Walking into Make Wake Artists off Nashville’s Music Row, it is clearly evident to Marley Sherwood who the powerhouse artist of the label is. Every wall is covered in plaques doting accolades for country star Luke Combs. Many might not know how quick the journey to stardom was for Combs, but the man, the myth and the legend in Nashville behind his career is here to explain it all… ladies and gentleman, Chris Kappy.
First things first, is your real name Kappy?
My God-given name is Christopher Thaddeus Kappy, a family name. But everyone just calls me Kappy. When I was very young, I started going by just Kappy because Chris was a very common name. There were so many when I was growing up, it just made sense. When I was in college, pledges in my fraternity actually had to figure out what my real name was.
How did you make it to Nashville?
It’s actually a great story. I was living in California, down in Huntington Beach. I had the greatest setup in the world. Bradley Jordan — who owns Peachtree Entertainment — is my best friend. We grew up together. He told me about this amazing sound that was coming out of Georgia. At the time, he was working with some new guys: Jordan Rager, Travis Denning, Cole Taylor and Jon Langston. He reached out because he knew I always wanted to manage an artist. I could always move back to California, so this was the chance to make something happen. I packed everything up and moved to Athens, Ga.
Were you working in the music industry in California at this point?
At the time, I was working for this company called Sixthman. I had been with them for 15 years. We worked with festivals on cruise ships and I helped with acts like John Mayer, Kid Rock, 311, Paramore and many more. I spent about 12 weeks of the year in the Caribbean. The rest of the year I was setting up sponsor relations, which was great. But the best thing I took away from my time there was learning about rabid fanbases.
What happens after Bradley convinces you to make the move?
So, I make it back to Athens, Ga. and four months later Bradley calls me and says he was watching this guy perform in Rome, Ga. He said, “His name is Luke Combs, you need to come see this guy, this is your guy.” I asked when I could see him and Bradley tells me he can book a show for him on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in Athens. I asked Bradley if he was sure that was a good idea. College is out by then, it’s a Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, he was going to lose on this show. It was the only open date he had, so he booked it for $750. Eighty-three people showed up at the 40 Watt and then it all happened.
Not a bad showing for thinking only Bradley, Luke and you would show up.
Exactly! This was also the first time Luke had ever played “Hurricane” live to a crowd. He had the song on his YouTube page… and all of a sudden, these 83 people in the crowd start singing the words to all his songs! “Can I Get an Outlaw,” “The Way She Rides,” “She Got the Best of Me.” I was blown away because those songs were released on an EP only. Then he starts playing “Hurricane.” And for it to only be available on YouTube, the crowd knew every word— really showed a fanbase already. By the first song in his set I knew the guy was a superstar, by the second song I knew I wanted to work with him. I turned to Bradley and said, “This is my guy.”
And this was the first time you had ever seen him perform?
Yes. After the show, I went up to him and asked if I could write a comp. Like an honest-to-goodness comp of the show. I wrote down everything I thought was good and bad about the show. I gave him real feedback. I made a whole PowerPoint presentation, total nerd of me! He thought it was really cool to see, and genuinely appreciated the feedback. So, Bradley and I booked him for a charity event in Athens a month later. The third time Luke came to play in Georgia, I went up and told him, “Hey man, I have never been a manager before, I don’t know anything about it.” But I told him, “I do know this. I will work super hard for you. I know that my job is to get people in the door, but it is your job, as the artist, to get them to stay.” He talked to three other managers in Nashville and then he called me up on July 29, 2015… and he said, “Hey man, what do you want me to do? Where do you see me?” And I said, “Well, what did the other managers say?” And he wouldn’t tell me, he wanted to see what I wanted him to do. I flat out told him, “Luke, I want you to get on stage every night and I want you to sing your face off.” And he said, “Good. Because every other manager I met with in Nashville told me I was a really good songwriter, but I wasn’t an artist.” I knew Luke was an artist from the first note, and sometimes you have to see past what ‘the norm’ is and go rogue… outlaw, some would say. It was a gamble that paid off for both of us.
Had Luke moved to Nashville at this point?
