“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 30, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.
Darryl Worley: Hey, I’m Darryl Worley, and I’m speaking freely. [Plays and Sings] “I hear people say / we don’t need this war. / But I say there’s some things / worth fightin’ for. / What about our freedom / and this piece of ground? / Didn’t get to keep ’em / by backin’ down. / They say we don’t realize the mess we’re gettin’ in. / Before you start your preachin’, / let me ask you this, my friend. / Have you forgotten / how it felt that day / to see your homeland under fire / and our people blown away? / Have you forgotten, / when those towers fell, / we had neighbors still inside / goin’ through livin’ hell? / And you say we shouldn’t worry about bin Laden. / Have you forgotten?”
Gene Policinski: Thank you. Welcome to “Speaking Freely”, a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Gene Policinski, sitting in for Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Darryl Worley, singer-songwriter whose reach has extended from southwest Tennessee to U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the top of the nation’s music charts. Thank you for being with us.
Worley: Oh, thanks for having me.
Policinski: That song, unlike almost any other song — there are very few that have really touched people in a way that that song did. And it comes about from a visit and visiting with troops. And tell me a little bit about how you came to write that song.
Worley: I came back from Afghanistan in 2001. That was my first USO tour, and quite an experience it was. I kind of grew up around a lot of military people in my family and what have you, and I guess you get to the point where you think you know that you would know what to expect in all those situations, but you don’t know until you go and see it firsthand and just kind of get a feel — that feeling in your chest for what those people are really going through. So I came home on a mission just to do something to honor, you know, those men and women and not just the ones fighting today and then in Afghanistan but before that. And that’s the whole idea of the “Have You Forgotten?” thing is it goes all the way back to the first wars, you know, that we ever fought.
Policinski: Did you have a sense that Americans weren’t really thinking about not only that war in Afghanistan but a lot of other wars, a lot of other sacrifices that veterans had made?
Worley: I think 9/11 made people remember a lot of things. And, of course, then the conflict in Afghanistan came pretty quickly after that, and I think it was just a time in the nation when — yeah, when there was a lot of, you know, looking back and reflecting over those times and how many people in this country that are still living today are affected by those things still. And — but long story short, you know, I had a little bit of a discussion, a heated discussion with a friend that I’d known for a long time, back in my hometown. And that person had a daughter who was actually caught up in Boston somewhere that day that the 9/11 tragedy happened. And he — I remember him talking about how terrified he and his wife were about what had happened and how they couldn’t get in touch with her. And I was talking to him after I got back from Afghanistan about what I saw and some of the positive things, some of the negative things. And he made some comment like, “Yeah, I think our government’s just out looking for a war anywhere they can find one.” And it really just stung me a little bit, you know, and I kind of let him have it, told him exactly what I thought about that comment. And I said to him — I said, “Boy, it didn’t take you long to forget how you felt on that day when you were wondering if your daughter was alive or not.” And I said, “There’s a lot people that weren’t as fortunate as you. You know, their loved ones didn’t make it home that day.”
Policinski: And there’s a line in the song about taking the news off the front pages or off the television screens. And you had a sense that Americans were —
Worley: It happened pretty quickly. I got the feeling — I got the feeling sometimes that we had soldiers over there that hadn’t been over there more than a couple of months, and people were already starting to forget that there was even a conflict in Afghanistan, much less the 9/11, you know. So I talked to my co-writer and told him — I said, “This is where my heart is.” And I just — I said, “I don’t want to necessarily step on anyone’s toes. I just want to say what I’m feeling inside, and I want to do it for the soldiers and for the Marines and for the airmen and the seamen, and I want — and the Coast Guard. I want to do it, and I want them to know that we’re thinking of them, and we’re honoring and respecting what they do for this country.” And you know, that’s — people read so much into it.
Policinski: They do, and you know, for a songwriter, a lot of times, those are very personal moments, if you take those emotions and you put them out there, and did you have a sense it was going to be as big a hit as it [was]?
Worley: Well, the funny thing about it is, we felt like that it would be a huge hit if it ever made it to the radio, but we didn’t — we never suspected that it would become a single.
Policinski: Well, now, you’ve commented a couple of times in public on the fact that big corporations are out there, and the playlists are a little small, particularly in your particular type of music.
Worley: Yeah, you know, and we’re not complaining. We’re out there fighting with everyone else, doing the best we can, but we usually lean a little more toward the traditional, too, and that has not necessarily been the sound of the hour, you know, for the last, I’d say eight or ten years, but fortunately, that seems to be coming back pretty strong right now in our format, and I’m very excited about the opportunities that might open up, you know. But we’ve done well, and “Have You Forgotten?” has been a big part of that. And all of the big corporations and all of the big conglomerate radio people were behind me on that song. They — everyone came on board. Now, there were some consultants that really —
Policinski: Didn’t think it ought to be played, or were they just afraid of the topic?
