In October of 1981, Matt Combs was 5 years old, and his parents took him to see famous violinist Itzhak Perlman perform at Century II with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
He was mesmerized.
When the show was over, Combs asked his parents – his mom, Karen, and dad, J.C., a highly regarded percussion professor at Wichita State University – to sign him up for violin lessons.
When they did, they unlocked a natural talent in their son that years later has translated into a string of high-profile musical gigs – though they’re not exactly Perlman-esque.
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Today Combs, 39, is a rising music star in Nashville who frequently rubs elbows with country music celebrities. He’s a Grammy nominee, a regular musician and coach for the hit television show “Nashville,” a fill-in member of Kevin Costner’s band, and now the staff fiddler and mandolin player at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s long-running stage and radio program.
“It’s been a series of small little steps,” said Combs, a Collegiate graduate who moved to Nashville after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1997. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve made it, ta-da!’ That’s not the way it works for anybody.”
Combs started his musical career in a manner more fitting his first idol, Perlman. He quickly became proficient at classical violin and stuck with it through his high school and college career. But while he was in college, he was exposed to a different sound his instrument could make and quickly transitioned from a classical violinist to a bluegrass fiddler.
“I really started getting into that, and it eclipsed my passion for classical music,” Combs said. “It became the thing I was most focused on doing.”
His road to Nashville followed a familiar script. He decided to try his luck in the fiddle-friendly city and headed there not knowing anyone. He and a roommate lived in a rundown apartment, and he did whatever he could to meet fellow musicians and make connections.
During his early days in Nashville, Combs said, he met some key people, including famous bluegrass fiddler John Hartford, and Hartford introduced him to some bluegrass legends.
“I met a lot of older, legendary players that were still playing at the time, some of the original architects of bluegrass music – Earl Scruggs, Josh Graves. They’ve since all passed away, but my first years were spent getting around these older musicians that really are super important to the history of country and bluegrass music.”
Those connections helped Combs land a job playing the fiddle for Mike Snider, a comedic bluegrass musician and regular Opry performer. From there, the jobs kept coming.
In 2011, Combs was a part of the John Hartford Stringband, whose album “Memories of John” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The album was a tribute to Combs’ friend and included some classic Hartford songs and some things he’d written but never recorded. Combs attended the Grammys ceremony that year.
He played the fiddle for a 2012 album and DVD called “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of songs inspired by the “Little House on the Prairie” books that featured Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap and more.
Combs also is a fill-in fiddle player for Kevin Costner & Modern West, a rock/country band headed by the famous actor. Combs sometimes tours with the group, and a fiddle ditty Combs wrote appeared in Costner’s 2012 television miniseries “The Hatfields & McCoys.”
One of Combs’ most visible music gigs has landed him on network television.
He was hired by the ABC television series “Nashville” to play guitar, fiddle and mandolin in star Hayden Panettiere’s character’s band. Anytime she’s performing on the show, Combs is playing in the background. He’s been on the show for both of its first two seasons.
He also works as a coach for many of the “Nashville” actors who must convincingly portray musicians on the show. He gave banjo lessons to Clare Bowen, who plays up-and-coming musician Scarlett O’Connor on the show, and he coaches her through scenes where she’s filmed playing the instrument.
“I’ve never worked on a major TV show before, so seeing the scope of it is pretty impressive,” he said. “They’re all super good folks. Chip Esten (who plays Deacon Claybourne), for instance, is hilarious. It’s a lot of fun to be on set with him because he’s a cutup and very talented. They’re all talented musicians. It’s been an interesting experience to see all sides of it.”
Two months ago, Combs landed another steady job in Nashville when he was hired as the staff fiddle and mandolin player for the Grand Ole Opry, which puts on four live shows a week. His job is to fill in when visiting musicians need players, so he’s always learning new music and meeting new musicians. Last week, he played with country group Gloriana and country legend Gene Watson. He’s also played with Little Jimmy Dickens, Vince Gill and others.
“It’s definitely the most popular and longest running show in country music history, and it’s great to be a part of that,” Combs said.
Combs says he’s happy to have such steady work in Nashville, and he has even more on the books. He wants to continue recording in the studio with other musicians, and he’s in the midst of arranging a string quartet for John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. He’s also working on a subscription-based educational website that will offer fiddle-playing instruction.
He’s also glad to work in Nashville because his life isn’t very tour-friendly anymore, he said. Combs is married with two daughters, ages 5 and 8 months, so he likes to stay close to home.
He did recently return to Wichita to play as part of a concert at the Orpheum celebrating the 50th anniversary of Collegiate. It was organized by one of Combs’ former teachers, James Ockerman, who was a music teacher at Collegiate for 33 years.
Ockerman said that Combs’ talent was apparent even in high school, and he’s not at all surprised to see his student make such a musical mark.
“He was aggressive in everything and was always busy,” Ockerman remembers. “He was always into something, always wanting to do more. He was one of those students who was definitely doomed for greatness.”