Yes. He was now living in Nashville to pursue a music career. He was there writing songs and I finally moved to town on September 6, 2015 and started being his manager. Monday through Wednesday I was being a manager and advancing shows and working with Luke. Thursday through Sunday, I was tour manager and would drive the van to shows and then we would come back into town and sit down at his round glass table he had in his apartment and I became the business manager.
The table everyone has in their first apartment that is like a hand-me-down from their grandma?
Exactly! We would sit at the glass table and pay out the band, pay out the bills and then pay off whatever was needed. And the leftover change we had, we put into a Maxwell House coffee can on top of the fridge and that was our bank. That is really how we started every single week. It was really that rudimentary and raw. I told him I would not take a commission from him until he was in a place where he was comfortable and the career was moving forward and then I would take a commission at that point.
You came to town to work with an up-and-coming artist and collected no income in the beginning. Did you have some savings from your previous Sixthman gig that helped you?
I did… kinda. I had some savings and I moved to town and lived with a friend for a bit. And then found a place in Nashville of my own, but it was ironic because I was never home. But I was burning through savings as we built Luke.
What gave you the confidence to keep going as you were living in Nashville off essentially a “no-name country artist” making zero commission?
He was a nobody to everyone in town, but to Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and the South, he was everything. Luke had built such a strong fanbase on his own. Let me tell you how Luke Combs made it. At 21 years old, Luke did not know how to play guitar. He picked it up and within a year he was able to play and sing at the same time. Good enough where he could play open mics. He went to every single open mic night he could get into. If it was a chicken wing restaurant, he was there. It didn’t matter, if he could play, he did. His goal at the chicken wing places was to get the crowd to stop eating for one second and listen to him, then he won. That was his goal. A lot of people ask me all the time, “What is the secret sauce? What does it take in the industry?” I always say it’s hard work and great songs. Luke works really hard at playing music. He works really hard at writing songs. He didn’t wake up one day to see he was a great songwriter. Luke worked and continues to work really hard. He had to write a lot of ‘bad’ songs to find the great ones, and that was all hard work. In a time and age when everyone wants instant gratification, the ones who work hard and are patient will succeed.
It goes back to what you said about how almost every manager in town told him he was just a songwriter, not an artist.
True. No one saw the artist in him, but Luke knew he was an artist. He wrote songs that would fit into the life of everyone. He tells people all the time, “If I am going through it, so is someone else, so they can relate.” He also knew that being an artist was a very hard job. The van rides, the load-ins, the shows, the signings and then to sleep and get up super early to drive to the next town. Those early days are the hardest, the true grind of it all, but he did it. The band did it. We were six dudes in a van, playing music and building something very special. I miss those days. I always will because that’s where it all started.
When did you know Luke was going to be a household name?
Luke wanted to get himself a new car, not even a nice car. I am talking like a working car to literally get him to and from writing sessions. Nothing special. I was getting down to the bottom of my savings and doing what I could— I was eating off the McDonald’s dollar menu and ramen, lots of ramen. I was selling everything I could sell. But then, we were able to buy Luke a Ford Fusion. Like a decent 4-door car that worked. So, after we bought the car, that next weekend we had $500 left over from that run of shows and I took my first commission. I made like $75. I went to Wendy’s that night, not McDonald’s! That’s when it all tipped. We got Luke what he needed and it was like karma said, “Good job, now hang on!”
Was there a difference in the crowds showing up?
Oh yeah, we went from like 40 Watt to the Georgia Theatre. We were jumping from smaller clubs to theaters quickly. The real thing that allowed the fans access to his new songs and got them coming to shows without him having a deal was Facebook and word of mouth. I had learned how to really use Facebook from my time at Sixthman, and that’s how we saw the reaction of fans and eventually created his fan club called The Bootleggers. We were able to talk to them through Facebook… we connected. Once we had the ability to reach them and serve up content and let them into Luke’s life, people felt part of it all. People wanted him to win, and all we wanted to do was give them an escape from reality and a great show every night. It was a win-win.
What happened next to take Luke to the next level?
So, I played his music one night for my friend Lynn Oliver-Cline, who has not only been one of my dearest friends in life for a long time, but has quite the name for herself in the industry, too. I didn’t tell anyone why I had moved to town, I just moved and started with Luke. I was at Lynn’s one night for dinner and played Luke’s music for her. When Lynn heard the music, she knew it was something great, so much so she stopped cooking and sat down and made me play her all I had. Lynn had just created her own independent label and was looking for an artist. Boom, it all clicked. Luke was signed shortly after to a record deal with Lynn and we were off!
“Hurricane” had been charting on its own as an independent, but now it was backed by a label. How did that help?
Lynn and the team at Thirty Tigers did an unreal job to get Luke on some stations and it started to make some noise, like real noise. There was a buzz, some would say. Then he also had just played Whiskey Jam, it was one of those huge shows and you couldn’t get through the door. It was insane. It was just the right people at the right time… with the right song, with the right momentum and it just began to snowball. We ended up with Sony Nashville, and I cannot say enough good things about them. They are a fantastic partner. We also moved to CAA for touring and here we are now with a sold-out arena tour and five No. 1 songs in three years. It is hard to wrap your head around it at times, but I’m just grateful for all the people who believed in Luke.
What advice do you have for those wanting to pursue a career in artist management?
You have to go all in. You have to be in Nashville to make it happen. You have to be here, in L.A. or in New York. You have to be present to win. You have to be where your artist is. I will tell you this, watch the documentary called “Supermensch: the Legend of Shep Gordon.” About three days into managing Luke, he told me to watch this. It was like somebody gave the me the rule book on how to be a manager. Luckily, I had a lot of experience in the past that helped me understand what it takes to be a manager, but that taught me about good business. [That movie] is unbelievable. I still watch it every 10–14 days. I spent an hour with Shep in December. He told me that the only person that has a heartbeat is your artist. That hit home with me and I think about it a lot. Sure, I have screwed up and I have made rookie mistakes, but I learn. Luke understands this and knows I am working hard for him and we are figuring it all out. Being a manager isn’t just about a tour, an album or merchandise. You have to be there for all of it. This is their life, their career, their dream. You are their managing partner and you have to love it just as much as they do, or you won’t truly be invested, in my opinion.
It seems like more than a full-time job.
It is. When that phone rings at 3 a.m., you answer. When they need you at 10 a.m. and you have a day planned, you pivot. When they want you on the road, you go. You signed up to be a part of their life, so the typical 9-5 and Monday-Friday is done… no more. You work all the time, but you love it because it isn’t work — in the term that most people use the term work — it is a lifestyle and passion. Hell, I wake up every Monday excited to get into the meat of it. This is stressful, fun, scary, exhilarating, crazy and rewarding! No two days are the same… ever.
How do you spot up-and-coming talent and decide to work with the artist?
The songs. It really is the songs. It doesn’t solely matter how great you can sing because there are plenty of TV shows that show how great people can sing. There is something special about listening to someone sing their stories. [They’re] singing something they wrote and putting all of their heart and soul into the music and show, leaving it on the stage… that makes it special. The songs are the core of it all. They have to connect to the fan. No connection means no continued listening.
What is a moment on this ride that made you the most emotional?
Luke winning the CMA Award for “Best New Artist” really tore me apart. Mostly because I know how hard he worked. When his name was called, it was just ringing in my ears the whole time. I jumped up and bear hugged Lynn and just threw my hands up and on top of my head. I just couldn’t believe they said his name. Then after he gave his speech, I ran backstage and we both just broke down. It was incredible. I don’t have kids, but that felt like the closest thing I can imagine to your own child winning something. Like an award for something and you know they worked so hard for it … It was pure joy.
Two big guys with beards, crying backstage…
Yeah, it was a mess [laughs]. But that’s who we are, we don’t care if people see our emotions, we just put it all out there. Now, if we are talking about it this year, there was a show on the Ohio State campus at the Schottenstein Center. I had to evacuate because of the flooding on the Cumberland River, so I went on the road with the fellas. I am in the pit during the show and the entire arena of 14,000 people were singing back louder than the PA. That was just a great moment, looking out knowing this is a moment not only for Luke and the boys, but for the fans. It was surreal.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I probably would say both of my grandfathers. One I never knew because he passed away when I was young, and the other I would just like to have a beer with because I can never recall doing that. Sit them both down together, and chat with my grandfathers and listen to them tell me stories about how they grew up and then get some good stories on my parents… I am sure I would have gotten some real good ones from them.
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