Josh Abbott agrees with the famous Oscar Wilde saying, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
The Texas musician just didn’t know how much that saying would apply to the band’s the Josh Abbott Band latest album Until My Voice Goes Out while it was being made.
On Feb. 3, the band was in its second week of recording when Abbott was pitched a song by hit-maker Rodney Clawson (Kenny Chesney’s “Til It’s Gone,” Blake Shelton’s “Sure Be Cool If You Did”) and the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston (Keith Urban’s “You Gonna Fly,” “Raise ‘Em Up”). It was a heart-wrenching ballad about the loss of a father titled, “Ain’t My Daddy’s Town.”
Abbott liked the song, but the band tends to keep a strict policy of recording material that’s autobiographical. Abbott’s father, Charles David Abbott (known as David to his family and friends), was alive and well. And Abbott thought it would be disingenuous to release a song with such a strong message at the time. He thanked them for the opportunity and passed on the song.
But that same afternoon, his father left work early with a severe headache and extreme dizziness — two early warning signs of stroke. He couldn’t think straight or drive himself home. A coworker got him home safely, and he took a pain reliever and then napped.
Six days later, the family was at the hospital. Abbott’s father had suffered a stroke on Feb. 9.
“It was almost like it was from a movie, like it was made up to make you feel even more crushed by the story,” Josh said during our CMT.com interview. “But it was very real.”
Abbott stayed with his family for three weeks while the rest of the band recorded the album without him. David underwent brain surgery, but his recovery was tough, and his prognosis was grim. On Feb. 28, with his dad still in the hospital, Josh made the decision to go back into the studio and record all of his vocals for the album, leaving out “Ain’t My Daddy’s Town.”
“The name of this album, Until My Voice Goes Out, seems like it was almost meant to be,” Josh said. “I’m not trying to win awards for explosive vocals here. I just want to sing these songs in a normal way and not try to have the most beautiful sounding voice ever. That’s how we approached it.”
On March 1, Abbott flew back to the hospital to be with his family. The next day, just before midnight, David passed away. The last song Josh played for his father before his death was a mix of the album’s title song. It was the last piece of music he ever heard.
Abbott can’t share the story of losing his father without getting emotional.
“My dad and I were very close,” he said. “Talking about it kills me. I kept thinking about ‘Ain’t My Daddy’s Town’ all of March, April and May. What are the odds that I would get a song pitched to me about a dad dying?”
With the rest of the collection mixed, mastered and ready for release, Abbott went back into the studio to record the song. And he reworked a few words in Clawson and Johnston’s original lyrics so they would be more applicable to his father’s life story.
“In the second verse, there were some lines about going to the VFW and drinking beer with the boys,” Josh recalled. “My dad never served [in the military]. He never went to the VFW, and my dad didn’t drink. He was 42 years sober. He hadn’t had drink since college.
“But the timeliness of how it was sent to me made a huge impact in my life, and it feels like that song was written for me.”
The timing of when Abbott co-wrote one of the album’s love songs, “I’m Your Only Flaw,” for his fiancé Taylor Parnell is also intriguing. At the time it was written, she was two months pregnant with their first child, but the couple didn’t know it at the time.
“What’s really cool about that song,” Abbott said, “the second verse says, ‘When I think of courage, being brave while feeling small,’ it’s really like that — being brave while feeling small. And we wanted to name our daughter something cool, right? And so we looked up girl names for brave. And Emery was a girl name for brave, and that’s how she got her name. So that song named our daughter. That’s just the kind of stuff I think musicians do. We’re hippies like that.”
Until My Voice Goes Out also marks a sonic departure from previous works by the band. For the first time in the group’s history, the band added horns to the album’s uptempo numbers and a lush string arrangements by Rob Mathes (Tony Bennett, Sting and Bruce Springsteen) to its ballads.
“When I told the band about adding horns and strings, they thought I was crazy,” Abbott admitted. “If you think about it, how many country albums have horns and strings as a theme on the entire album?
“I think it was a risk because we already had a very specific sound. We rely heavily on the fiddle and the banjo as our instrumentation in our band. We have as many solos on fiddle and banjo as we do on electric guitar, which is pretty rare in country music already.”
While the band doesn’t plan to do another album with similar instrumentation in the near future, they do plan on adding live horns and a bigger string section to their upcoming tour.
“This is an entirely different Josh Abbott Band show and sound, and if you don’t see this tour, then you won’t see this production because we’re not going to do it forever,” he said. “I’m excited because not only are the horns and strings going to be on the new music, we’ve also integrated them into some of our catalog. For songs like ‘Wasn’t That Drunk,’ ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Oh Tonight,’ and ‘She’s Like Texas,’ they’ll have strings. Songs like ‘Hangin’ Around,’ ‘My Texas’ and other ones, they’ll have the horns.”
The Abbott families, both musical and immediate, helped Josh maintain personal strength while recording the album in such a trying time in his life.
“My perspective on life has changed,” he said, “I look at my mom, and I just wonder what she’s thinking. She’s in her 50s and she has to live for maybe another 20 years, maybe longer, without her husband. And that’s got to be really tough on her.
“My brother, he had a baby in January and, of course, we had little Emery in May. And my mom never had daughters. I think my mom having two baby granddaughters within the same exact time period she loses her husband, it’s not cathartic. It was willed by a greater force.”
Until My Voice Goes Out is dedicated to David Abbott. He would have been 63 on Saturday (Aug. 19).