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Pounding the pavement, then the ivory: Local man talks about hard work that led to a huge gig with Luke Combs
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Neil Tankersley, left, fist bumps Luke Combs while performing on tour. Tankersley, who grew up in Hall County, graduating from West Hall High School, plays keyboard for Luke Combs, who in 2019 won Top Country Artist and Album by the Billboard Music Awards, as well as Male Vocalist and Song of the Year by the Country Music Association Awards. (Photo courtesy David Bergman)

Right now, Neil Tankersley’s life is beautiful, but the ride it's taken him on has been a little crazy just about every step of the way.

The keyboard player for Luke Combs, an award-winning country artist, and Hall County native is living in Nashville. He’s on a short break right now until he leaves for the band’s European tour in a few days — something he never thought he’d be able to say he’d be doing.

“When I was at West Hall, I did music and theater,” Tankersely, 42, said. “I have really good memories there. And theater, that's actually what I wanted to do. I didn't even want to do music.”

He had dreams of Broadway. Now, he’s performing in stadiums.

For Tankersley, music came naturally. He never really learned to read music. He just plays by ear.

“I started playing keys when I was a kid,” Tankersley said. “To this day, I don't read a lick of music.”

Whenever Combs, who won Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards, writes new music, that’s how Tankersley learns it — by ear. It’s something his father, John, said is part of the family’s heritage. The whole family can sing and many can play instruments.

“Every time we get together as a family, it's back to those roots of gospel music,” John Tankersley said. “So that's where the root of his talent comes from.”

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Neil Tankersley, who graduated from West Hall High School, has been on tour with Luke Combs since early 2019. He’s in the background, playing keyboard, but enjoys the moments in songs where it’s just himself and Combs playing country music in front of thousands of people. (Photo courtesy David Bergman)

That kind of experience and time with his family is what sent Tankersley to the arts. He tried basketball for a bit in high school, but realized it wasn’t for him. He had his heart set on the stage, not the court.

So, he went to Gainesville College, which eventually became part of the University of North Georgia, as a theater major and joined the Gainesville Theatre Alliance.

“Honestly, as far as my perseverance and work ethic and all of that stuff, I attribute to Gainesville Theatre Alliance,” Neil Tankersley said. “Those guys over there taught me the value of work and also of grace, because I was without a doubt the worst student that has ever been.”

And he says that in all seriousness. He “flunked out of college the first time” and moved to South Carolina where he worked a couple of years in the family mortgage business. That's also where he got his first taste of being in a band.

He played rock and roll music with Shades of Grey, riding around in a 15-passenger van playing bars, fraternity parties and small venues around South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia.

“That’s where I did learn that being in a band, unless you're making it and even then some of those guys struggle, it's very difficult to make a living,” Neil Tankersley said. “So that is honestly when I decided, at that point, that if I was going to do this music thing, it was going to be as a contract musician playing for other people.”

So in 2000, he left Shades of Grey, went back to college and left again shortly after because he finally got a real, touring gig.

“He's got talents in his fingers, he's got talents in his voice, and he's got passion,” said Stuart Beaman, resident designer for Gainesville Theatre Alliance.

But the gig wasn’t simply handed to him, though.

“I showed up at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and I sat in the parking lot of this church,” Neil Tankersley said.

He waited for Bebo Norman, a Christian artist, to pull up with his band and he knew it was his chance. A friend had heard on the radio that Norman was looking for a keyboard player to join the band for his tour.

“I went up and ended up talking to his tour manager for probably 30 or 40 mintues and was like, ‘Here's a CD with me playing on it.’ And it had my phone number in there and I ended up getting a call about a month later.”

He toured for a couple months with Norman.

“I thought, ‘This is it. I'm going to make it.’” Neil Tankersley said.  “I thought I was going to go to Nashville and that's what I was going to do. But honestly, it didn't work out that way. I came back and sat at home.”

He said it was a humbling experience. He worked for UPS during Christmas, just to pay the bills. Then he got involved with Northpoint Community Church’s music team and played there and took other small gigs for the next 10 years.

“He has worked very hard to get to where he is,” John Tankersley said. “And it’s had tremendous disappointments. But you take those disappointments and water those disappointments, which became seeds of greatness. And you keep working, you keep moving until you reach your goal.”

So, he worked for church camps. He played at other churches. He even went to school and became a barber. And if that wasn’t enough, he started an interior design business with his mother.

“People have asked me, ‘Why do you do all that?’” Neil Tankersley said. “I've just figured out how to make a living as a musician … I was never going to be that musician who was like, ‘Well, I can't get a gig and I can't get a job because I need a gig.’ No, I just figured it out.”

And figure it out he has.

After all the odd jobs, he ended up going on tour with a Christian band, Echoing Angels, before moving to Nashville.

He’s been there almost 6 years ago and has played for John Berry, Chase Bryant, William Michael Morgan and Jerrod Niemann. Finally, he was recommended to audition for the spot with Combs.

“I'm proud of him,” Beaman said. “We're all so proud of him and what he's doing … When you’ve got a home boy who’s done good like this, it’s kind of great that we can play a small part in it.”

Needless to say, Tankersley got the gig after the audition and has been touring with Combs since early 2019.

“He's the first artist who I've never had to explain who he was,” Neil Tankersley said. “Unless you're living under a rock or you don't listen to country music at all, everybody knows who Luke is.”

Touring with Combs isn’t a job for Tankersley. He said it’s one of the most enjoyable tours he’s been on and makes everything he’s gone through — the 15-passenger vans, working odd jobs to make ends meet — worth it.

“Everything that I have done, everything that I have done in my life from starting doing music at West Hall and doing theater in high school, and then going to Gainesville Theatre Alliance and being at Northpoint, then going to all these different places and doing all these different things,” Neil Tankersley said. “All of that, I believe that God was preparing me for this moment.”

And it’s a moment he’ll never take for granted. When he’s on stage in arenas like Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Tankersley can’t help but to feel emotional. 

“When I'm up there playing, I feel music,” Neil Tankersley said. “I feel it. I'm not just up there dancing around just for the sake of it.”

And he gets the same feeling wherever he’s performing. It's not just the big stadiums, it’s the TV shows, too — Country Music Association Awards, Country Music Television Awards, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Good Morning America.”

“As long as he's enjoying what he does and he does it to the very best of his ability, I am tickled to death,” John Tankersley said.

While those shows have been great, and the performances memorable for Neil Tankersley, his favorite part of the tour comes when he and Combs perform “Better Together.”

“There is a moment at the end of the show, there’s a song that’s just piano,” Niel Tankersley said. “It's just me and Luke on stage for that, so that's kind of fun.”

And even if this lasts just another day or if it lasts for years, Neil Tankersley said he’s just happy to have been a part of it.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate,” Neil Tankersley said “I'm grateful and so thankful that I can look back and go, ‘You know what, God led me here.’ There was a whole lot of hard stuff I had to deal with to get where I am, but I’m thankful I made it here.”

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Neil Tankersley, center, sings along with other band members while on tour with Luke Combs. Tankersley, who graduated from West Hall High School, has been on tour with Combs, a multiple-award-winning country artist, since early 2019. (Photo courtesy David Bergman)