It’s an odd reality that when people hear Luke Combs’ “Even Though I’m Leaving,” many will be in tears, and yet some of them will want to hear it again.
The three-verse plot is a classic sort of country story, representing the arc of a father-son relationship from the boy’s childhood to the dad’s passing, with the son at his father’s side as the old man takes his final breath. It captures both the sad mortality and quiet joy of knowing that your mentor was someone who deserves both your love and respect.
“It’s almost like a cathartic kind of thing,” says Combs of the emotions the song triggers. “It can have a weirdly positive result.”
In that way, “Even Though I’m Leaving” fits alongside some of country’s most touching father-son soliloquies, including Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job,” George Strait’s “Love Without End, Amen,” Paul Overstreet’s “Seein’ My Father in Me” and Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man.” It captures the cloud of love, grief, separation and influence that continues to bond a man to his departed dad, which is remarkable since none of the song’s three writers have yet experienced that sad rite of passage.
“We were all getting choked up, and it was weird because all of our fathers are still alive and we hardly knew each other,” says Wyatt Durrette (“Highway 20 Ride,” “Chicken Fried”). “But that’s one of the magical things about songwriting. If you’re with the right people and you trust each other, crazy, magic things can happen.”
Combs and Durrette met up on Feb. 25, 2016, with singer-songwriter Ray Fulcher (“When It Rains It Pours”) at a writers’ room attached to the studio at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground. Durrette was the established pro that day — neither Combs nor Fulcher had a recording deal or a publishing contract at the time — and Durrette’s desire to write about his son set the tone for the session.
Spurred by a conversation with a friend who had buried a parent, Durrette started talking about the hard truths of one generation leaving the next behind. When Combs located a title he already had logged in his phone (“Even Though I’m Leaving”), the song began to take shape. They started at the top with the phrase “Daddy, I’m afraid,” setting up a verse about a little boy who’s convinced monsters will emerge from the shadows after his father shuts out the lights. They matched it to a restrained melody and a chord progression that was intentionally unremarkable, keeping the focus on the words and leaving room for the chorus to grow.
“I wanted it to kind of have that contrast a bit where it was softer and more lyric-driven in the verses,” explains Combs. “Then the chorus could still be this big singalong thing, but having it in that kind of upper register and giving it a little bit of the raspiness that people have become accustomed to with my stuff.”
Dad holds the boy’s hand at the end of that first verse and reassures him in the chorus when he’s left alone: “Just ’cause I’m leaving it don’t mean that/I won’t be right by your side.”
That sets up the final verse, the surreal moments when dad transitions to the other side. “Daddy, I’m afraid,” the now-grown son says to his aging father. Again, Dad offers his hand and the same words of comfort.
The middle verse proved to be the trickiest part. They needed another major point of separation and eventually decided on a son preparing to head into the service. It twists a bit as he does his best to act adult — “Daddy, I’m afraid” becomes “Dad, we’ll be late.” And the father is now just as fearful as the boy, realizing there’s no guarantee he’ll see his son alive again. Instead of holding his boy’s hand, Dad hugs his neck, and “Even though I’m leavin’ ” becomes “Even though you’re leavin’.”
The changes are so natural, they’re not likely to be noticed until listeners learn the words verbatim. “Whether it was by fate or luck or whatever, that second chorus worked to where you could say all the same things, and you would just invert it a little bit,” says Fulcher.
Still, the second verse was stressful because it required sensitivity. Just as none of the writers had ever lost their dad, none of them had ever joined the military, either They certainly did not want to disrespect that career: “We got hung up a bit on, ‘How do we make this still have like a powerful thing, but not be too cheesy or corny?’” recalls Combs. “We were like, ‘Man, how do we say this and say it right without necessarily having experienced that ourselves?’ We wanted it to feel genuine.”
They knew they had succeeded at the end of the day, and recorded a simple guitar/vocal work tape. Even after they had labored for hours on a project about experiences they had never had, “Even Though I’m Leaving” made them all emotional.
“That was the only time in my whole writing career where there was definitely some misty eyes in the room,” remembers Fulcher.
“Right at the end of the work tape,” adds Durrette, “Luke finishes singing, and then like two seconds after it, you hear him go, ‘Man, that’s hard to get through.’ ”
Combs was well down the road on what would become his debut album, This One’s for You, so he held back “Even Though I’m Leaving” for nearly two years before he recorded it in January 2018. Producer Scott Moffatt assembled a fairly spare studio band, picking the pace up just a hair from the demo’s speed and overdubbing an angelic mandolin later that aids the song’s fragility and provides some movement at the same time. Razor-like guitar effects built tension underneath, and Moffatt added all the backing vocals on his own.
Combs tagged the final phrase one last time at the end of the last chorus, emphasizing the father’s final words: “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” It was a nuance he had added to the song after a handful of public and private performances.
“It just kind of felt like it buttoned it up a little bit,” he says.
Combs, Fulcher and Durrette waited more than three-and-a-half years after the date of creation to finally see “Even Though I’m Leaving” become a single. It debuted at No. 12 on the Hot Country Songs chart dated June 22 after River House/Columbia Nashville issued his EP The Prequel. The label officially sent the song to terrestrial radio on Aug. 26 via PlayMPE, though it already had earned a fair amount of exposure; it now resides at No. 8 on Country Airplay.
“I’m really excited for the world to hear it,” says Fulcher. “The reason I got into songwriting was to write songs like this that are going to affect people, that are going to stir up memories in a good way and are going to bring some healing.”
Thus, it’s a good sign that the near-tears the writers experienced when they wrote “Even Though I’m Leaving” are being reproduced among listeners as they connect with a song that continues the evolution of Combs’ creative persona.
“The mandolin to me was a huge win from a production standpoint,” he says. “It’s kind of unlike anything that we’ve put out so far and definitely unlike anything we’ve released to radio. I just hope that it hits people the right way.”