When Nashville songwriter Abe Stoklasa died last week at 36, he left behind a catalog that frequently probed the dark corners of daily life. In many of his songs, love sucked, gainful work was elusive, and the choice between redemption and destruction was often decided by a single step. Even his Number One pop-country hit, Chris Lane’s seemingly innocuous “Fix,” was rife with foreboding references about addiction (in this case, to love): “I’ll make you feel invincible/I’m more than recreational” went one verse, while another alluded to a “Walter White high.”
Stoklasa’s cause of death has not yet been made public, but he’ll forever be known as an irreverent voice in country music, unafraid to publicly tear down the curtain that separated Nashville’s well-manicured image from its sometimes grinding reality. His masterwork “Leaving Nashville” laid bare the struggles of being a working songwriter. Cowritten with the artist Donovan Woods and most prominently recorded by Lady A’s Charles Kelley for his solo album The Driver, “Leaving Nashville” recounted in stark 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 homes and here you are/You’re two months from living in your car.”
“The dude’s amazing,” Kelley told Rolling Stone of Stoklasa in 2016. “He’s the best singer in the world, and I think we’ve both found a musical counterpart in each other. Right now, in a weird way, he’s kind of like my Bernie Taupin. I don’t wanna compare ourselves to those legends, but he’s inspiring me to write songs I love.” After word of Stoklasa’s death spread this weekend, Kelley remembered him as “otherworldly” in an online post: “I always knew his mind moved at a pace I could never comprehend. He was confidence and self doubt all wrapped in one.”
Stoklasa, a native of Missouri, 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 cuts included Lady A”s “Lie With Me,” and Tim McGraw’s “Portland, Maine” and the title track to Charlie Worsham’s 2017 LP Beginning of Things, both written with his frequent collaborator Woods.
Worsham, who welcomed Stoklasa — an ardent Aretha Franklin fan — to the stage for his “Every Damn Monday” all-star concerts in Nashville, called him a “one-of-a-kind gem” in an Instagram post, writing “I’ll miss you terribly but I will see you again some day and can only imagine the front row seat you have at the Aretha concert in heaven right now.”
In line with his honest songwriting, Stoklasa was also that rare Music Row figure unafraid to critique fellow writers and artists. He’d even call out the industry itself for ignoring true talent — no matter the consequences to his own career.
“I am not surprised that Charlie’s art isn’t welcomed onto country radio,” Stoklasa once told Rolling Stone about Worsham’s underrated Beginning of Things. “There is a sophistication to it. You have to care about music.”