The instrument of Darryl Worley's chart resurrection came as something of a surprise. After losing his deal in the collapse of DreamWorks Records and then resurfacing on the much smaller 903 Music label, the tall Tennessean decided to make an album precisely to suit his own tastes, one with "cut-loose, letting-it-go music" to shake up the crowds.
And that's what he and his longtime producer, Frank Rogers, did in Here and Now, his debut album for 903. But when radio programmers heard advance copies of the album, they didn't seize on the lighter, more festive fare. Instead, they dug out what Worley regarded as the least likely candidate for a single, his dark tribute to returning soldiers, "I Just Came Back From a War."
"To be perfectly honest with you," Worley says, "we didn't even think this song would make it to radio. We didn't release this song as a single. It released itself. It's similar to the way 'Have You Forgotten' wound up out there. We wrote this song and put it on the album because we wanted the troops to know we hadn't forgotten them, that we still think about them and pray for them."
Whatever his hopes or motives, the song took off and recently marched its way into the Top 20 in Billboard. Worley co-wrote "I Just Came Back" with Wynn Varble, his partner in crafting the saber-rattling 2003 hit, "Have You Forgotten." That song stayed at No. 1 for seven weeks during a period when America felt considerably more affectionate toward war than it does now.
Worley acknowledges that he once feared "Have You Forgotten" might have put him in the same patriotic pen that "God Bless the USA" did Lee Greenwood.
"When you've had a hit of that magnitude," he says, "it's like, 'Gosh, I don't know if [people] want anything else from me after this.' But we were able to [switch the focus] with a song called 'Awful Beautiful Life.' I had a No. 1 single with that. We saw the kind of reaction we got to that in our live shows. It was a real welcome addition to the song list. So we decided that we would do some things more like that."
Like Toby Keith, his fellow DreamWorks alumnus, the rough-and-tumble Worley can sing with amazing tenderness when he wants to. His "I Miss My Friend" (2002) and "If Something Should Happen" (2005) are both monuments to vulnerability and compassion -- and both completely free of rancor.
"I Just Came Back From a War" presents a bleak picture of a veteran who returns to America from "a place where they hated me and everything I stand for/a land where our brothers are dying for others who don't even care anymore."
Even so, Worley says the references are not specifically to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he takes issue when this reporter describes the song as "grim." In Worley's eyes, the song is a wakeup call to a nation that has callously spurned or neglected veterans of earlier conflicts. "I think it addresses the truth of that issue," he says.
From Dec. 13-24, 2006, Worley did a series of shows in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, along with fellow country artist Mark Wills and comedian and political gadfly Al Franken. It was his fourth tour of Iraq. He says he performed "I Just Came Back" throughout the tour and got nothing but positive responses from the soldiers.
Although he and the liberal Franken view America's role in Iraq differently, he says artists in war zones tend to find common cause.
"We've had a few discussions," Worley explains. "But over the years it seems like it's just a situation where, if we get into something where we're diametrically opposed, we just kind of leave that alone or take it in a different direction -- whatever we have to do to get along.
"Honestly, in those particular situations, it's more about the troops and what they want and need. We make it work however we can. I've grown to realize that everybody thinking what they want to think and believing what they want to believe is part of what those guys are fighting for. It's been good for me."
Accidental or not, Worley concedes that he's happy to have another hit to keep the buses rolling. And he's glad his affiliation with a new label has afforded him the opportunity to stretch his wings creatively.
"Sometimes if [major labels] find something that they actually have hits with and make a little bit of money with, they'll sort of push you into that -- pigeonhole you into doing nothing but that. That's where I feel like I've been. But there are a lot of other dimensions, you know, to Darryl Worley, the artist. And that's what we want to show."