The look of surprise on Luke Combs' face when his name was called as the New Artist of the Year at the CMA Awards was genuine.

Though Combs has found massive success since bursting on to the scene with his single "Hurricane" in 2017 — including four consecutive No. 1 hits, a platinum-certified debut album and lining up an arena-headlining tour in 2019 — he still went into Wednesday night's (Nov. 14) show assuming he wouldn't win.

"I never want to believe that I'm going to win anything, and I think tonight was no different," he tells Taste of Country and other media backstage.

One of highlights of Combs' speech came with his declaration of love for country music in a few short words. "I really wanted to go up there and speak from the heart. It may have been goofy, but it's what I felt in that moment," he says. "That moment will stick with me forever."

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A line can be drawn between Combs' victory and one of the night's star performers, Eric Church. Combs recalls his freshman year at Appalachian State University, watching Church perform at their alma mater to now, seeing him perform on the CMAs stage where Combs spent time on this night in 2018, was a "a really cool full circle moment for me."

"It really changed my outlook and changed a lot of things for me about country music. I was just a fan for three years, and when I decided to pick the guitar up I said, 'If this guy went to college here and can be on stage at the CMAs and winning CMA Awards and No. 1 songs, I don't see why I can't do it,'" Combs says of Church's influence. "He really inspired me to have a tunnel vision approach to what I wanted to do. I'm very lucky to have run into his music, because I really don't think that I would be here without it."

Combs performed his recent No. 1 hit "She Got the Best of Me" during the 2018 broadcast, in addition to participating in Luke Bryan's opening number, "What Makes You Country."

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