"He called me the first day it came out," recalls Janson, "and he said, 'Buddy, if the song ever only lived today, it did exactly what I could have hoped it would have done. You have no idea the messages I've gotten from in and outside the business.' That right there says it all for me."
Despite the genre's expressed fear of death songs, mortality is an important, time-honored topic for the format. George Jones' funeral tale "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is often cited as the best country song of all time among critics. The Carter Family's similarly sepulchral "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is so key to the idiom that its notes are incorporated into the external structure of Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, while its title looms over the plaques of its inductees inside the Rotunda.
In fact, over 40% of the Country Music Association's 54 previous song of the year winners have referenced death through such bedrock titles as "The Gambler," "Live Like You Were Dying," "Go Rest High on That Mountain" and "I Drive Your Truck." (Nominees for the 55th annual CMA awards will be announced Sept. 9.) One of the reasons the subject succeeds on the trophy circuit is that the creative community recognizes the songs' impact and their improbability.
"It's very difficult to write these kinds of songs and not let them move into the maudlin area too much," says songwriter Jim Beavers, who co-wrote Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer" with Chris Stapleton. "Plus, [there are] just not a lot of opportunities for these kind of songs today. Radio, understandably, is more about positive and uptempo and things like that, so as professional writers we very rarely let ourselves go anywhere near the subject matter."
And yet, mortality continues to find life in country's public realm. HARDY's "Give Heaven Some Hell," accompanied by a video that includes the passage of a casket out of the church, occupies the No. 35 position on Billboard's Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 11. Tim McGraw's "I Called Mama," set in the aftermath of a close friend's too-soon departure, peaked at No. 2 in 2020. And Luke Combs' "Even Though I'm Leaving," which spends its final verse in the hospital room of a dying father, reached No. 1 for three nonconsecutive weeks beginning Nov. 23, 2019.
"The end of the song leaves it positive," says Combs. "The dad in the song saying, 'I'm not afraid of this, and you shouldn't be afraid of it either, 'cause I'm still gonna be there with you' — that's kind of what we wanted for people to feel. Like, yeah, it is really sad when somebody that you love passes away, but they're also still going to be there for you if you need them."
One of the reasons that death continues to find its way into country playlists is that it overlaps with the themes of family and religion, which are both prominent topics in the genre. Thus, while Carrie Underwood brings a sense of revenge to the deaths in her dramatic "Two Black Cadillacs" or "Blown Away," she also reminds listeners of their own relationships and spirituality in "Temporary Home," "Just a Dream" and "See You Again."
"I'm a Christian person and have a very strong belief that we will be reunited someday, and this world is temporary and there is some place that we are going to go," she says. "I think that people really connect to those songs because of that."
Country embraced death more frequently in its earliest decades. Combined with its explorations of cheating, alcohol, poverty and divorce in that era, the format became associated with sad and depressing songs. Artists and executives have purposely moved the idiom to a more cheery posture over time, and that includes steering the production of death songs away from dirge-like optics.
The acoustic guitar in "Bye Mom," for example, keeps the momentum moving gently forward. Scotty McCreery's "Five More Minutes" has a -shimmering quality. Brantley Gilbert's "One Hell of an Amen" and HARDY's "Give Heaven Some Hell" incorporate hard-rock textures as they address personal loss.
"The first few passes that the band did, they were playing it too much like a ballad," says HARDY of the tracking session for "Heaven." "We were telling Jerry Roe, the drummer, 'Dude, play the song like a rock song. I know it's a sad song. I know it's like a midtempo ballad. Play it like a rock song.' He was like, 'OK,' and that brought the energy in the room up."
Ultimately, the energy that fuels songs about death is the universal nature of their dramatic subject, be it Garth Brooks' "The Dance," Cole Swindell's "You Should Be Here," Tom T. Hall's "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" or Alan Jackson's 9/11 memorial "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."
Everyone of a certain age has lost friends and/or relatives. Songs on that topic remind the listener that someone else has felt the same grief, and the best of those songs help us find meaning — even a silver lining — in remembering people who elevated our lives while they were here. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the increased death toll incurred since the onset of COVID-19, that kind of reinforcement is invaluable.
"There's a celebration factor in this song, rather than just a big song about losing somebody," says Kinney of "Bye Mom." "It's about tightening your senses a little bit on what love really is and what gifts that we've been given through it. It's not a dark song, in my opinion. It's got light all in it."
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.