The Wood Brothers totally nailed it: Singing About It does, in fact, heal a broken heart

If you get too worried, what you ought to do is sing…

Let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about why I am such a devoted fan of music… Why music is such a foundational part of my life and probably yours, too. For me, it’s personal. It’s tragic and it’s uplifting. Listening to great music can be painful but it is always healing, for me at least. (Many studies have shown I’m far from alone, as this article “Sad Songs Make You Feel Better” explains – playlist included.)

Those who know me personally are keenly aware that live music – especially bluegrass and old gospel tunes – transports me to a place of comfort, peace, and safety that no longer exists for me on this planet. Not since my mom died – slowly, over two years of horrific suffering from brain cancer, all of which I witnessed – when I was 13.

If you get worried, what you ought to do is sing…
If you get worried, what you ought to do is sing…
Îf you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…
Sing about your troubles, it just might pass.

Before my mother received her death sentence, my childhood brimmed with innocence, love, and imagination. My mom was a rock star of moms. THE rock star among all the moms I ever knew. And my dad, a gifted musician who’s played with several bands since his teens, frequently took the fam along to his gigs at festivals and events all over Arkansas and adjoining states. We would camp with all his musician buddies and their families.

Me singing my parts in a junior high production of “Wizard of Oz,” circa 1984.

We’d all sing along, too, during the rehearsals, jam sessions and performances – but I was the only one of us who didn’t mind being heard. My mom never sang loudly, but she had a beautiful voice. I may be the only person who ever heard her sing at full volume – which occurred only while she cleaned the house or sewed my pageant dresses, when no one else was home, and when Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” record was booming from our sweet 1975 stereo system. (She would belt out those songs and hit every note dead-on with gusto and passion; I still listen to that album regularly.)

On those bluegrass festival trips, around our campfire, magic ensued. Musicians from all over the country would drop in to join my Pops and his pals. Men and women of all ages and from all walks of life would take turns calling out classic bluegrass tunes and old gospel stalwarts like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Jesus Hold My Hand.” I sang along with my dad’s encouragement, hitting harmonies that – I now know – most trained adult vocalists must work hard to master. (The vocal talent that ran through my family’s genes and thankfully landed on me earned me several college scholarships years later.) 

I knew every word to every song they played, and I loved that community and those nights of music magic more than anything in life. At some point – when the spirits were flowing freely and so were the colorful words – I’d be sent to the tent, where I’d fall asleep listening to the songs – the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. The sounds of cicadas and tree frogs grew louder as Mother Nature worked to out-sing the guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles and voices jamming to Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs tunes, till the wee hours of the morning.

And if you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…
If you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…
If you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…
Sing about your troubles, they just might pass.

But despite what seemed like a near-perfect childhood, I grew up a worrier. Somehow, I guess I knew something bad was coming. I know it sounds crazy. But that is simply how I have always felt: waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

And it did, when I was 11. My mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time, we belonged to a church that emphasized what I will respectfully and with great self-control describe as misguided teaching. As a result of the guidance my parents received there and by her doctors, my brother and I were never told she had cancer. We were told throughout her two-year illness that she had brain tumors removed and that she was on the mend. We were told that God was healing her and to question it was a grave sin. I believed it 200 percent. I thanked Him every night during bedtime prayers for healing her.

My beautiful mother, Carol Lynn Barnes Kuykendall. This photo, circa 1968, is the only one I still have of her.

And then, when I was 13, on the night of June 29, 1985, my mom appeared in my dreams. At the time, my brother and I were visiting our family friends, Dean and Claudia, in Rockwall, Texas. It was a much-needed break from the past nine months of round-the-clock, in-home hospital care my mom had been receiving from two sweet nurses, Linda and Bettye. (It would be 20 years before I realized that had, in truth, been in-home hospice care.)

I remember this dream like it was a movie I’ve watched daily ever since. In it, my dad and little brother and I were walking through McCain Mall, near our home. We saw what looked like my mom walking across the way toward us. It was her, in every way – the faded bell-bottom jeans and Boho blouse, the reassuring smile she flashed at every passerby, her gentle but confident gait, the strawberry blonde Charlie’s Angels feathered hair… My brother, then age 10, immediately began leaping up and down, shouting for joy, racing to her, clutching at her in a giant hug: “You’re healed! You can walk! You’re all better! Mommy! Mommy!”

