The black-and-white photograph featured in the first four seconds of Keith Anderson's "I Still Miss You" gets right to the meat of the story. The picture of a young man clutching the hand of a hospitalized woman represents the powerfully tragic period in which Anderson found himself.
The story in the video is powerful, but no more than Anderson's real-life saga: "I Still Miss You," which climbed to No. 2 on Billboard's country singles chart, is the biggest hit of Anderson's career to date, but it overlaps with one of the most excruciating times in his personal life because of the recent death of his mother following a lengthy battle with cancer.
The song has become a source of comfort for many fans, some of whom feel compelled to tell the singer or his co-writers, Tim Nichols and Jason Sellers, about their emotional connection to it. It's likewise gained a concrete position in Anderson's set list, requiring him to live out the pain in front of several thousand people on a regular basis.
"Most people who aren't singers or aren't entertainers would keep their emotions in," Sellers observes. "I'm sure on some level, even though it's hard, if Keith is anything like anybody else that I know that sings, it's probably good therapy to get the feelings out."
The timeliness of the story and the urgency of the song have played out as if it was all orchestrated. But it wasn't -- at least not by the people affiliated directly with it. In fact, when "I Still Miss You" first came to existence, mortality was never even contemplated as part of the song's theme.
It was November 2006, the first Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend, and Anderson, Nichols and Sellers were slated to write together for the first time. All of them brought some level of success to the table. Nichols had collected multiple awards the previous two years for co-writing Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying." Sellers was in the Top 10 that very week as a composer of Montgomery Gentry's "Some People Change." And Anderson's "Every Time I Hear Your Name," a song about the lingering emotions of a previous relationship, had peaked nationally just three months prior.
Discussion about the latter song led to some consideration of the heartbreak in each of their lives, and almost imperceptibly, the thread in the room turned from conversation to inspiration.
"As is the case so many times, it seems like there's always a girl," Nichols laughs. "We were talking about how so many people [have] that one person that you just always kind of wonder [about] or you just can't figure out how to put behind you."
Sellers had a melody. He doesn't remember if he'd been tinkering with it previously or if it just appeared during the writing session, but it provided a foundation for the full-blown lyrics, introduced with simple-but-telling imagery: "I've changed the presets in my truck so those old songs don't sneak up/But they still find me and remind me, yeah, you come back that easy."
"One of the things you do when you go through something like that is try to change the things that are familiar to that relationship," Anderson notes. "'Every Time I Hear Your Name' was about hearing that old song that was hers, smelling things and pictures, and we just kind of continued that theme [of] changing things that were familiar to that relationship and trying to get that out of your life, which never really works."
The song came together in a single day, and they put together a guitar-based demo featuring Sellers, whose soulful vocal style led to a short-term recording deal of his own with RCA in the 1990s, as the singer. As Anderson began working on his C'mon! album in the early part of 2007, he presented that demo to producer Jeffrey Steele, who gave it a figurative shrug.
"I remember hearing this song for the first time and not being completely overwhelmed by it," Steele says. "It was a good song, a solid song, but not necessarily a smash."
They took it to the Tracking Room, a Masterfonics studio on a cul-de-sac just off of Interstate 40 in Nashville, fully expecting the song would fit as a competent album cut. But it took on a completely different life, in part because Anderson envisioned it differently than the demo he'd presented to Steele.
That first version, accessible at Sellers' MySpace page, starts at a higher energetic plane than Anderson's eventual recording with a scintillating arena-rock guitar solo. Anderson had a more subtle approach in mind.
"I wanted to get kind of that Coldplay [piano] feel," Anderson notes. "It's just monotone, almost like a dulcimer, that's just repetitive and has a drone kind of feeling to it. It's hypnotic, like that's what you're going through. You're just driving through this thing hypnotically, trying to get over it, and we just kinda took that and just let all the instruments build all around that."
