One of the obvious differences between Europe and the United States is the age of their historic sculptures. The Greeks and the Romans, who reigned long before the States were even a consideration, left an array of ancient statues of leaders and mythical gods. Many of those figures, of course, are damaged — with missing arms, severed fingers or rubbed-out noses — but they endure nonetheless.
In that context, the opening words of Luke Combs’ single “Love You Anyway” — “If your kiss turned me to stone/I’d be a statue standing tall in ancient Rome” — provide a sense of the relationship the song portrays: significant, remembered but broken.
“I just loved the way that that sounded,” Combs says. “It just adds this unique color, to me, that doesn’t necessarily have any particular meaning behind it. But a statue in ancient Rome feels cooler to me than a statue that exists today.”
While a sculpted image documents a historical figure for as long as it stands, “Love You Anyway” documents a moment in Combs’ relationship with his wife, Nicole Hocking. He played Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Valentine’s Day 2020. She wasn’t feeling well, so when he dedicated “Beautiful Crazy” to her, he acknowledged onstage that she may or may not be in the audience, then tagged the intro: “Love you anyway.”
Songwriter Dan Isbell (“The Kind of Love We Make,” “Fires Don’t Start Themselves”) was moved by that remark, and he logged it as a potential song title to explore in his next co-writing appointment with Combs. Isbell reached out to fellow writer Ray Fulcher (“When It Rains It Pours,” “Even Though I’m Leaving”), who responded positively, and the two actually texted later about it as they took separate flights to Key West, Fla., where they co-wrote at Combs’ house on Feb. 25.
After writing one or two songs earlier in the day, they launched into “Love You Anyway” late at night on Combs’ back patio, with a distant view of the ocean, while Hocking slept. The artful Roman statue verbiage gave them a starting point, and Combs and Fulcher developed a follow-up concept for the opening verse of a woman’s touch shattering him into pieces.
Through that point, the song worked like an Alan Jackson ballad: simple, lyrically driven, conversationally paced. But in the two lines before the chorus, the chords moved more quickly and the melody embraced a new arc, preparing the listener for the next section.
“My favorite part of the song is that pre-chorus where it does that kind of scaling,” says Fulcher. “I’ve always thought of that melody as more of like a pop kind of melody, but it’s also haunting in a way. Those pre-choruses, in order to be right, they really need to set up what’s coming next.”
That pre-chorus led to a more dramatically pitched chorus, in which the singer hails the woman as a grounding force in his life, a “compass needle” that provided guidance. And as it concludes, he tells her that if he had known she would break his heart, he would “love you anyway.” The compass was Fulcher’s idea, and he and Combs had to defend it.
“I actually fought that line a little bit,” Isbell admits. “I was just like, ‘Compass needle?’ Like I didn’t understand what it was -— they literally had to explain it to my redneck ass what that even meant. As a redneck, we didn’t use compasses. You just turn right by the damn tree. I didn’t really know.”
“The thing about the compass is there’s nothing you can do to change where north and south, east and west are,” says Fulcher. “It just is what it is. And that’s the character of this song. It’s like, he’s got no choice in the matter. That’s what’s powerful about it.”
When they finished the song, Combs sang a guitar/vocal version and posted it to his Instagram account that same night.
“It didn’t really get the response I thought it was going to get,” Combs says. “A couple years later, I think we put it on TikTok or something, people were freaking out over it. It’s interesting. That’s probably the first song of mine that I’ve seen work like that.”
Combs recorded a version of “Love You Anyway” with co-producers Jonathan Singleton and Chip Matthews at Nashville’s Backstage during sessions for the Growin’ Up album, but the results were — like the Instagram response — underwhelming.
“It just didn’t sink in like we hoped, and we had so much other material we were working on,” recalls Matthews. “I remember being at Luke’s house one day to talk vocals, and he’s like, ‘Man, I don’t know, we just didn’t hook it. It’s not feeling right.’”
Though it didn’t make Growin’ Up, Matthews didn’t want to let it go. While it was a heartbreak song, he sensed that it said something personal about Combs’ relationship, and he thought it needed to find its place. Matthews ultimately decided that if they slowed it down and stripped back the instrumentation, it would put more attention on the song’s ethereal images, and Singleton agreed.
Matthews reworked the existing track at a slower pace, muting some of the instruments to simulate a more spacious arrangement, and Combs gave the treatment a thumbs-up. They recut it at Matthews’ studio in the summer of 2022, with fiddler Stuart Duncan taking a prominent place in the production.
“The fiddle is the thing, to me, that takes the track over the top,” Combs says.
He worked painstakingly on the vocal. Once or twice, he showed up at Matthews’ studio, only to decide his voice wasn’t operating with the tone and character he wanted. When they finally found a day when the conditions were right, Matthews and Singleton tried several microphones before they landed on one that most closely captured the personal nature of “Love You Anyway.”
“We definitely were going for where you feel like you’re literally standing 3 feet away from him, so that you can hear all of the harmonic crunch and grit and air, and all the little interesting characteristics to his voice,” says Matthews. “Then by not building up a track that takes up all that space, it leaves all that stuff out there to be heard, and I think all that lends itself to the emotion being being conveyed.”
The new version made it onto Combs’ Gettin’ Old album, and it resonated with the audience, renewing an idea that succeeded once before. Trisha Yearwood hit No. 4 on Hot Country Songs in 2001 with the similarly titled “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway,” which likewise celebrated a relationship’s strength even after it had fizzled out. The musical treatment was different — bigger, and more dramatic — and it didn’t have ethereal references to compass needles and Roman statues either. Neither Combs nor Isbell were familiar with the Yearwood single; Fulcher forgot about it until he heard her recording days after they wrote their take on the concept.
Combs recently held a fan contest and let his followers choose the new single; “Love You Anyway” narrowly beat out “5 Leaf Clover” by about 2%. River House/Columbia Nashville officially released it to country radio on April 15 via PlayMPE, and it climbs to No. 18 on the Country Airplay list dated May 20 in its seventh week on the chart, all because Isbell recognized a title in Combs’ onstage conversation.
“That’s the beauty of when your co-writers are also your friends,” Combs says. “They’re always taking notes.”