Worley: Oh, they just — there was a few here and there that just more or less, you know, said it was just a horrible song and that it would never make it, never get airplay on their radio stations.
Policinski: Do you think that was political? Or do you think that was music, people saying it’s a song, and it brings up tragedy. You know, there’s some theory, of course, among some programmers that it should be light. You know, you should talk about love and warmth and, you know, maybe breaking up, but nothing too serious, close to life.
Worley: Whatever we do, let’s not let it get real.
Policinski: That’s right. Let’s not bring a — inject a note of reality into this thing. A note of reality crept in with some reaction to the song, though, because not everybody — while it sold a lot and was very popular, obviously, and we all know it — not everybody was happy with the fact that it was — some people criticized you for being jingoistic, for supporting war as kind of a concept, almost, and being celebratory.
Worley: You know, people have, you know, cornered me on that, and obviously, that’s going to happen. So you have to kind of know where you stand. To me, this is not a song about supporting war. I’m not a war hawk. I would give anything in this world if we could somehow accomplish what we’ve accomplished and not lose a single life, not just American but any life. But unfortunately, that’s not how it is. You know, in a time of war — first of all, the song was written about Afghanistan and what was happening there. I couldn’t have possibly written about the war in Iraq — which a lot of people said I did — because it hadn’t even happened yet. That was funny to me. And so many things, like, that were read into the song, after I had time to sit back and think about it, I thought, “You know, it’s funny, they’re accusing me of things that I haven’t said, but that’s what’s in their head. That’s what they’re thinking.” So it was almost like, “Be careful. You’re going to expose yourself.”
Policinski: There was a recent Tim McGraw song, “Red Ragtop”, and in that song, some of the lyrics — it’s about a man who talks about a relationship he had, I think, when he was 20, and the woman was 18. And she becomes pregnant; they have an abortion. And he’s really talking — looking back a lot of years later, saying, you know, “You can’t really look back. What happened, happened.” And the guy who wrote that song, Jason White, went on television and explained that he didn’t write it about abortion, for or against. It was just a fact of — sort of the way — the underbed of the song, and yet, it — a lot of country stations wouldn’t play it because of abortion reference. They just were panicked by that. How do you feel about songwriters writing what they feel? Should programmers really play that? Should radio stations play what songwriters write without having that filter of their own judgment?
Worley: You know, I have this really crazy concept in my head. Somewhere I got this that the radio is an outlet, and it’s kind of like a connection to the world out there, and somehow, I come up with this idea that the people that program these stations should let their listeners decide what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear. Now, I don’t know where I got that, but that’s what I think.
Policinski: I think the founding fathers, had they known about radio, might have felt much the same.
Worley: That’s what I think, and it really — I don’t — I’m not sure it matters what I think, but, you know, if you put that song on there and play it enough times to get a sampling of your audience and ask them what they think — and they’ll let you know, I promise you that — and if they don’t want to hear that on their local radio station, don’t play it.
Policinski: And Jack Paar, who was one of the original hosts of “The Tonight Show,” had a quote one time that said — he was talking about — they were talking about what to show on television, and he said, You know, the good Lord gave me a mind and a wrist that turns things off. And, you know, if I don’t want to listen, watch, I’ll just turn off the radio, turn off the television.
Worley: I agree with that. I mean, I think, you know, I see things sometimes on television nowadays, and I go, “Ah. I wouldn’t want my kid to be sitting here, you know, watching that,” and it startles me. And one reason it does is because, for the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t caught 15 minutes a week of television. So when I have a chance to sit down and watch something, I’m appalled at what they get away with now compared to then.
Policinski: It’s changed quite a bit.
Worley: Whoo, man. So — but I — you know, everything’s moving forward, I hope, and it’s going to be hard to just set the gate down and say, “It stops here.” So I think that as, you know, living, breathing, thinking people, we have to make a lot of decisions for ourselves, and like you said, that’s one of them. If you don’t want to be exposed to it, and you don’t want your children to, then, you know, change the channel, or get you one of those filters where it can’t be played on your television, you know.
Policinski: The Dixie Chicks. You know, there’s been a lot of — music moves people very passionately about these things, more than most any other medium, it seems like.