Steele encouraged session keyboard player Tony Harrell to avoid playing chords, instead floating a single note doubled at the octave.
"It allowed the song to have more space within the track," Steele explains. "It wasn't so busy and cluttered with all these instruments. All of a sudden, now there were these great pieces of air in the song when there's nothing going on."
After several tries at a guitar solo, they ultimately opted for a more atmospheric instrumental break, and Steele doubled some simple guitar notes with a keyboard synthesizer in the studio. Along the way, the producer's perception of the song went from a shrug to exuberance.
"It's one of those times," Steele says, "when you take a song into the studio and the band starts playing it and all of a sudden -- boom! Here's this flower where once was a barren desert."
Anderson waited what seemed like ages for the album to come out on Aug. 5, 2008. In the meantime, his mother Janice was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. As her condition deteriorated, the song's meaning began to shift for him as the break-up references in the verses took a back seat to the painful struggle with loss in the chorus. The label released "I Still Miss You" to radio stations in January, and country fans -- both those that knew about his mom and those who didn't -- began to put their own interpretation on it.
Austin-based video director Traci Goudie had interest in putting a visual spin on the song, and she wrote a treatment that embraced the broadest interpretation possible about grief. Much of the video was shot in black and white, though Anderson's skin tones are preserved as he plays the piano and a blue backdrop is featured in a series of shots that have the singer positioned in front of chains and scaffolding.
"I was inspired by a photo that I saw of David Bowie," she explains. "To me it was like this masculine version of a narrator [who's in] purgatory, light blue, and he's within the scaffolding that's almost like a cage."
Remarkably, Goudie knew nothing of Anderson's personal torment until just days before the shoot at a downtown Nashville soundstage. She decided to let him sleep late the day of filming and gave him a mid-day call time.
"Any artist you call and say, 'You don't have to be here at 6 a.m.,' is gonna love you more," she laughs, but Anderson still put in approximately seven hours on the set, with the song reminding him the entire time of his mother's impending fate.
"It was just a hard day emotionally," Anderson says. "Right before that, we'd almost lost my mom for the first time. It was a really fragile time. We'd just canceled some shows and had to go into Dallas, where she was at the time, because it just looked horrible for about two weeks. She rebounded and got strong enough to have a second brain surgery and then was luckily around for another two and a-half months. It was just a very, very emotional time for me to be there, and so it's not acting in that video. There was a lot of emotion and intensity in those performances."
"I would almost feel these waves of emotion coming out of him as he was performing," Goudie agrees. "It translates, like on a couple of the shots when he makes eye contact with the camera from the piano ... It's a tsunami."
Janice Anderson died June 30, just as the song had found its place in country's Top 15. Anderson concedes it's a challenge to perform, but he draws strength each night on the road from his band members, who -- through an odd coincidence -- share the same pain in their own ways.
"Seven of the 10 guys in my band and crew have lost their mothers in the last three years, and six of those guys lost their mothers to some form of cancer," he says. "So when they say, 'We're here for you if you need to talk' or 'Man, I know what you're going' through,' they do. And it's those guys that I lean on when it's time for that song. I always walk back, wipe my face off, get a drink of water and just look at those guys for strength."
But they're not the only people who understand that story. Particularly because Anderson has gone through his loss in such a public way, his audience likewise provides a certain level of support every time they experience the song with him.
"They're gonna be connected to it as fans of his -- connected to him and his story," Sellers says, "and then also plugging their own story in at the same time."
It's an example of how popular music can work at its best. "I Still Miss You" -- born out of three guys' discarded relationships -- has become a point of healing for one singer and for millions of listeners.
"Over the past few years, everybody wants to tell me a story about 'Live Like You Were Dying,'" Nichols says by comparison. "This has been kind of another one that people really feel like they wanna comment on. They wanna come up and say how much they love the song or 'You had me in tears.'
"That," he concludes, "is a nice place to be."
View the video for Keith Anderson's "I Still Miss You."