“What came first: the music or the misery?” – Nick Hornby
I cut my vocational teeth as a musician, part of the band Satellite Soul who was signed to Ardent/Forefront. Where label-mates like Skillet, DC Talk, and Newsboys were exceedingly successful, my band was always critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful. I’ve always wondered why.
A few weeks ago I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. The episode is called “The King of Tears.” In it Gladwell tells the story of Bobby Braddock, a legendary Nashville songwriter. Braddock wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for George Jones. He wrote “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” for Tammy Wynette. This guy is a legend, and he writes one incredibly sad song after another.
Gladwell says that we draw lots of lines as we categorize music, usually between genres. We know the line between pop and rock, country and blues, hip-hop and R&B, but the one line we never talk about is the line between sad and happy. It’s the sad song line.
Gladwell inspired me to look back through the songs I’ve written over the years, and it hit me. I write with both feet firmly planted to the left of the sad song line. I mean, that’s what I do.
What’s more, the happy songs I write–I mean this honestly–are mostly written to try and get you guys to like me and like my music. The sad songs? Those I write just for me.
For example: I once wrote a song about how if my wife ever died, I’d probably just kill myself (Bury Me). It’s a country song–obviously.
The highest charting song my band ever recorded was called Say I Am. It topped out at #3. The hook is “I’m not as good as I say I am.” The song is upbeat, but the words are just, well, sad.
The saddest Album I’ve made is Straight Back to Kansas–an alt-country record that merely proves Gladwell’s rule that country music is really the only genre comfortable with deep sadness. Come and Ruin Me Again, Song for a Lonely Person, Saddest Happy Ending–they’re all terribly sad songs. And sadness is my jam:
- Love is All We Own: Inspired by the time, thirty years earlier, when my house burned down–I was 5 years old.
- Interstate Travel: A song about how lonely it is on the road, traveling around without your family. “Another mile farther another exit to a town. Where folks are really living not just traveling around.”
- Always the Same: Musically this is a sad-song high water mark. “Everything around me it is passing away; dust to dust till nothing will remain.”
- Pieces: a song about how after all these years of following Jesus I still feel lost. “Sure I was lost but I didn’t know why; just living on feelings and wandering by; still looking for the pieces, looking for the puzzle, how your life fits in mine.”
- Broken Again: “Broken again, My life is wading through the shattered past, broken glass. Broken again, and I’m broken again.”
Almost Ready is about a married couple who “came to love, but fought instead.” It imagines the moment they pass the point of no return and head for a breakup. What stops them from reaching toward one another instead of holding back in that moment? That moment fascinates me. “We were flying, we were almost ready, we were climbing out on a limb. We were crying, we were almost ready, till something pulled us back again.” And then maybe the saddest line I’ve ever written: “I can’t make you feel what you did before; And I can’t, I can’t stop the slamming door. A reaching finger to the door, a hand goes out, then to the floor.” That’s some messed up, really messed up stuff! And yet this is one of my favorite songs.
Can’t Find the Handle: is about sexual abuse, a topic that is very personal to me.
Ruin Me: “Cause it’s all beautiful, beautiful, pitiful, pitiful, it’s all gone.” Hemingway would be proud, you know?
I love sad songs. I write sad songs. And, truth be told, I simply don’t trust happy music, and that’s the rub.
If ever there was a genre built on being happy–even artificially so–then CCM is it. Contemporary Christian Music is the official forum of the saccharine. Even rock music as a genre, as Gladwell explains, really doesn’t have a lot of room for sad songs, and I like sad songs. I write sad songs. No wonder this never really worked.
So, if you like sad songs too. Feel free to indulge in a little Satellite Soul today. Here’s my Satellite Soul, Sad Song Playlist. You can go over to Youtube and listen to each of them for free:
Set me Free
Always the Same
Love is All We Own
Song for a Lonely Person
Can’t Find the Handle
Saddest Happy Ending