By Terri Schexnayder
Country music’s familiar heart-tugging lyrics of country-western ballads about cheating, love lost, and traveling roads in pickup trucks always seems to have a place for grief. Hits are littered with songs about love, death, grief, and faith as artists share their feelings and coping strategies ranging from tears to whiskey.
Steve Seskin is a name you might not know, but he’s written seven number one hit songs and is a two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter for songs that both feature grief, including Tim McGraw’s “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” and Mark Wills’ “Don’t Laugh at Me.”
The inspiration for “Grown Men Don’t Cry” came from a conversation between Seskin and McGraw about their fathers. Seskin was estranged from his father, who died from a heart attack shortly before they were scheduled to reconnect, and he spoke about the impact his father’s death had on his life.
“I wrote the lines, ‘I just placed a rose on his grave and I talked to the wind’ because that happened to me. I stood by my father’s grave in Queens, New York, and had the ‘mend fences’ talk that we had never had in real life,” he said.
Seskin and McGraw bonded over the fact that neither had a good relationship with their dads. Seskin said, “It was the rose on the grave line that killed me, and McGraw, who grew up not knowing his dad, understood. Later, Tim and Tug McGraw became close.”
“Our dads weren’t the epitome of what a dad was supposed to be. It can’t be good for you to suppress sadness, grief, and emotions. I don’t want to be that kind of dad. I want to express my emotions. Emotions should be embraced — you need to go through them. When you deny it, you mess with the process.”
Grammy-nominated songwriter Seth Glier described the power of his favorite country song about loss, “One More Day.” The song was written by Bobby Tomberlin and Steven Dale and made famous by the band Diamond Rio. “I love the second verse, ‘first thing I’d do is pray for time to crawl.’ I especially appreciate how much space there is in the writing for the listener to insert their story into the song. This song could be about anybody yet for most people is about a very specific somebody.”
Glier, who lost his brother Jamie seven years ago, shared “Jamie was born with autism, loved horseback riding, swimming, and pottery and lived his life without the ability to speak in an oral form. He had a language, but it was one all his own and I often credit him with my interest in songwriting. My brother’s death was my first introduction to what I call the territory of grief. The territory is sort of like an ocean. Other people in my life have since passed and brought me back there. After the initial awkward and painful fumbling around that territory, I’ve found a fountain of gratitude and compassion there. I’ve found that I can connect deeply with just about anybody now. I consider that a tremendous gift from Jamie.”
Seskin and Glier co-wrote “When You Lose Someone Like That” for Evermore, and for anyone who has loved and lost someone they dearly love.
Like “One More Day,” the absence of specific explanations for Evermore’s “like that” refrain intentionally does not name who has died. This technique is used in many country songs. “For example, country music star Kenny Chesney’s 2005 release, ‘Who You’d Be Today,’ written by Aimee Mayo and Bill Luther, doesn’t name a specific person, rather the songwriters used “you” to connect directly with the listener,” noted Seskin.
“We hear the listener saying, ‘like what?’ It was about the suggestion of sadness. It can come out of nowhere. Songs serve many listeners,” said Seskin.
“In the end, we write to share our songs with many people…we want the listener to complete the piece, bringing their own life to it. They understand the person they lost more than I do. There is value in not defining things or limiting the story.”
Country music’s best will take center stage this weekend in the annual Country Music Television Awards in Austin, Texas. Loss is prominent for two Performance of the Year nominees. Emmy Russell and Lukas Nelson are nominated for their performance of “Lay Me Down,” originally sung by Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson’s father, and dearly departed Loretta Lynn. The other nominee is the Judds’ performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge.” It’s a touching performance because Wynonna Judd performs with her late mother, Naomi, who died by suicide just one day before being inducted into the Country Hall of Fame last April.
During her acceptance speech, Wynonna remarked on the two conflicting emotions conveyed in her title song, “Broken and Blessed.”
I’m somewhere between hell and hallelujah’ … this is me, broken and blessed.
“I’m gonna make this fast, because my heart’s broken, and I feel so blessed. It’s a very strange dynamic to be this broken and this blessed. … Though my heart’s broken, I will continue to sing, because that’s what we do,” Wyonna said.