When the Nashville songwriter Abe Stoklasa died last week at age 36 and left behind a catalog that often delved into the dark corners of daily life. In many of his songs, love was a drug, paid work was elusive, and the choice between redemption and destruction was often decided in a single step. Even his number one pop-country hit, Chris Lane’s seemingly innocuous “Fix,” was filled with ominous references to addiction (in this case, love): “I’ll make you feel invincible/I’m more than recreational” was one verse, while another alluded to a “Walter White high.”
Stoklasa’s cause of death has not yet been released, but he will forever be known as an irreverent voice in country music, unafraid to publicly tear down the curtain that separated Nashville’s manicured image from its sometimes oppressive reality. His masterpiece “Leaving Nashville” exposed the difficulties of being a working songwriter. Co-written with artist Donovan Woods and most prominently recorded by Charles Kelley of Lady A for his solo album The driver“Leaving Nashville” chronicled in vivid imagery the competition among writers to have a song recorded by a country radio artist: “Oh, and your friends are friends with country stars/Yeah, they’re buying houses and here you are/You’re two to go months to live in your car.”
“The guy is amazing,” said Kelley Rolling Stone by Stoklasa in 2016. “He is the best singer in the world and I think we both found a musical counterpart in each other. Right now, in a weird way, he’s like my Bernie Taupin. I don’t want to compare us to these legends, but he’s inspiring me to write songs I love.” After news of Stoklasa’s death spread this weekend, Kelley remembered him as “otherworldly” in a online posting: “I always knew his mind moved at a pace I could never understand. He was confidence and doubt all rolled into one.”
Stoklasa, a Missouri native, was a former touring musician — he played steel guitar for David Nail and Billy Currington, among others — and co-wrote Currington’s “Give It to Me Straight.” Other notable tracks included Lady A’s “Lie With Me” and Tim McGraw’s “Portland, Maine” and the title track from Charlie Worsham’s 2017 LP. Start of thingsboth written with his frequent collaborator Woods.
Worsham, who welcomed Stoklasa – a huge Aretha Franklin fan – on stage for his “Every Damn Monday” all-star shows in Nashville, called him a “one of a kind gem” in an Instagram post, writing “I will miss you so much, but I will see you again someday and I can only imagine the front row seat you will have at the Aretha show in heaven right now.”
In line with his honest songwriting, Stoklasa was also that rare Music Row figure who wasn’t afraid to criticize other writers and artists. He would even criticize the industry itself for ignoring true talent – regardless of the consequences for his career.
“I’m not surprised that Charlie’s art isn’t welcome on country radio,” Stoklasa once said Rolling Stone about Worsham’s underrated Start of things. “There’s a sophistication to it. You have to worry about music.”