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Singer/songwriter Andrew Combs chases a poetic and spiritual sound

Andrew Combs’ “All These Dreams” landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the best country albums of 2015.
Andrew Combs’ “All These Dreams” landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the best country albums of 2015. Coin Records

Singer/songwriter Andrew Combs hesitates to put his music-making process into words.

“It’s a strange thing to try to explain,” he says by phone while on a tour stop in Cincinnati. “You really have to chase the muse that’s in the room. You don’t know when they’re going to show up and when they’re going to leave. It’s always been hard to talk about. It’s kind of like a spiritual thing. You don’t want to dive too deep into it.”

Combs, on tour with Anderson East, stops in KC on Thursday to play the Riot Room.

And while he may not be able to describe what he’s chasing, the results are apparent and occasionally stunning.

Last year he released “All These Dreams,” an album of lyrically complex, folk-tinged country songs that call to mind California and Texas songwriters of the 1970s.

Rolling Stone included “All These Dreams” in the mag’s list of the best country albums of 2015, saying, “It’s not easy to blend that sort of orchestral-laced sheen with twang, but it’s gorgeously formed here without ever ringing as decadent.”

His sound at times is equal parts Jim Croce and Jason Isbell. He also balances melancholy without sounding maudlin.

“That’s what I gravitate toward, in terms of film and music and literature,” Combs says. “It’s also really hard to write a really great happy song.”

The Dallas-born Combs says he began messing around with music in the eighth grade.

“I actually got started in the creation of music through electronic music,” he says. “It was solely because my cousin — the guy who gave me my first guitar — gave me all this pirated software. I just found it intriguing to be able to go to my computer and just create something that was all my own. And I didn’t really know what I was doing — I was just pushing buttons.”

Which leads to the question: Are there tapes out there somewhere of this gentlemanly singer/songwriter performing electronic dance music?

“They’ve been erased from the planet,” he says, laughing. “The hard drives have been burned. My dad still threatens to dig them out, but I’m not sure he knows where they are. I’m pretty sure they’re all gone.”

In addition to his musical influences of Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson, Combs cites writers Thomas McGuane, Rick Bass and Jim Harrison and poet Charles Wright.

“I’m slowly dipping my toes into the world of poetry,” Combs says. “I’m not very well-versed in it. I own all of (Wright’s) books, and I always carry one of them with me on the road. I just think he’s phenomenal how he kind of wraps you in the spiritual sense without being in-your-face, which is something that’s important to me. I don’t know a lot about poetry. I probably only read two or three other poets, but I’m slowly trying to figure it out.”

Combs said he was in high school when a friend turned him on to the songwriters of his native Lone Star State.

“My good buddy was really into Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt,” he says. “I remember driving down the road, and he put on a song called ‘Let Him Roll’ and it kind of made me want to try the whole story-in-a-3  1/2 -minute-song-with-just-an-acoustic-guitar kind of thing.”

Combs says that era speaks to him because of its authenticity.

“I think unfortunately these days an artist has to be so concerned with their branding and social-media presence that people lose track of the actual craft of the songs,” he says.

Combs, who just turned 29 in December, says even though he has been touring and playing music professionally for only a few years, he has already had what he considered a high-water moment.

About a year ago at a dinner party of 30 or 40 people, Combs performed a couple of songs for one of his songwriting idols, Guy Clark. Combs says it was like a dream.

And what was Clark’s response?

“He clapped,” Combs says. “That was good enough for me.”

▪ Andrew Combs and Anderson East perform Thursday at the Riot Room. Tickets are $12 through Ticketmaster.com.

Twitter: @DavidFrese.

The Soundtrack of My Life: Andrew Combs

Q: What are you listening to these days?

A: I just bought the new Lucinda (Williams) record. I haven’t listened to it yet. I mostly listen to the older stuff. I’m kind of in a 1960s folk phase. Tom Rush, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil. Rayland Baxter’s new record’s really good. I most of the time go back to the staples in my book, which are Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt.

Q: Is there a song on the new album that you’re particularly proud of?

A: Yeah, I think “Rainy Day Song” kind of captures the vision of what I wanted the record to be about, lyrically and musically, too. And I really love “Nothing to Lose.” It’s one of my favorites in terms of production and everything. I love how that one turned out.

Q: What’s the album that influenced you the most?

A: Probably Kris Kristofferson’s “The Silver Tongued Devil and I.” Probably a tie between that and Guy Clark’s “Old No. 1.” Kristofferson, I knew his songs but I didn’t really get into him until college. His first three, four records still blow me away.

Q: What’s the first album that you bought with your own money?

A: Toadies, “Rubberneck.” It was the album that had “Possum Kingdom.” They were cool. I still listen to them sometimes. They’re great.

Q: What’s an album you’ll never tire of hearing?

A: I really love Lucinda Williams’ “Essence” record. I can listen to Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman” over and over again. Townes Van Zandt’s “Our Mother the Mountain.” Those are records that I’ve spun and spun and spun and spun and I still haven’t grown tired of them.

Q: What music makes you think of your parents?

A: My parents listened to more of the 1970s, California kind of folk rock — whatever you want to call it. Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and Paul Simon. I have soft rock parents. That stuff speaks to me just as much as the Texas songwriters that I mentioned earlier. I think it’s their musicality and the Texas guys’ lyrics. I think they do it better than people do it now.

Q: What’s a song that you wish you had written?

A: Well, there are many, but I’ll give you one: Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” I think it’s one of the best country songs that I’ve heard.

Q: What’s an album that you listen to that you might consider a guilty pleasure?

A: My girlfriend really likes Sia. I have to say some of her stuff is pretty cool. I couldn’t tell you a song title or a name of her record, but my lady friend has all of her records on vinyl and we blare it through the house when we’re cleaning on Sundays.

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