I recall the look on her face: surprise, awkwardness, uncertainty, discomfort. She clearly had no idea who we were. My dad rushed over, and, pulling my brother off her, gently said: “This is not your mother. Don’t you remember? Your mother is gone…” 

I woke up instantly. And I knew we had to go home. The gig was up. Five minutes later, downstairs in the kitchen, in a voice unusually stern for my 13 years, I told Claudia: “Change our plane tickets please. We have to go home TODAY.” She saw my expression, and as her face went pale, she immediately picked up the phone and called the airport and then my dad. We got back home in Arkansas around 6 that evening, and my mom – semi-comatose, in her hospital bed in our master bedroom, surrounded by our nurses – opened her eyes when we went in to see her. When we showed her the souvenirs we’d brought her, she attempted to smile with the half of her face that wasn’t frozen by the cancer and the swelling. She squeezed my hand when I cheerfully told her I loved her and that I’d missed her.

The next day, she died. And my innocence was shattered. Along with my faith in God and my trust in the many adults who had told us every day that “she was getting better.”

My dad’s instruments fell silent for a long time after that. So did my voice. Or, as far as I know they did; I literally do not remember a single event during the 18 months following her death. I learned recently, after reconnecting with one of my mom’s college friends through Facebook, that I sang at my mother’s funeral. It floored me. It still does. I can’t even imagine it, much less remember it. I also learned in recent years that I made first chair in All-Region Choir and that I knocked ’em dead as the star of several large musical productions during those 18 months. Don’t remember any of it.

And if you get broken, what you ought to do is sing…
If you get broken, what you ought to do is sing…
If you get broken, what you ought to do is sing…
Sing about your troubles, they just might pass.

At some point during 9th grade, I came out of the fog. And I sang. All the time. I still do. My favorite thing to do is sing in the car, with someone I love. I love to DJ for them, play all the songs that have given me life, both old and new tunes, and just sing and sing and sing. My second-favorite thing to do is sing at a jam session or in a group, like with a choir. I have rediscovered my voice the past year, and I am working on singing with others more often.

As an adult, I’ve had some great years and some horrific ones. The terrible years – when I suffered from debilitating depression, severe panic attacks and unbearable physical pain – those are the years when it has been the hardest to sing. Looking back, I see a pattern of hard times pushing in, then my worrying mind took over, and my voice became harder and harder to hear or to share. No singing, no talking, no laughing. No dreaming, either. Just… thoughts. Worries. Fears. Memories that physically hurt me to think about. 

I have probably spent hundreds of hours over the years with these songbooks!

Sing about your trouble,
sing about love and hoping it lasts
Sing about your trouble …
It just might pass…

What I know now – having survived some of the most horrific and traumatic shit a person could ever experience several different times in my life – is that when I stop singing, it’s time to make some changes. It’s time to immediately shift my focus, change whatever is bringing me down. I realized a few months ago, while listening to The Wood Brothers song “Sing About It,” that when I stop singing, I’m either already in or headed toward a really bad place, and it’s time to immediately review my direction and decisions, the people I’m spending time with, the job I’m working and everything else that has the power to bring a person down.

When I first heard “Sing About It,” I wept. My initial reaction was anger: “No, the trouble won’t pass just from singing; life is fucking harder than that,” I remember thinking. But I was missing the bigger point. I recently ran across a story summarizing several new studies by scientists and physicians all over the globe that all detail how singing actually stimulates almost every part of your body that makes you happier and healthier.

It is not simply the singing that makes the trouble pass. It is the empowerment and the happiness hormones that singing releases within your body and mind that then provide you with the motivation and strength to do what’s right – put in the hard work as necessary – to survive the troubles and even grow through them. So they don’t control you or destroy you. So you can weather the storm and come out smiling. Dripping wet and shaken, perhaps, from that storm, but smiling – SINGING – nonetheless.

Music brings life. Science proves it. 

So the next time you feel those dark clouds piling up in your life and the world is pulling you in too many directions, do whatever you gotta do to remove yourself from those circumstances. And when you aren’t sure where to begin or how to find the strength to do anything: Sing about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *