It’s taboo. It’s scary. But it’s very, very real. Just like any physical ailment, disease, or disorder, mental illness can happen to anyone—often without reason or warning. It remains one of the most misunderstood and under-discussed topics in the world today, especially because it is estimated that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
And although topics regarding mental health are often difficult to talk about in 2015, the situation has only improved in recent years. Through looking at the progression of country music since the late 1950’s, some of these changes regarding society’s view on mental health—specifically suicide—are quite shocking. The 7 songs in this list demonstrate society’s increasing acceptance of suicide as a legitimate issue, while also proving that there is still an incredible amount of progress to be made
1. “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” (1958)
Performer: Buddy Knox
Writer: Buddy Knox
This rockabilly hit combines singing “bop ba ba ba” and “I think I’m gonna kill myself” into one song. Yes, it’s just as disturbing as it sounds. Rockabilly music is a collection of blues, country, gospel, and pop sounds, and is in no way suited for a song about committing suicide. The cheerful mood conveyed in this song is not appropriate for the lyrics involved, and is so ridiculous that I am inclined to think that it’s satirical. Purposefully comical or not, the way this song is presented demonstrates the lack of sensitivity people at this time may have felt for those who were potentially suicidal.
2. “Suicide Blues” (1962)
Performer: David “Stringbean” Akeman
Upon first listening to this song, all I could feel was total anger and disgust. I can’t think of anything funny whatsoever about suicide, and the mood conveyed in this song is happy-go-lucky and carefree. It’s played on a banjo!!! That’s literally the happiest instrument I can think of. Yet, it’s discussing something as serious as wanting to take one’s own life, and poking fun at it. This song is the perfect example of how joking around about committing suicide was perfectly acceptable at this time in the early 1960’s—and suggests that many people didn’t take the issue very seriously.
3. “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967)
Performer: Bobbie Gentry
Writer: Bobbie Gentry
This song tells the story of a young man who commits suicide by jumping off a bridge in the Deep South. There is a lot of controversy over the exact meaning of this song, but it is evident that Billie Joe’s suicide affects the narrator more than everyone else surrounding her. The narrator’s dad lacks sympathy for the boy, claiming he “never had a lick of sense”; this is completely disrespectful to the boy, and minimizes his pain by blaming his suicide on his supposed lack of intelligence. In reality, the mental battle people face when deciding whether or not to take their own life is incredibly complex. However, the song in general is a step in the right direction as it exposes the tragic issue and showcases how many different people a suicide effects (that one may not even realize)
4. “Hurt” (2002)
Performer: Johnny Cash
Writer: Trent Reznor
This song possibly delves into the dark and devastating topic of self-harm. Self-harm and mental illness are sadly very often correlated—whether that be due to someone’s desire to feel something (even if it’s pain), a deep hatred for oneself, the media’s tendency to romanticize self-harm, or another reason. Cash sings that he hurts himself to “see if [he] still feels” and will leave his “empire of dirt” (his belongings) to his wife when he dies. Cash’s ability to convey his raw emotions and pain through his music helps the audience get into the head of someone who might be contemplating suicide. “Hurt” was a big step for the country music world in terms of discussing suicide; Johnny Cash wasn’t afraid to be authentic—a trait that is desperately necessary in preventing and treating mental illnesses.
5. “Whiskey Lullaby” (2003)
Performer: Brad Paisley, Alison Krauss
Writers: Bill Anderson, Jon Randall
There’s no doubt that this Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss hit is quite the tear-jerker. Despite its success at bringing attention to the devastating issue of suicide, it does more harm than good in the mental health world. The lyrics tell a Romeo and Juliet type scenario where the man commits suicide because a girl broke his heart, causing the girl to feel an immense amount of guilt that eventually drives her to commit suicide as well. This song conveys the idea that having one’s heart broken is a legitimate reason that people commit suicide. It is possible that this plays a role in certain cases, but the depth of the pain one experiences in order to finally come to the conclusion that death is the only option is much more complex. It also romanticizes suicide as people could view it as a tragic love story where the pair feels as though they must die together. This potentially undermines the pain that those who are suicidal experience, and demonstrates a misrepresentation of mental illness.
6. “How Do you Get that Lonely” (2004)
Performer: Blaine Larsen
Writers: Rory Lee Feek, Jamie Teachenor
This song tells the story of a boy who killed himself at the age of eighteen. The lyrics contemplate the reasoning behind how and why the boy could have made this decision. Was it because his parents didn’t tell them they loved him? Or because his girlfriend broke up with him? Similar to songs previously listed, the artist cannot fully understand the depth of the emotional pain that caused this boy’s suicidal tendencies. However, this song is a step forward because the singer desires to understand. He desperately wants to get inside this boy’s head and gain more knowledge about his reasoning behind his decision to commit suicide. This curiosity is refreshing and is crucial to ultimately lowering the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. This song is clearly very serious in contrast to many of the songs earlier in this list. Its slow pace and gloomy mood is appropriate for the lyrics and respectful of the topic. Furthermore, the song helps to convey the idea that a person’s choice to commit suicide affects more than just themself; an entire community is negatively impacted by this decision.
7. “The Call” (2010)
Performer: Matt Kennon
Writer: Matt Kennon
Matt Kennon is sure to bring a tear to your eye as he sings about calling his friend right before he was about to “pull the trigger”. It is the most progressive in terms of mental health awareness because it shows someone being supportive of his or her friend during a time of desperation. Research shows that people who feel like they have social support are less likely to suffer from mental illnesses. This is a crucial concept that ultimately shows people how they can take action in fighting for a healthier society. It begins immediately with being supportive of those around you. Additionally, in this song, the boy has no idea his friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts. It demonstrates how those who deal with these hardships often feel alone and keep to themselves. This is often due to the stigma surrounding mental illness that those who deal with these issues are “crazy” or “weak”. This song ultimately expresses the importance of supporting those around you and paying attention when you think someone may be struggling.
As you can see, there is a shocking progression from the way mental health was discussed in country music in the 1950’s and 60’s to how it is in the 21st century. Suicide was often sung about in a joking fashion, because mental illness was even more taboo back then than it is today. With songs like “How Do You Get that Lonely” and “The Call”, it is clear that people have gained a deeper understanding of the seriousness of mental illness.
It is important to note that the songs in this list mainly refer to depression and suicidal tendencies specifically. Songs about other mental illnesses like personality and eating disorders do not seem to be very common within the country music genre. Despite the progress thus far, it would be beneficial to have a more diverse range of mental health issues represented.
It’s impossible to listen to this list without shedding a tear (or 100), which I think perfectly demonstrates the power music has to make an impact. The progression country music has made in its discussion of mental health and suicide is impressive, though it still has a long way to go.
Part of what makes suicide so tragic is that it’s completely preventable; there is no reason that someone should be suffering so deeply that death is his or her only option. If more musicians begin to sing about suicide in a respectful and understanding fashion, more people will gain knowledge about the effects suicide has on an entire community of people, as well as how to spot the warning signs for those who may be suicidal. Understanding these key ideas is essential in ultimately lowering suicide’s 10th place spot on the list of leading causes of death for Americans. Music—and especially a storytelling-focused genre like country—holds enormous power to promote change, and in this case, save lives. Country music can work to prevent someone from pulling the trigger, jumping off the balcony, or swallowing the pills—and to me, that is something worth fighting for.