These six country stars have had lives as sad as a classic country song.
Heartache is a common theme in country music. In fact, Luke Bryan decided to record his 2013 hit “Drink a Beer” because he felt it aptly described his shock at losing both his siblings.
He’s not the only one to experience loss and hardship; several country artists had very difficult youths or have experienced catastrophic events in their lives. Here are six country artists who have braved tragedy.
6. Merle Haggard
When Merle Haggard made an appearance on the Johnny Cash Show, Cash introduced him by saying, “Here’s a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.”
Three years before Haggard’s birth, his family’s Oklahoma barn burned to the ground. In the midst of the Great Depression, the family moved to Bakersfield, California.
In 1937, Haggard was born in a house made from a converted boxcar. It was a fitting home since James Haggard worked for the Santa Fe Railroad.
When his father died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1946, nine-year-old Haggard took the death hard and never really got over it. It wasn’t easy being raised by a widowed mother of three, and Merle’s rebellious nature eventually landed him in San Quentin Prison.
Haggard eventually used those experiences to help him write hits like “Mama Tried,” which would lead to lasting success in country music.
5. Gretchen Wilson
Probably one of the most true-to-self country artists of her time, Gretchen Wilson was reaching into her life experiences to write her hit song “Redneck Woman”. The proud anthem of country women everywhere certainly has its roots in Wilson’s tumultuous youth.
Born to a teenage mother, Wilson never knew stability as child. Her father, a teen himself, left the family when Wilson was two. Her mother struggled with drug addiction and alcohol abuse and was often absent in her life.
After eighth grade, Wilson quit school to go to work. She spent her evenings tending bar and singing in a rough honky-tonk in her hometown of Pocahontas, Illinois to help put food on the table. Wilson made her way to Nashville at the age of 23, and finally achieved success in the early 2000s.
4. Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan is no stranger to tragedy. Earlier this year, disaster struck his family for a third time when his brother in law, Ben Lee Cheshire, died unexpectedly at the age of 46.
Cheshire’s wife passed away in 2007 at the age of 39, so this most recent death in the family left their three teenaged children orphaned. The Bryan family is weathering the storm admirably, and have chosen to raise the youngest of Chesire’s children, Til, who is just 13 years old.
Bryan also lost his only brother when he died in a car crash at the age of 26.
3. Johnny Cash
Born J.R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, the Man in Black, who we all know now as Johnny Cash, experienced many trials during his life.
Raised during the Great Depression, he bore many of the same struggles most Americans did at the time. At the age of five, J.R. picked cotton with his family in the fields of Arkansas.
More poignant than economic hardship though, was the loss of his favorite brother, Jack. He and Jack were very close, and when Jack was 15, he was accidentally pulled into a saw at the mill where he worked. He died of his injuries a week later.
Cash frequently cited Jack’s death as an influence on his work and possible reason as to why so many of his songs were so melancholy.
2. Shania Twain
Shania Twain had already had a tough life when, at the age of 21, she unexpectedly lost both her parents in a car accident. Eileen Twain (as she was known before she moved to Nashville) was raised in Ontario by her mother and stepfather along with her four younger siblings.
Her parents were poor, and at the age of eight, Eileen was already singing shows in bars to supplement her family’s income. Her mother would wake her at midnight and bring her into the bar to sing, so that young Twain was only there after alcohol had stopped being served.
Twain’s stepfather was frequently abusive to her mother, and once tried to leave with the children. Her tumultuous upbringing may have had an influence on her songs, especially her 1997 emotional ballad, “Black Eyes, Blue Tears”.
1. Hank Snow
Clarence Eugene Snow, known as Jack to his family, had a youth filled with troubles. His hard working but impoverished parents struggled to feed him and his three siblings. The hardship of poverty and the grief of losing their two eldest children in infancy was too much for George and Marie Snow, and when Jack was eight his parents divorced.
Following the divorce, the authorities removed Jack and his siblings from their mother, who was deemed too poor to take care of them. Jack was sent to go live with his paternal grandmother who subjected the young boy to severe beatings and psychological abuse.
By the age of 12, he was allowed to live with his mother once more, but she had remarried a harsh and cruel man who also abused Jack. These experiences didn’t break him though, and eventually he made it to Nashville where he poured his heart and soul into his one true love, music.