s For You, which was certified gold in just six months, Combs announced to his worshipful audience that he’s recently been back in the studio, recording 20 songs in seven days. With his debut album’s third single, “One Number Away,” just now spreading on country radio, fans will no doubt have to wait a while for a followup album. Still, Combs teased with three new songs – “Houston We Got a Problem,” “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and “Beautiful Crazy” – and his most devoted fans were singing along on music that otherwise can only be found on YouTube.

Also among the crowd packing the Ryman’s pews was a coterie of Combs’ friends and family members, as well as his girlfriend, Nicole Hocking. When he and Hocking, who’s on staff at BMI in Nashville, started dating almost two years ago, he recalled, there “was no publishing deal, no record deal, no booking deal” and a manager who’d never managed before.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, this is never gonna work,’” Combs said, “and so I didn’t have anything when we met.”

Nicole Hocking and Luke Combs
John Shearer/WireImage

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Now, of course, Combs has all the important accessories of a fast-rising country career — a lifestyle change, he said, that Hocking has grown “pretty comfortable with.”

And then there are the perks — like that shiny Chevelle. Combs’ love affair with the model was sparked by his father, who once owned a 1967 Chevelle, and Combs pulled a little prank on his dad after picking up the car and bringing it home.

As the two headed to soundcheck, “we walked out into the parking garage, and he was like, ‘Dang, dude, look at that Chevelle!’” Combs said, relishing the story. “He was walking around it – and then I got the keys out. It was really cool. He was like, ‘Is this yours?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, man.’”

But don’t think this is just the acquisition of his “bucket list dream car” (although it is that). Combs argued that his fun-mobile is also a very practical purchase.

Luke Combs’ Chevelle
Nancy Kruh

His other transportation is a mammoth Ford F-250 King Ranch pickup, and “it’s hard to park it anywhere” in downtown Nashville, he said. “I usually have to call ahead: ‘Hey, where can I park my truck? Where can I fit?’ A lot of the parking lots down here are pretty small.”

So there. Problem solved.

His two Nashville dates complete, Combs is hitting the road — in his tour bus — to perform at various dates through June with supporting acts Ashley McBryde and Drew Parker.