This week's Makin' Tracks column centers on Perry's country music rebirth.
One of the tenets of life on planet Earth is that no one knows how much time they have here — although society generally expects that most people should probably live somewhere between, say, 55 to 90 years. It’s tragic when kids don’t make it to double digits, but amazing when people reach triple digits. Perspectives about all that change as age accrues.
Thus, when Kimberly Perry wrote “If I Die Young” for The Band Perry around age 25, she masterfully delved into a touchy, fragile topic with a character who imagines her own premature death and the devastating effect “the sharp knife of a short life” might have on her mother.
Perry was not necessarily anticipating that outcome for herself, though a lot went into that song that she didn’t fully understand until she decided to write a sequel last year. She even went to therapy to gain more insight into the emotional genesis of the piece, which brought her song of the year honors from the Country Music Association in 2011.
“Psychologically, there was a bit of hedging of my bets with my dreams,” she explains. “I had such huge ideals, and dreams at that moment for a family, and for all the things that I did not see present in my life. I was quite a daydreamer, and I think for whatever reason, death — and a young death — almost felt more romantic than those dreams not coming true.”
The message of “If I Die Young” was enhanced by the deft marriage of an artfully mysterious storyline and a melancholy musical foundation, and its singalong chorus became a point of reference for an entire generation. When AMR Songs acquired select pieces from Perry’s songwriting catalog, CEO/partner Tamara Conniff queried her about the origins of “If I Die Young” over coffee, then casually asked if Perry had ever considered writing a follow-up about its protagonist, assuming the premature death never came.
“It was like this lightning-bolt moment for me,” remembers Perry. “But it was equally terrifying, so I procrastinated for a solid four months before even beginning to think about what that might look like.”
She also decided not to address it alone, knowing she could not be subjective about messing with a modern standard. Perry was writing fairly regularly with Jimmy Robbins (“The Bones,” “Half of my Hometown”) and Nicolle Galyon (“Tequila,” “Automatic”), and she had several conversations with Robbins about a sequel. It was the last songwriting idea they addressed before she was to record Aug. 27-28, 2022. Galyon didn’t know anything about it until they dropped the idea on her during the writing session at Robbins’ studio.
“I think had I had more time to think about it, I would have been pretty intimidated by the concept,” Galyon says. “But I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ It honestly just kind of felt like another day of writing a song.”
They had some obvious parameters. For starters, “If I Die Young Pt. 2” needed to retain most of the original’s iconic chorus. The melody remains the same, and the only line they changed in that section was the finale: “Well, I’ve had just enough time” became “Now I know there’s no such thing as enough time.”
And where the original opens with that chorus, they needed to start “Pt. 2” with a verse, which would give the singer an opportunity to reframe the current moment and cast the chorus as a song from the past. They did that with the last line of the pre-chorus: “I’m changing my tune since I said …”
And Perry literally changed her tune. She altered the melody in the verses, introduced a new chord progression in the bridge and took on the viewpoint of a woman no longer thinking about how her own death would affect everyone else, instead contemplating how her mother’s passing would affect her. Her own real-life changes informed their approach. “She had just gotten married, and so everything was very forward-thinking,” recalls Galyon. “It just kind of breathed new life into how to write that narrative.”
The new opening verse reflected the wedding — she eloped with husband Johnny Costello, driving to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in a black convertible, Perry thrusting her hands in the air in jubilation for much of the trip. In verse two, the singer grapples with issues that accompany aging: She increasingly resembles her mother, thinks about her mom’s passing and takes note of the casket in the first iteration of “If I Die Young.”
“If it was somebody else, the word ‘casket’ would have maybe thrown me off.” Galyon says, “But what has connected for Kimberly in the past, commercially, has been those kinds of blunt and quirky adjectives and words. There’s something about that that works for her that doesn’t work for other people.”
The new version retains the same final words — “So put on your best, boys/ And I’ll wear my pearls” — but the clothing is celebratory instead of funereal.
“Instead of ending with a period, it’s ending with an ellipsis or an exclamation point,” says Robbins.
Robbins produced the demo, then worked with Perry to assemble an appropriate band for the final session, centered on guitarist Bryan Sutton, who played on the first “If I Die Young.” They recorded it at Backstage in a higher key than the original and at a quicker pace, reflecting the singalong status the song has attained in concert. Drummer Evan Hutchings played in a way that emphasized key moments in the melody, and Jenee Fleenor came in later to overdub fiddle.
“It’s just wild how much space it takes up and how much the track is carried by fiddle,” Robbins says. “It kind of shifted everything for us.”
While writing the sequel presented a challenge, singing it did not. “This was a piece of cake for me,” says Perry. “My body, and my muscles, my voice knows this song so well that I just walked out of the vocal booth, maybe in a half hour, like, ‘Guys, I think we killed this.’ I like my original version, but my voice has matured and changed so much since then, too. So it was really a cool opportunity to get to document my growth in that way as well.”
Perry had several options for a first single with RECORDS Nashville, but ultimately the team settled on “If I Die Young Pt. 2,” since it helped tell the story of her transition from lead singer of The Band Perry to solo artist. Her brothers, Neil and Reid Perry, reportedly gave their approval to her revision, and RECORDS released “Pt. 2” to country radio on May 4 via PlayMPE. In its third charted week, it ranks at No. 52 on the Country Airplay list dated June 3.
She says she’s already feeling a reconnection with the country audience: “I’m finding that people, while they love the original version, they really are coming with me on the journey of ‘Hey, I’m so glad we have this version. Like, this is healing all the things for me and healing my inner child.’ ”