I was crying when I pulled into the parking lot at the Kidznotes offices this morning. I had to sit in the car for five minutes to compose myself before I went inside. I left the A/C on (it’s hot here even at 8:00 AM) and let the podcast on my radio finish up. What I’d been listening to has stuck with me all day.

Country music is a guilty pleasure in the Malinowski household. While brushing our teeth this morning, my wife was playing a little Alan Jackson. I commented on how much I liked it; Julia mentioned she’d been on a big country kick since listening to the most recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. She recommended I listen to it, but that I be prepared to cry.

The King of Tears is all about the melancholy power of music. It’s told mostly through the words and music of songwriter Bobby Braddock, whose catalog is a veritable Country Music Hall of Fame: Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Toby Keith – they all have number one hits written by Braddock. And most of these songs are heart-breakingly sad. The one I love best is George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; take four minutes to listen to it right now if you don’t know it. Goosebumps are guaranteed, tears are likely.

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast investigates just why this song is so sad, and it finally settles on the specificity of the song. As Gladwell says:

Beauty and authenticity can create a mood, they set the stage, but I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. 

We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. In “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones describes a friend who’s finally gotten over his love for a woman who left him years ago. How does he stop loving her? He dies. And the song gives us all the small details that make the story so real and relatable:

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two;
He had underlined in red every single “I love you”
I went to see him just today, oh but I didn’t see no tears.
All dressed up to go away, first time I’d seen him smile in years.

Underlined in red. All dressed up to go away. I picture these things every time I hear the song. And I cry. Just as I did this morning.

When I was a choir director, my kids would sometimes struggle to connect with a piece we were performing. Not every piece of music is instantly relatable. I can remember asking them to focus on one specific detail of a song, one image that set the tone of the piece, and relate that to their lives. The specificity always made the connection more concrete, more accessible, and more profound.

With much of the music I listen to, it’s easy to do nothing but hear it. My little driveway moment this morning was a great reminder that the experience of music is always deepened by a specific and purposeful connection.