Maybe there’s something in the water in Nashville — or, more likely, in the draft beer at the Red Door Saloon — but quite a few young artists are making records that recall a bygone era, a time when great songwriters doubled as great artists. Forty-something years ago, folks like Paul Simon, Mickey Newbury, Jim Croce, and James Taylor were capturing their time in words and sounds that would stand the test of all the time yet to follow.
Though it all happened well before Andrew Combs was born, his new album, All These Dreams, recalls and reclaims that musical moment. The attention to detail, the commitment to craft that is apparent in his compositions is also evident in the production of Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson. Keeping one eye forward and one eye back, the three fashioned a work that anyone who grew up listening to an AOR station in the late ’60s or early ’70s will feel an immediate kinship with. There’s the nod to Roy Orbison that is “Long Gone Lately,” the wink to Jackson Browne of “In the Name of You,” and the tip of the hat to Glen Campbell in “Nothing to Lose.” Indeed, every song in the cycle stands up to be counted as a contemporary classic.
On previous efforts, including 2012’s Worried Man, Combs showcased his knack for songwriting and his penchant for timelessness. All These Dreams delivers on those promises … and then some.
The new record is a pretty big stylistic leap from the sort of chunky chug of older songs like “Emily” and “Big Bad Love,” although there’s a hint of this more refined sound on “Please, Please, Please” and “Come Tomorrow.” Did you have the vision for what you wanted to do or did that emerge from pre-production work with Jordan and Skylar?
I kind of had a vision. I wanted it to be not as raw and a bit more thought-out in kind of the vein of a Paul Simon record. Of course, it doesn’t even touch how great he was. But just putting a bit more time into it, a bit more thought into the arrangements and the production and, yeah, everything behind the recording process.
Did you write the songs with that vision in mind or did it come after you had your batch of tunes ready?
It kind of just appeared. I write all the time, so there were tons of songs. When I figured out which ones I liked the best, it just fit into place that way, in terms of a musical common thread and a production common thread there, as well.
Well, I’m calling it. I think 2015 is the year that castanets make a comeback because I’ve been hearing them on a lot of records lately.
[Laughs] Really?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah. So what other specialty or vintage touches did you guys go after to get the right sound?
The big one, for me, was I wanted strings on a lot of stuff and we ended up doing that on … I think there are two songs without it — “Foolin’” and “Suwannee [County].” Jordan wrote all the parts … I was by his side, but he is the mastermind behind the string parts. I wanted that, and then we added tympani and … I don’t know. To me, it doesn’t sound vintage or anything throwback. I hear that a lot, but, to me, it sounds like a new record that just pays its respect to the way things used to be done.
But that’s how it translates. I’m a little bit older than you so it reminds me of the Glen Campbell and Jim Croce records I grew up listening to and loving. Whether or not that’s an era that you loved or just went back to …
Yeah, it definitely is. I still hear a difference, which probably comes down to recording to tape — which we did not do. Their records still feel cooler and older to me. But I don’t know.

[Laughs] Well, they are definitely older, but I think you have a cool factor going on. There was something about that era that caused the music to have a carefree quality, but they also put a concerted effort into the songwriting. It wasn’t just, “I feel happy” kind of stuff. And you nail that, too. There’s a breezy feeling, but there’s nothing banal about your songs. What’s the secret sauce?
[Laughs] Oh, man, I don’t know. My whole thing is, I write so much, I’m able to weed out all the bad stuff. I write a lot of bullshit, you know? I also write with people, as well as write by myself, and that’s been kind of a new experience because of my publishing deal and that’s kind of the Nashville game. But it’s pretty cool, too, to get in the room with … I only do it with people I’m really comfortable with, which usually ends up being people I’m close friends with. So it’s just fun.
But, I don’t know. That’s a big compliment about the songs. Songwriting’s so hard to talk about. It’s one of those things that, if I really knew …
Yeah. When I asked Sinéad O’Connor a similar thing, she said something to the effect of, if we could describe what music is, we wouldn’t need music.
Yeah. Yeah.
So, when you’re writing — whether it’s by yourself or with others — do you try to throw yourself out of time into a sort of timelessness or anything like that to try to capture these stories that are floating around out there?
I do. Yeah. Especially with this last record, I was pretty fascinated with the idea of the quarter-life crisis, searching for spirituality and all that jazz. I think that required me to, yeah, jump outside of a time or place and look within, I guess. It sounds cheesy, but …
I love the quote you have about the spiritual thread of the record wherein you say, “A song like ‘Slow Road to Jesus’ is about finding redemption, but it’s also about coming to terms with taking the long way to get there.” Is that where you are in life, just figuring it out — where you’ve been and where you want to go?
Exactly. And it’s such murky, murky water that it’s kind of like talking about songwriting. It’s hard to really describe it. But, yeah. I think “Rainy Day Song” was the epitome of what I wanted the record to say. Obviously, there are love songs and stuff on there, too, but I feel like that was the statement, that first song.
Let’s end with a little lightning round. I’ll rattle off some artists and you say the first thing you think about.
[Laughs] Oh, God. I gotta try and stay positive.
[Laughs] You’re going to do fine on these. Okay … Mickey Newbury …
Hmmm … Looks Like Rain.
Kris Kristofferson …
“Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Townes Van Zandt …
Guy Clark …
Ha! Roy Orbison …
Black sunglasses.
Bob Dylan …
Planet Waves.
Nice. Harry Nilsson …
Hmmm … John Lennon.
And, lastly, Paul Simon …
Short. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Nicely done, sir.
[Laughs] I don’t know … Gosh, those are all pretty cool guys.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.