Worley: It gets people started talking. And you know, I never have been much of a politician, and I still don’t consider myself to be. I think I’m the type of person that I know what I do believe in, and really, it scares me sometimes to think that you can put a song out and be thrown into that arena whether you like it or not. And I’m not sure that that’s always a good thing, because as artists, we make music, and hopefully, we make music that moves people, but I don’t know if our opinions, always, on politics and things of that nature are real, real important. But it must — it must do some good, because a lot of people responded, and I think a lot of people’s hearts were touched in a positive way. You know, like you said before, we’ve had our share of negative — I don’t know, just comments and feedback, but you have to take that. That comes with an issue like that. I think Bear Bryant said if you stick your head up above the crowd, somebody’s going to try to knock it off. [Laughs]
Policinski: Well, you see yourself in a real traditional vein, your music, as I’ve been told, and you grew up listening to people on the radio that — with music that’s a lot different than what we hear today. What do you see as the future of country music? How do you see it going?
Worley: You know, I’ve been around awhile, and I was ready to make a record back in ’89, ’90, when those cats all came through that were real traditional, like Clint Black, Allen Jackson, Randy Travis, Vince Gill. You know, Garth was — his early stuff was pretty traditional. And I missed that train somehow and just continued to be a songwriter through the next decade. And — but I have seen several cycles, and it’s kind of always done what it’s doing now. It — it all — the music — the country music always seems to go through this phase where we have more of a pop, L.A. kind of influence comes through, and that vein is there for a while, and then it’s pretty successful. It happened, you know, in the, I guess, mid ‘80s. It happened before that. I saw it happen with — you know, then there was Dolly and Kenny Rogers and all that stuff and the whole urban cowboy kind of movement. And then it found its way back to the roots, I think, in ’89, ’90, when all — you know, those guys that I mentioned came through. Through the ’90s, I’ve watched it ease away from the traditional, and, you know, we had the Shania Twain boom. And thank God for her. I don’t know if we’d still be here if she hadn’t. I mean, I really mean that. But then it just kind of leveled out. And you know, the industry has not been as healthy as a lot of people would like to think. I mean, people within the industry know that. And we’ve seen some pretty — a big lull the last few years, but everybody senses that that cycle’s about to make a completion again and that we may be on our way back into a period of time where traditional country and more of the — more of the real, down-to-earth music that represents the backbone of this nation — drinking songs, party songs, honky-tonk songs, love, hate, you know, the whole gamut.
Policinski: Very plain-speaking songs, songs that talk about people.
Worley: Absolutely, and, you know, that’s what it was. That’s what it — that’s how it started out. And I think that we’re about to see that again.
Policinski: Well, in your biography, it tells us that you learned and got your interest in music in part — and I think in almost all the things I read — your Grandpa Jones was the guy who got you going and taught you to play or taught you about this. I wonder now, with the music industry in the state that it is, do you think kids are getting that kind of early introduction from somebody in the family? Or do they have to pick it up in school or somewhere else?
Worley: There’s still a lot of that that goes on up in these hills and hollers and down, you know, on the plains of Texas, and I would — and the Delta of Mississippi. I’d have a hard time accepting or believing that it’s not happening, because it still happens in my hometown.
Policinski: Well, one of the articles that was written about you — I don’t think this was anything you said, but it calls you a bundle of contrasts and contradictions.
Worley: It’s the truth.
Policinski: And, you know, some people don’t know that you have a college degree in chemistry. But also, on those USO tours, again, I was fascinated by the fact that you went out with somebody who wouldn’t normally, I think — in people’s minds you’d be paired with, Al Franken, and that turned out to work pretty well.
Worley: Oh, yeah. That was probably something that I — you know, throughout the life of the song “Have You Forgotten?” I’ve preached that, you know, you don’t tell me what to think, and I won’t tell you what to think. I’m not going to judge you by your opinions on these issues. You know, there’s a whole — there’s a person there that you have to examine. You can’t just judge a man or woman by what they think about the war in Iraq or whether they’re conservative or liberal. And, of course, you say stuff like that, but you still do it. And I heard the news that Al Franken was going on this USO tour, and he was going to be sharing the MC roles with Karri Turner, who I love. And I just thought — and, of course, I know who Al Franken is. I mean — and I’m the first guy to tell you I’ve always thought he was hilariously funny. I mean, he’s just a genius, and he’s a nut. [Chuckles] But I also knew that he was an intense liberal. And I knew — I mean, I’ve heard him, you know, dogging Sean Hannity and (Bill) O’Reilly and the President, and I just — I just thought, “What are they thinking, you know?” They said, “Well, he really loves the troops.” And I said, “Yeah, but — I mean, look at the” — And so I was really a little freaked out. I thought, you know — I almost use those trips overseas as my vacation time, because I don’t take any other vacation. And I thought, “You know, this will be an opportunity for me to not have to debate and just be worn out by people wanting to talk to me about why I believe this, this way, and that’s that way about” — and it’s all about “Have You Forgotten?” And so I told the guy that — Jeff Anthony — that put the whole show together — I said, “I’m going to tell you now that I won’t tolerate it.” I said, “I will — I’ll just say, ‘Listen, you need to go debate with someone else, because I didn’t come on this trip for that.’ ” And there wasn’t none of that. I mean, he turned out to be one of the best human beings that I’ve ever gotten to know. And he never pushed me. We talked; we got into some things. And he’s very sharp.
