If anyone owned 2018, it was Luke Combs.

  Currently with the #3 song on Billboard's Country Music chart with She Got The Best of Me, he headed into this year with a second No. 1 song, and he's ending it with a Grammy nomination. And in between? He released three more bona fide country hits, won a CMA Award, wrote a love song for his girlfriend, proposed to her, headlined a tour, bought a house, and became a household name in all the households that appreciate genuine country music.

  When Combs reflects on the bucket list of a year he's had, he cites humbling gigs, a push from his ex-girlfriend and his ten-year hiatus from country music as the main reasons he is where he is. Our conversation - right before he took the stage at Chicago's WEBG Country Christmas show at Joe's Live on Thursday night (Dec. 13) - covered everything from Pearl Jam concerts with his mom to what he sees when he looks at that CMA Award on his shelf.

What were you doing exactly one year ago?

  I remember feeling really good, because we were ending our tour in my hometown in North Carolina, in Asheville. And there were 6,500 people (at the U.S. Cellular Center). It meant so much, because I used to go to concerts there, I graduated from high school there, I'd been to the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam there. That's where I saw Pearl Jam.

Wait. Pearl Jam? I don't know if I hear
that influence in your music at all.
Did you grow up listening to a lot of rock?

  Kind of. I asked my parents for Pearl Jam tickets. I was so young that I had to go to the concert with my mom. I think I was only 11. It was right when I was getting out of country music and then rediscovering it.

I didn't know you'd ever left.
What made you turn away from country?

  I felt a little disenfranchised, I guess. I lived in the mountains, and everyone was singing songs about the beach. It was that era. I love that stuff when I'm at the beach, but not every day. So it meant that there were so many things I missed because I left. I missed the start of Dierks Bentley, the start of Brad Paisley, all that stuff.

  I was done with country when I was about 8 or 9 years old, around 1998. I'd loved Brooks & Dunn, and I'm still obsessed with their music. I listened to Clint Black. My first concert was Vince Gill. I grew up on that because that's what me and my mom listened to that in the car.

Then what?

  When you're between 8-11 years old, I think, you just listen to what your parents listen to. It's not up to you. But then when I was about 13, I was like, "I'm a grown up now, so I want to listen to what I want to listen to." And Asheville has always had a super progressive music scene, so it just is not set up for people who like country music.

Now that I understand why you left,
what was it that got you back?

  Eric Church. I was in Boone at Appalachian State University, and a buddy of mine brought his album up to my dorm room. And I was like, "Man. You know I'm not down with country right now." And he was like, "But this guy went to school here." So I listened to Carolina from 2009, and I fell in love. Then I went and bought his older one, Sinners Like Me. I got obsessed with the songwriting and the artistry of everything he'd done.

  Then I dove back in to everything I had missed. I had this entire vault of the decade of music that I could listen to that was out when I was between 8 and 18. Listening to all the stuff that I let fall through the cracks because I had stereotyped one thing? I felt guilty about that for a while. But I was always jamming with that, and people were like, "Why are you listening to this? It came out ten years ago." And I was like, "I know, but I just heard it last week, and these songs rock."

So you and country music broke up,
then got back together, and then after college you felt like that relationship was solid enough
to make the move to Nashville?

  The real reason that I made it to Nashville was that I had a little bit of a kick in the ass from an ex-girlfriend. We met in college, and she wanted us to move to Nashville. I don't know if I ever would've otherwise. I get hesitant about big life-altering decisions like that. I get cold feet. But my lease was running out in Boone, so without her pushing me, I probably wouldn't be sitting on this bus right now talking to you. There are things that I think happen in your life for a reason.

And once you got to Nashville to chase that
neon rainbow, was there a welcome mat
waiting for you?

  Not at all. The first eight months I was there, nobody would touch me with a ten-foot pole. I had meetings with publishers and labels, and people would say, "Man, the songs just aren't that great." But it was my songs, it was Hurricane, it was When It Rains.

Ouch. How did that initial rejection feel?

  It was fuel for me. That motivated me so much. I don't ever want to get to the pinnacle of my success and gloat to anybody. That's not the right thing to do. I'm proud of what we have, and I'm proud of how it all happened. Those things that didn't work out for me probably mean that, at the time, I wasn't ready yet.