Brian Combs opens the door to his suburban Frankfort home and greets you with a firm handshake and a warm smile, which might be a little surprising if you drove to his place listening to his debut album.
“I gave the CD to my mom, and I said, ‘I’m handing you this, and I’m telling you ahead of time, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m not addicted to drugs, I’m just addicted to music, and this is me making a sad album, because that’s what I wanted to make,” Combs says.
And, crazy as it may sound, “Sad Songs and Other Natural Disasters” just happens to be an album that makes Combs very, very happy.
Since high school, Combs has been a voracious music fan; even in his late 30s he’s happy to drive for hours to see favorites like Drive By Truckers or fellow Jackson native Sturgill Simpson.
“Brian has been one of the most genuine music supporters I ever met,” says Lexington-based musician and producer J. Tom Hnatow.
I gave the CD to my mom, and I said, ‘I’m handing you this, and I’m telling you ahead of time, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m not addicted to drugs, I’m just addicted to music, and this is me making a sad album, because that’s what I wanted to make.
Brian Combs on his debut CD, Sad Songs and Other Natural Disasters
And that’s how Combs met Lexington-area musicians such as Hnatow, Justin Wells — formerly of Fifth on the Floor — and others. He was a regular presence at shows, chatting up artists and cheering on their efforts. Eventually, they began talking about the songs he wrote, and he occasionally played around the area.
Like many kids, Combs started playing guitar in school, starting with a guitar his cousin loaned him.
“It was called a Drifter,” Combs recalls. “It was a knock-off of a Strat and heavier than two Les Pauls.”
Eventually he persuaded his mother to let him upgrade to a nicer acoustic guitar, which he still has — the Drifter has been passed on to another aspiring musician in the family — though he now plays the sunburst Epiphone whose headstock appears on the actual CD.
Writing came in concert with learning to play guitar, though he says the majority of songs on the album were written in the past year. His writing is fired by an ongoing friendship with fellow songwriter Keith Rowland, which can sometimes get a little competitive.
Combs recalls, “One time, he made a comment, ‘What can I say, I just like watching a train wreck every once in a while,’ and we both looked at each other, and it was a race to see who could beat the other to the line. So I went home, and I was like, ‘I got it. It’s mine.’”
That became “Train Wreck (Quite Like You),” a song written from the perspective of someone who enjoys watching things go wrong. It is one of the dimmer songs on an album that is often as stark as Russell Lee’s sepia toned cover photo of a wrecked organ sitting in the middle of a fallow field.
Some songs are autobiographical like “The Snow,” about a childhood friend who died of a drug overdose, and the album-ending “Bury the Weeds,” based on a dream Combs had about his late grandfather. But most of it, Combs insists, is simply songwriting.
“Featherless Appendages,” a co-write with Rowland, details the extended aftermath of a breakup with hotplates, cans of tomato soup and beer can pyramids. “Lament for a Hurricane” could be the preceding relationship with lyrics like, “misplaced affection, is a close kin to aggression.” “Mainline” is a breakup song about getting it over with that, “was just me trying to write the saddest song possible.
“I always gravitated toward sad songs, though I am not a sad person at all. I’m just a happy-go-lucky guy. But even back when I was listening to hair metal, I gravitated toward sad songs.”
Hnatow concurs. When he and Combs started talking about Combs recording an album, Hnatow started going through about 30 of his songs, and the sadder fare stood out.
“You mine the vein where you find it,” Hnatow says. “For some people, sad songs are fertile ground.”
Combs, 38, who had never recorded before, says Hnatow made recording a smooth process, and Hnatow says Combs stepped up with a great performance.
The album was recorded in two days at Lexington’s Shangri-la studios with Hnatow playing electric guitars and keys, Robby Cosenza on drums, Cory Hanks on bass and backing vocals on some songs by Wells, Rowland and Derek Spencer. Given the limited time, Hnatow says most of the songs were recorded live performances, with mixing and mastering by Shangri-la owner Duane Lundy. Combs says he got even greater affirmation when Derek “Doc” Feldman of the Shaker Steps album offered to release the album.
Artists like Combs are fortunate to be making music in a time when recording is much more attainable, Hnatow said.
“In the 1970s or ’80s, it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to make an album like this,” Hnatow says.
I made it for my friends. I made it for my music-loving friends so they could hear my songs and I could get some feedback.
And that’s an investment an artist like Combs would have a hard time justifying. He’s a single full-time dad to his 8-year-old son and works for the state. He doesn’t intend to tour or promote the album nationally. The album is available on websites like Bandcamp. If it gets him some occasional gigs like a Tuesday night stand at The Burl, he’s happy.
“I made it for my friends,” Combs says. “I made it for my music-loving friends so they could hear my songs and I could get some feedback.”
Combs strategically planned his album release party for Aug. 26 at the Green Lantern Bar because he knew that a big group of buddies that had formed around the Drive-By Truckers would be in town to see the Athens, Ga., band the next night at the MoonTower Music Festival.
“I don’t know that I have been to where there was so much joy that something had been created,” Hnatow says. “It was cool to help someone who is such a fan and so passionate make a record.”
If you go
Opening: Mike Farr, Bob Shirley, Tex Dynamite
When: 8:30 p.m. Tues.
Where: The Burl, 375 Thompson Road