Just looking at Luke Combs and Ed Sheeran, it may be hard to find them at all similar -- well, aside from their scruffy red beards. But the resemblance between the country chart-topper and the pop phenom is much more than meets the eye.
For starters, they’re each at the top of their games. Luke is arguably country music’s biggest current draw, reigning as Billboard Magazine’s Top Country Artist of the Year for the second year in a row, also scooping up the highly coveted Album of the Year honor at both the CMAs and the ACMs. Though Ed was on a musical hiatus in 2020 (seemingly until today), he still remains one of the most-streamed artists on both Spotify and YouTube and he ended 2019 as Billboard’s top touring act with a gross of more than $223m. There’s no denying Ed is on a different level than most of his pop peers, yet Luke is fast on his way to reaching the same heights.
“There’s no sign that any of this is slowing for Luke,” Melinda Newman, Billboard’s Executive Editor, West Coast and Nashville, tells Holler. “If anything, he’s still building. He’s still a relatively new artist. I know it seems crazy, but [his breakout single] ‘Hurricane’ was released in 2015. He’s barely five years into his professional career. He’s still climbing and still building in a very, very smart way.”
Luke himself sees similarities to Ed, too. "I had an everyday upbringing, living right in the middle of struggle and comfort, so I represent everyday people," Luke told The Times earlier this year. "I’m a fan of humility, which is why I like Ed Sheeran. He seems like a guy I went to high school with."
That may be the biggest parallel of all: Neither Luke nor Ed feel like your traditional untouchable superstar. Ed sports plain T-shirts and soccer jerseys on stage; Luke can almost always be found in a fishing shirt and baseball cap. Even their brand partnerships are authentic, as Luke’s love for Columbia Sportswear and Crocs landed him collaborations with both, while Ed’s obsession with Heinz ketchup resulted in a limited edition “Edchup” in 2019. There’s nothing really glamorous about either of them, down to those rugged beards - and that’s exactly what’s working.
“They’re both very relatable in both what they sing about and their appearance,” Newman says. “We’re not seeing them as fashion icons and they aren’t driven by that, that isn’t what fans are gravitating towards. They’re not flashy, they aren’t relying on any gimmicks - it’s basically their songs that are propelling them forward.”
Luke has a unique knack for wordplay, which was first proven when he turned a breakup into a tropical storm on ‘Hurricane.’ He and Ed have both shown their storytelling savvy from the start, as Ed disguised a tale of drug addiction in a lighthearted acoustic melody for his debut single 'The A Team'. It’s that kind of genius that’s landed both of them atop several charts, including Luke’s nine straight Country Airplay No. 1s and Ed’s two Billboard Hot 100 leaders. And now Ed is back with new music, it’s not unlikely that we’d see him and Luke fight for the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100: Luke’s ‘Forever After All’ debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in October, marking the highest debut for a male country artist since Garth Brooks (as alter ego Chris Gaines) in 1999.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country star, bar perhaps the rising Morgan Wallen, with more chart power than Luke Combs these days. He matched Shania Twain’s record 50-week run atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart with his debut LP This One’s For You in 2019, then became the first artist in the chart’s 56-year history to have two albums rule for at least 34 weeks with his sophomore set What You See Is What You Get this year. Along with being Billboard’s Top Country Artist of 2020, Luke also leads all but one of the five major year-end country charts.
“Luke and Ed are both such strong songwriters and have really gotten to where they are on their songwriting prowess,” Newman suggests. “Whether it’s a good-time party song or a song about heartache, Luke has tapped a vein where the writing just resonates with people. There’s nothing he’s saying that doesn’t resonate as true. He also has a really strong sense of word-craft and melody that makes these songs stand out, and a voice that brings them home. Ed is the same way. When you hear Ed, you know it’s him. He is able to express ideas in a way that’s maybe different than you’ve heard before, but they are relatable from the first listen.”
The admiration isn’t just left to their fans; they share an appreciation for each other’s craftsmanship as well. After Luke covered Ed’s 'Dive' on some tour dates in 2017 and 2018, Ed sang a snippet of 'When It Rains It Pours' on his Instagram Story in 2018.
At the core of Luke’s and Ed’s songwriting charm is love. They’re both happily married, and while Luke is a bit more public with his relationship, each of their leading ladies are the inspiration for just about every song in their individual catalogs. “They express love in a way that’s authentic, and in a way that not all men are comfortable doing because they’re making themselves vulnerable,” Newman adds. “They’re admitting that they feel very passionately and strongly about these women, and not just in a sexual way. Their heart is involved, and they risk getting their heartbroken if something happens, and I think that’s very appealing to both men and women - especially women.”
Their authentic lyrical flair has won over industry folks as well. In addition to several nominations from the American Music Awards and Grammy Awards, they’ve each scooped up Billboard Music Awards and iHeartRadio Music Awards (this year they were both nominated in the Male Artist of the Year category, Luke being the only country artist nominated). Though Ed has had more success on the Grammy front, he and Luke share Best New Artist nominations, from 2014 and 2019, respectively.
What’s more, the singers’ peers also value their originality. Luke and Ed have each had success as writers for others, with Luke scoring his first No. 1 solely as a songwriter on the Carly Pearce and Lee Brice duet 'I Hope You’re Happy Now' in June. Ed, on the other hand, has penned a number of familiar tunes for the likes of One Direction, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd. They’ve each had a few hits with fellow superstars in their respective genres as well, as Ed has collaborated with Bieber, Taylor Swift and Khalid (among others), while Luke has teamed up with Eric Church and Brooks & Dunn.
One of the few ways Luke Combs isn’t quite on Ed Sheeran’s level is touring -- at least not yet. “Luke is very handily selling out arenas; I think it’s only a matter of time before he’s doing stadiums,” Newman says. “The coronavirus pandemic obviously slowed everybody, so it’s going to be very interesting when touring opens back up again how quickly Luke will become a stadium headliner. It’s pretty rarefied air for a country singer to be able to fill a stadium, but Luke definitely will be one of those soon.”
Regardless of whether Luke gets to a stadium-filling level, both he and Ed are able to say one thing about their careers: they’re living Cinderella stories. Luke previously revealed to Today that he produced ‘Hurricane’ with the last $200 in his bank account, and Ed shared in his book Ed Sheeran: A Visual Journey that he didn’t have anywhere to live for a few years before ‘The A Team’ became popular. Those challenging beginnings not only play into the humility in their artistry, but also make their mind-blowing successes all the more special for them both and their fans alike.
If there’s one thing to take away from comparing Luke Combs and Ed Sheeran, it’s that relatability is resonating - perhaps more than it ever has before - and they both know exactly how to tap into that. All other commonalities aside, Luke and Ed are dominating their respective lanes. And from the looks of it, that won’t be changing anytime soon.