Dave Combs

Dave Combs, a one-time seasonal resident of Blowing Rock is an award-winning composer and instrumental songwriter, living full-time in Winston-Salem. His first song, ‘Rachel’s Song,’ and many others have sold millions around the world and across the U.S.

WINSTON-SALEM — Picking up a copy of The Blowing Rocket from a nearly foot-high stack of the newspapers laid out on his basement billiards table, there is an obvious twinkle in Dave Combs’ eye as he reflects on one of his favorite places in the whole world.

Combs and his wife, Linda, were seasonal residents of Blowing Rock, owned a condo at Chateau Cloud, were enthusiastic supporters of the Blowing Rock Stage Company and good friends of the late, longtime editor of the Rocket, Jerry Burns.

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Dave Combs takes great delight in sharing the 88 photos that he had published in The Blowing Rocket while Jerry Burns was editor.

“We would go to Blowing Rock in the summer, even when we lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. area. Whether we were in Blowing Rock or D.C., I would frequently send Jerry photos I had taken. Over the years, I counted that he put 88 of them in the pages of the The Blowing Rocket, some even on the front page,” said Combs. “With a smile, he often introduced me as his ‘Washington correspondent’.”

One might say that Blowing Rock, with a Main Street lined with gift shops, was an accelerator in Combs’ second career, in music. Although for 22 years he was employed by AT&T as a technology consultant, Combs found his entrepreneurial calling in what started out as a hobby: playing the piano.

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Dave Combs started out as a technology consultant with AT&T, but after 22 years was able to quit his ‘day job’ and devote full time to his music.

If someone wants to see Combs light up a room, all they need to do is ask him to play live piano accompaniment to a Winston-Salem Symphony recording of the tune that got it all started, “Rachel’s Song.” The renditions of the song and now more than 200 copyrighted others have sold millions of copies all over the world. Amazingly, there was no record company involved and no advertising. Combs’ music industry success was largely self-made, with the help of a few friends and what he describes as divine intervention along the way.

“Rachel’s Song” had an unlikely beginning, and it happened in a series of moments that Combs calls, ‘Godwinks,” borrowing a phrase from one of his favorite authors, Squire Rushnell.

In his new book, “Touched by the Music: How the Story and Music of ‘Rachel’s Song’ Can Change Your Life” (2021, David M. Combs, Winston-Salem), Combs describes defining moments, threshold moments and ah-ah moments.

“Defining moments simply happen. We neither plan them nor control them,” said Combs. “We can’t avoid them but they can change the pattern of our lives. Some are global, like pandemics or wars. Other defining moments happen closer to home, like the birth of a child or the death of a loved one.”

Combs suggested that we also experience threshold moments, those times when we stand at one of life’s doorways asking ourselves for a direction: Do I do nothing? Do I go straight ahead? Do I turn right or left, taking a different path? Do I turn around and run?

Dave Combs Photography

An accomplished photographer, Dave Combs devotes a lot of wall space to some of his favorite images, including of Washington, D.C.

“Threshold moments force me to make a choice about what to do next,” said Combs. “What should I study at school? Should I take this job? Should I ask that girl to marry me? Should I relocate? God creates those moments to change the trajectory of your life.”

Then there are those ah-ha moments.

“That’s when a light comes on in my head and I make a discovery. Every part of my brain, personality and intuition come together with God working to connect the dots in such a way that I have often said out loud, ‘Ah-ha! I know what I need to do now.’”

When reading “Touched by the Music,” it is hard to put it down as Combs tells the story of the beginnings of “Rachel’s Song” as a simple melody he couldn’t get out of his head, as well as his wife’s pestering him about the name of the song since he frequently pecked it out on the piano.

Linda Combs' wall

Dave Combs enthusiastically shares his wife Linda’s wall of accomplishment during her long career in public service, including stints with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and the Department of the Treasury. She also served as Controller of the United States, in the White House.

But it is so much more, too: the intimacy of that moment when he spontaneously played it for his new godchild, “Rachel,” at her christening in a New York church; the urging of his wife to write the notes down, then to get a demo tape of it while he was in Nashville as a consultant working for AT&T; the sense of awe and wonder he felt as a professional musician and sound engineer transformed his song into something even more special; and then his resourcefulness and entrepreneurial instincts’ kicking in once he realized the effect the song had on people when they heard it — and he couldn’t find a record company that had an interest in taking it on.

The book is all of that and more, because in so many ways it is also a personal witness to his faith in God and a decision at some point in his life to let God be his guide.

Maybe it was divine intervention that prompted the engineer who produced the first demo tape (a reel-to-reel “master tape”) to also make four copies on cassette to be played on a common stereo player.

Combs had a friend in radio broadcasting who had a weekend “easy listening” program in Winston-Salem and one day the subject of the song came up. “I’d love to hear it,” said Bob McHone, the radio guy. So when they played one of the cassette recordings at McHone’s office, he asked if he could play it on the air the next weekend.

Of course Combs agreed, but there was a problem. He would have to allow someone else to take possession of his only master tape so the radio station could copy it to a format they could use. Combs was reluctant, but ever the professional McHone was true to his word and the master tape was back in the songwriter’s possession within two hours.

For Combs and wife Linda, it was certainly an inspiring, even intimate moment when they held hands in front of their radio and heard McHone’s introduction and then their song on the radio.

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‘Godwinks’ have played an important role in Dave Combs’ life journey.

But when the station manager of WKLM called and said, “Dave, I have never experienced this phenomenon in my entire radio career. As soon as ‘Rachel’s Song’ started to play, the phone lines all lit up at the same time and stayed that way constantly. They all had the same questions: ‘What was that song you just played by the guy from Winston-Salem? Will you please play it again? Where can I get a copy of it?”

It is debatable as to whether the question, “Where can I get a copy of it?” was a threshold moment or an ah-ha moment. For Combs and his wife, certainly it was testimony that there was probably a market opportunity being revealed, an ah-ha moment. But then, was he willing to quit his day job or spend the countless extra hours usually required of newly inspired entrepreneurs? That is a threshold moment, forcing him to answer a question about the path his life should take.

Combs spent a good portion of his time when not working for AT&T making copies of cassette tapes to send to various radio stations. He wanted to share the music with the world. Then he started to get fan mail from people who shared how “Rachel’s Song” impacted their life in some way. Doctors and nurses said that it calmed anxious patients. A driver stuck in a traffic jam shared that it had turned a frustrating experience into a pleasant afternoon. The mother of an autistic child described her daughter with tears running down her face, clutching the recording. “You reached her,” the mother said.

The entrepreneurial lessons Combs learned from that point on, the resourcefulness and persistence he demonstrated even when he and his music were dismissed by so-called professionals who didn’t even bother to listen, are too numerous to mention in a simple newspaper article. They are inspiring, nonetheless.

The strength that he received within the environment of his faith journey should only be heard in the first person, in Combs’ words, because he does such an impressive job in their telling.

Dave Combs brings to life his life-changing journey. The stories are up close and personal, many borne of faith-based steps along the way. Within about 10 years, Combs had quit his day job at AT&T to focus on his music career. Once he discovered that songwriting was a calling, he wrote more and played more.

He writes about how being asked to conduct the Winston-Salem Symphony accidentally resulted in a more dramatic rendition — and a standing ovation from some 900 audience members. He writes about needing to write more music and more again.

Combs writes about what he learned regarding the music business and distribution. He writes about a first Christmas album, being asked to submit original music for a James Bond movie, cruise ships, The Lettermen, the Blue Ridge Parkway, PBS, UNC-TV, Symphony of the Mountains, a Rotary club, performing at the Governor’s Mansion — and frequently sitting on the lawn in front of a Blowing Rock gift shop, playing his music while signing autographs on CD covers.

If you are an entrepreneur, please read “Touched by the Music.” If you are on the fence about the role God can play in your life, please read “Touched by the Music.”

I visited with Dave Combs for over three hours last week, at the Combs’ residence in a Winston-Salem suburb. We talked. I asked questions and he was quick to answer, openly. He played music, even taking a short melody that has been rattling around in my head for years and taking it to a different level. He shared his wife’s accomplished career in government service, in Washington, D.C. He told stories around his often brilliant photography, from a Pentagon 9/11 memorial, to Bass Lake, to Tweetsie Railroad fireworks.

Dave Combs has stories to share and they might just hit home.

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