As a songwriter, Andrew Combs found his own way with his 2015 solo effort, All These Dreams. After moving to Nashville a decade ago, he found success in publishing like many of his peers, spending years hoping to have a song cut by Nashville’s elite before having an opportunity to have his own voice heard. It’s a record with more twang than the music of Robert Ellis, but without the edge of Chris Stapleton. It’s country in a time when his interpretation of the genre is relegated to AAA radio stations.
Before his trip to Birmingham, Combs spoke about the evolution of the genre and where he fits within it. He spoke about Nashville and his decision to move there from Dallas, and he discussed the value of his time spent on the road with Shovels and Rope.
Weld: Are you fine with being labeled country?
Andrew Combs: I don’t mind. That’s what I grew up on, and that’s what I consider my songwriting to be. I consider myself a country writer. Obviously, that [label]’s split off into a bunch of different things now, but I think country is just fine.
Weld: Are those connotations of what country has become difficult to overcome, or do you feel like people can distinguish those variations on the format now?
AC: It’s never really been a problem because I feel like, in the end, people like good songs whether they know them or not. I have nothing against what’s happening in country radio, I just don’t happen to like it. They can do what they need to do, and I’m going to do what I need to do.
Weld: How is Nashville changing, and how do you and your peers compete with big country radio? How do you find your audience among the other stuff that’s out there?
AC: I think of it as two totally separate things. Myself and my peers — we just have to play more shows, and we don’t have a lot of money behind us, so we have to find money and work real hard. I think Nashville is actually changing for the better.
It’s now more open to different types of music, which is a good thing, I think. You’re seeing a lot of rock and roll, a lot of garage, punk stuff, a lot of pop music being made here that people before now would just turn away if it even had the name Nashville attached to it.
Weld: What role do you think AAA formats like Birmingham Mountain Radio here and Lightning 100 there have had in changing that perception?
AC: Both of those stations are great at taking artists they believe in under their wing. More exposure is better. That’s the main thing. If they’re willing to play it, that’s great. If not, we have to find other avenues to get our music out there. That’s when it goes back to playing a lot of live shows, which can be tiring, but also rewarding.
Stations like that have been great to me and to a lot of my friends, and I hope to continue the relationship with those people. They seem to know what they’re doing. They seem to have an audience without the Clear Channels and the big money behind them, which is a beautiful thing.
Weld: You’re originally from Dallas and you moved to Nashville. How long ago was that?
AC: I’ve been in Nashville for ten years.
Weld: Did you feel like you had to do that? Was it just escaping your roots, or was it necessary for your career?
AC: Kind of both. I wanted to get out of Dallas because I’ve never been a huge fan of Dallas. I love Texas, but I’ve never been the super prideful Texan like a lot of people from the Lone Star State. I think mainly it was because all of my heroes came here. Obviously it was a different time a different sort of scene.
But I have always looked up to Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury and Harlan Howard and all of those people. They came to Nashville and they did the publishing thing for a little while and became an artist. Some of them stayed in town. Some of them came back to Texas or elsewhere. That was just kind of a dream I had to follow in their footsteps.
Weld: You did, with the publishing. Are you still writing for other artists, or is all of your writing focused on your own career now?
AC: I write for the publishing company. I’d say when I sit down to write a song, 99.9 percent of the time, it’s for me. If someone happens to like it, that’s great. I do a little bit of TV and film writing for things they need, but that’s few and far between. I probably do a couple of songs a year for that.
For the most part, it’s me sitting down by myself or with a co-writer and writing something that I want to listen to. If someone else happens to want to record it or cut it or whatever you want to call it, that’s great. I haven’t had a whole lot of luck. I think I might be a little bit on the fringe or outside their view of what a song should be. Eventually I think someone will pick up one of these songs and do something with it, but if not, that’s fine, too.
Weld: Are the songs you’ve published recognizable, or are they mostly for licensing and TV?
AC: Mostly licensing and TV. I’ve had a lot of holds, which means if George Strait is cutting a record, he’ll put 50-100 songs on hold and then he’ll cut 20 of them and then he’ll put 12 on a record. So I’ve had a lot of songs on hold, but none has been cut by an artist.
Weld: Why is Nashville better than Dallas?
AC: Well, obviously there’s a bigger music scene. If you were talking about Texas in general — or if you want to look at Austin, because someone might ask, “Why didn’t you move to Austin? You’re from Texas.”
I think a big part of what keeps me going here and keeps me on my toes is the fact that there is some business here and there’s structure and there’s people, business guys, that keep it competitive. It weeds out the people that don’t really want it.
If you look at a town like Austin, and nothing against Austin because I love spending time there and there’s some great, great creatives there, but my thing was that there’s so much creativity there, but there’s no structure. A lot of times, no one leaves that town. It’s the same way with a few other places.
I like the fact that there’s business here. A lot of people don’t like that side of it, but I consider it a necessary evil and I try to look at the good side of it, which is keeping everybody on their toes.
Combs will perform at Happenin Fest on June 20 at Good People Brewing Company. Other performers at the festival include the Black Lips, Turbo Fruits, NOTS, Pujol, Nowhere Squares, \\GT//, and Dommel Mosel. The festival begins at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are $17 or $20 on the day of the festival. For more information, visit happeninrecords.com.