It’s been 18 months since rising country singer Jackie Lee last released a song, a gap that has been ridden by loss and challenges that left him wondering if he could even continue to make music. Just months after losing his mom, LaDonna, to ovarian cancer in June of 2016, Lee was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which was followed by the end of a long-term relationship and the departure from his label, Broken Bow Records.
Instead of giving up, Lee turned his struggles into a new song. “Long Year,” a poignant ballad released today (May 21), chronicles the emotions he went through from the day his mom passed away to the day he wrote it a year later, resulting in one of the most heartbreaking singles country music has seen in recent years.
When Lee’s cancer returned in October 2017, the now 26-year-old singer decided to document his journey on camera. With the help of his friend Dustin Haney, Lee turned his series of vlogs into a tear-jerking video for “Long Year,” which he dedicated to his mom.
Ahead of the video’s release, Billboard chatted with Lee about writing the new track and the experiences that led him to what he now says is the happiest place he’s been in his career. Below, Lee tells the story behind “Long Year” in his own words.
On June 4, 2016, my mom went to heaven, and it just set my life on a completely different track.
I didn’t even know if I wanted to be in the music business anymore. It wasn’t just music, either — I couldn’t find the importance in everything. Never in my life had anything completely rocked my world, and that did. And I was just trying to figure out how to respond to it.
But I kept going. I just knew my mom wouldn’t have accepted anything other than me following my dreams. At that point, I wanted to make her proud and show her how tough I could be. My dad also gave me encouragement and said, “You can’t let this destroy you.”
In September of 2016, I was flying up to meet with Florida Georga Line in Cleveland, and I was going to write with them all weekend. When I got there, I just remember feeling off. I can’t even say that I had pain, I just felt different. I hadn’t been to the doctor since I was a teenager – I come from a culture of like, “Rub some dirt on it,” you know?
I ended up going to a doctor in Nashville. Every time I went to see him, things got a little more serious. The day before Thanksgiving of that year, I was in New York City and got a call from him. He said, “I’d like to do surgery on December 15. We don’t know that it’s cancer, but we also don’t know that it’s not, and we want to be safe.”
I was was booked on the road from Thanksgiving through December 13 to promote my song “Getting Over You,” but no one knew what was going on. I didn’t say a word to anybody at my record label. The only people that knew were my dad and my manager. I wasn’t ashamed — I just had already been through so much, and I didn’t want people to have an excuse to slow me down. I got home on December 13, had surgery on December 15, and then had a show New Year’s Eve.
I got back on the road on January 4, 2017. The doctor called me not long after and told me it was stage II testicular cancer but that, from what they could tell from the scans, there was no other cancer in my body. I thought, “This is awesome. I don’t have to tell my label anything, I don’t have to tell anybody anything. This is just something that my family and I can deal with and move on.”
And I did: 2017 was one of the most fun years of my life. I had so much fun playing music and trying things that I had never really done before – a constant glass-half-full mentality. Still, it was hard: My girlfriend and I decided to part ways, and shortly after that I decided to part ways with my record label. It was also the one-year anniversary of my mom going to heaven in June.
The day after that anniversary, I had a writing session with Sean McConnell, one of my favorite artists in Nashville, and Barry Dean, who’s another amazing human being. Sean’s convictions in his faith are so strong, and he’s so genuine it almost hurts. Barry is the same way — his heart is ginormous. I kind of puked up all this emotion on them. I told them, “Guys, it’s kind of been a long year.” And Sean McConnell said, “That’s what we’re gonna write today.”
We probably talked for four or five hours before we wrote the first lyric of the song. And even if we hadn’t written a word, they knew that I needed to talk to somebody, that I needed that day. Something inside of me said, “Jackie, you really have an opportunity here to write something that can help heal you.”
I never thought “Long Year” was going to come out. When I wrote it, I thought, “Nobody is ever going to relate to this song. Nobody is ever going to want to hear this song.” I’ve lived in Nashville since 2009, and here, you’re always trying to write a hit song. But I just didn’t care about any of that. I wanted to go in there and write a song that helped me – because if you can’t help yourself, you can’t help anybody else.
We keep rockin’ that summer, and one day in August I went in for a routine check-up — every three months I would do a CAT scan and some blood work. The CAT scan showed that there was something going on around my hip, so I did a PET scan. The PET scan came back positive, so then I did a biopsy. The biopsy showed that the cancer had come back.
I was devastated. But my mom didn’t raise no wimp, and I wasn’t about to start now. You just put your blinders on and take it one day at a time, because if you look at it from a distance, it does look insurmountable.
Honestly I’ve had deep moral confliction about sharing this very private & personal story, but my family & team have encouraged me in the last few weeks to share this & I am doing so in hopes that it may encourage even just one person to keep going. @Vevo https://t.co/xYiSlJ0U9P pic.twitter.com/nnim9UrrHL
— Jackie Lee (@JackieLeeMusic) May 21, 2018
I went to Lance Armstrong’s doctor, Dr. Einhorn in Indianapolis, who told me what kind of chemotherapy he wanted me to do. He told me, “Jackie, you’re 26 years old. You’re healthy. We’re not talking about prolonging your life, we’re talking about healing you so you can live the rest of your life.” He brought a lot of peace in me.
October 22 was the date of my first chemo treatment. I called my buddy Dustin Haney a few days beforehand and told him, “I’m thinking about vlogging some stuff for my own records. That way, one day I can look back on all of this and just forget it.”
I didn’t know anything about cameras. I had no idea what I was doing. Halfway through my treatment I thought, “Am I even getting good content?” By the end of it, I just sent him every piece of footage I took, and he put it all together to make the “Long Year” video.
This past January, when I found out I was cancer-free, I felt like I had PTSD. I felt like I had walked through a battlefield with all these bombs were going off around me, but somehow I made it to the other side unhurt. And I didn’t know what to do after that.
It was a struggle for me: I go through all of this, and then what? I go back to playing country shows on the weekend? Is that why I moved here? I just couldn’t find anything that filled my soul enough to matter. And that’s why I’m thankful for “Long Year,” because I do feel like this song could encourage somebody going through a really crappy time in their life. You can make it. Just keep your head up, don’t stop.
I’ve already been asked to be on a couple of cancer research boards and committees, and that is such a huge deal to me, because I feel useful — like I’m able to use my experience to hopefully help somebody else. I hope it brings awareness, and I hope it brings a lot of healing.
Several months ago, I sang “Long Year” at the Grand Old Opry. I didn’t preface it. I just sang it. Later that night, I got a message on Instagram from this girl who had also lost her mom. She said, “I went to Opryland Hotel and we rode in the river ferry ride. When I got to the wishing tree, I threw my quarter in and wished that I could be with my mom one more day.” And she told me that, not even an hour later, she went to the Opry, and I sang “Long Year,” and for a few minutes, she felt like she had her mom back. She thanked me for playing the song, and she told me that it made her trip worthwhile. That’s what I hope to give people when hear it: Even if someone is no longer with us, even if you’re going through something, you can still think back on good memories and remember the good times.
I still have no idea what a hit is, and I have no idea how to even attempt to write a hit. If “Long Year” becomes a hit, that’s great. I just know that now I’m writing from a place in my heart that matters to me. It feels genuine this time around, and that’s what’s important. I want to make sure that what I’m doing makes an impact.
I still don’t feel like I’ve written a song about my mom yet. “Long Year” is about my struggle — I’m almost talking to her, but it’s more about the emotion I dealt with along the way. One day, I want to write a song for my mom about my mom. I can’t even begin to tell you right now what that looks like. I don’t know if it’s a fast song, if it’s a slow song — she was wonderful in so many ways.