Worley: Don’t get into a discussion with him about things unless you got your facts right, because he busted me on a couple things. But I think we both had moments when we had comments that made the other person think. And that’s what it’s all about to me. And I guess in that experience, I realized what America is really, really about and what this show’s about and what music’s about. And that is, we’re so blessed to be free. And freedom’s a huge word. It means so much more to me now after those experiences in the Middle East than it ever did before. Before, it was just a term, and I knew what it meant, and now, it’s something that’s inside me. And we are so blessed to have it. And we’re so blessed to be able to express our opinions. But we should honor and respect one another. He’s a really good American.
Policinski: Well, you know, Jefferson called it the marketplace of ideas. You don’t have to accept them, but you should deal back and forth with those ideas. I think you told him something on the way home about how you were worried about —
Worley: I told him the whole story. I said, “Man, I called Jeff Anthony. I was” — I said, “When I first heard you were going, my ears got” — when I get mad, my ears get hot. [Laughs] I said, “My ears got hot.” I said, “I was just thinking, ‘Man, how can I get out of this without just looking like a cop-out?’ ” And I said — I told him. I said, “Throughout this time, I’ve learned a great lesson, and that is that you don’t judge the person by the issues and what his stand is. You gotta give him a chance to prove to you who they are.” And I think it was wise that we didn’t just talk about all that mess the whole time. We didn’t talk about it much, really, and that’s probably why I like him so much. [Laughs] But he was good to me. And he was complimentary. He was moved by my music. I played the song one time for him, and he got it. From start to finish, he got the whole thing. He said, “Oh, that’s not even about Iraq. Oh, that’s” — He said, “I love that song.” He said, “Nobody was madder in New York City than me when they, you know, blew that big hole in the ground.” And he said, “Why — who could find something wrong with that?” So, you know, we both — we shared a lot of ideas, and he’s going to be in my new video.
Policinski: Well, let’s talk about some of your new work, because when you have that big hit, it sometimes sits there like a big old rock in front you, and it’s hard to get around. And you’ve got new work coming out, and let’s talk about that.
Worley: You’re right. “Have You Forgotten?” has been a big rock, and, you know, rightfully so, and we’re blessed to have had the song, and I’m so fortunate. And it’s really just taken us to a new place in the career. But, you know, you come to a place where you have to move on. And so we had just finished recording all the tracks for the new album the day before yesterday. And we’ve — we made some changes on this new album as far as the sound and a little bit of adjustment with direction. It’s still very earthy and basic and grassroots country music, but there’s a little more edge on it, and it’s the best stuff we’ve ever done.
Policinski: Let’s hear a little more of your music, if we could.
Worley: I tell you what; I’ll play you a song that was on my very first album that’s always been a real favorite of mine, because this is my mother’s favorite song. It’s called “Second Wind.” [Plays and sings] “There’s an old friendly breeze / that blows in the Gulf of Mexico. / Somehow, it always knows when I’m feeling low. / So I’m gonna anchor down / and wait till it comes around, / leave the rest of the world behind. / Yeah, that’s how I’ll pass the time / till I catch my second wind, / get back up and gain control again, / find the strength I lost / back when you stopped loving me. / I guess I’ll just stay out here / until I know the coast is clear, / sit and watch the tide roll in / till I catch my second wind. / There’s a peace in the way I feel / when the water’s still, / and as long as it’s calm out here, / I’ve got time to kill, / but as soon as it starts to stir, / I’ll lose track of the way things were, / float away on the open air, / but I’m not going anywhere / till I catch my second wind, / get back up and gain control again, / find the strength I lost / back when you stopped loving me. / I guess I’ll just stay out here / until I know the coast is clear, / sit and watch the tide roll in / till I catch my second wind, / just sit and watch the tide roll in / till I catch my second wind.”
Policinski: Well, thank you very much.
Worley: You’re welcome; thanks for having me.
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