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The Song That Changed My Life

The right lyric or melody at the right moment can mean so much. These 11 people share their stories of music that had a profound impact

spinner image collage of album covers and musical artists including ten thousand maniacs and singer natalie merchant jimi hendrix tim mc graw eric clapton dave grohl of the foo fighters and the thirteenth floor elevator

The Moment: Dealing With My Daughter’s Illness

The Song: “My Wish,” Rascal Flatts

Tami Fandrei, 51

Sacramento, California

My daughter, Madalyn, was 9 in 2007 when she fell ill with a strange ailment. She had vertigo and couldn’t eat, and it kept recurring. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. After spending years in hospitals and seeing specialists around the country, she was diagnosed in 2012 with a rare disease that usually presents in adults: autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy, a disease in which your immune system attacks your autonomic nervous system. I watched her go from being a superfit, 9-year-old athlete to being completely bedridden.

“My Wish” by Rascal Flatts was my theme song during that time: “But more than anything, more than anything / My wish for you is that this life becomes all that you want it to.” That’s all we want for our kids, right? I had so many more dreams for her than seemed possible at that time. Finally, after I reached out in desperation, a Chicago doctor was able to do a stem cell transplant treatment when she turned 18, and it miraculously stopped progression of the disease. Madalyn is now 26, thriving, and cooking at one of the city’s most popular restaurants. You’d never know what she’s been through. My wish for her came true. And that song still stops me in my tracks today.

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The Moment: Recovering From Surgery

The Song: “These Are Days,” 10,000 Maniacs

Scott Render, 59

Louisville, Kentucky

Getting a hip replacement at 29 sucks. When I was 9, I was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, so I knew that someday I would need surgery. It’s a rare disease with blood flow not going to the hip properly. After the surgery, I woke up at 4 in the morning really depressed. I’d had all these nightmares from the medications. So I put on “These Are Days.” The lyrics talk about: “These are the days you’ll remember. Never before and never since. I promise. You are blessed and lucky. You are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you.” It was at that moment that my whole perspective changed. I knew I was going to be OK, and that song helped push me forward. To this day, whenever I hear that song, those lyrics take me right back to that moment. It was a good moment to get through.

The Moment: Having a Daughter

The Song: “Little Wing,” Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jeremy Miller, 52

Fisherville, Kentucky

During my wife Shelly’s pregnancy, I thought if the baby is a girl, this would be my song for her. The song is sort of mystical — carefree and full of wonder. It’s the lyrics “Well, she’s walking through the clouds.” I relate it also to being happy, and everything that’s sweet and wonderful that life brings. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me of my daughter, Ella Blu, and it calms me.

My daughter’s 13 now. She’s always had a wonderful imagination. She’s very creative. She sings all the time. The song reminds me of what’s important. She may know that it’s one of my favorite songs, but I’ve never specifically said, ‘This makes me think of you.’ Maybe someday I will. I wonder what she’ll have to say about that.

The Moment: Connecting With My Future Husband

The Song: “Wonderful Tonight,” Eric Clapton

Judy Faulkner, 71

Kihei, Hawai‘i

After my husband, Jeff, and I first met, he said, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio today. I don’t know the name of it, but it just reminded me of us.” We thought it was kind of sweet, about us and the fact that we didn’t know each other long, and then all of a sudden he’s waiting for me to put my makeup on and get ready to go out. There were lines that caught his ear: “And the wonder of it all is that you just don’t realize how much I love you.”

We first got introduced on eHarmony in 2016, and I deleted his message. I was in Honolulu. I was not going to date a guy in Maui. For every date, somebody would have to get on an airplane and go to another island. It could be thousands of dollars before the weekend is over. But he persisted. I was saying to my girlfriend, “I don’t know what it is. It’s happening really fast.” I told her, “I don’t know what it is, but it just seems really, really special.”

Now, when Jeff texts me, “Wonderful Tonight” plays on my phone.

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The Moment: Overcoming Alcoholism

The Song: “Slip Inside This House,” 13th Floor Elevators

Bill Bentley, 73

Studio City, California

I got arrested for possession of marijuana in my freshman year of college in Georgetown, Texas, and my world kind of caved in. I felt it was over for me, but I got out on probation. I had to really look inside myself to see where I was going. I really latched onto this song because, as the writer used to describe it, it has Christ consciousness, but I saw it as a higher consciousness. This song talks about permanence, about moving your spirit higher, about keeping your spirit alive in a way that not that much rock ’n’ roll really addresses. I never heard lyrics speaking on that level before, and I haven’t heard them since.

Later in life, I turned to alcohol and became an alcoholic, but in 1987 I decided to get sober. I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, being a lapsed Catholic, and it was amazing; that song’s lyrics came to me, and it was just an overwhelming feeling I got. I knew that day in church I would never drink again. I’ll listen to that song now, and it brings me right back to the place I was when I first heard it. That’s redemption.

The Moment: A Family Member Moving Into Our Home

The Song: “Times Like These,” Foo Fighters

Michael Bailey, 57

Leonia, New Jersey

I’m an only child, so the world revolved around me, Michael. My wife and I don’t have children, so having my brother-in-law move in with us before the pandemic was challenging. There were idiosyncrasies, such as just getting him to turn off the lights. I know it sounds trivial, but he would leave every light on in the house. There were also idiosyncrasies to his schedule. He’s very much a night owl. There was tension. I was sitting in my kitchen, this song just came on, and I started crying. Oh my God, this is what I’m dealing with. “Times Like These” is such a great song. The lyrics are “I am a little divided / Do I stay or run?” That’s kind of where I felt like our relationship was going. But then I thought, Wait a second. What the song was really saying is: “Learn to live again. Learn to love again.” Every day we get these challenges. How do we respond to them? You can be mean, or you can change yourself. Introducing somebody into your household full time with no expiration date was extremely difficult for me to accept. My wife is generous, loving and caring. It’s not about me trying to change him. It’s not about me trying to change her. It’s about me challenging myself to accept where we need to be as a family.

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The Moment: A Team Steps In to Help

The Song; “Kings of the Wild Frontier,” Adam & the Ants

Tony Urban, 60

Northridge, California

I was going to drop out of high school in my senior year because I was offered a full-time job. I didn’t even approach my father with it, because he would have knocked me through a wall. But I started the process, asking each of my teachers to sign me out of school. But the swim team coach said no. He said, “You made a commitment to this team. We need you. I’m not going to sign. This is stupid, Urban, don’t do this.” This song had become sort of the theme song for our swim team with the lyrics “a new royal family / a wild nobility / we are family.” So, every time I hear it, it just brings it all right back instantly. I was going to make a giant mistake at that point in my life and people that cared wouldn’t let me. I have that song on all my devices. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me to never quit and see things through.

The Moment: Hitting My Worst Moment

The Song: “God Has Another Plan,” Babbie Mason

Unnita Chambers, 61

Macedonia, Ohio

After recovering from a long, rough stretch of being unhoused around 1994, I found myself in another horrible position. I was living in Atlanta, struggling financially, my relationship fell apart and since I already suffered from clinical depression, it all caused a catastrophic emotional plunge. All I could do was sit on the edge of my bed and stare out my window and cry. I would shower and sleep, but barely ate. I didn’t answer the phone or have company. I was a prisoner of my own mind. One night, this song called “God Has Another Plan” came on the 24-hour worship channel. The first line said, “Out of the fire, into the flames of another trial / When you feel that your heart has had all it can take / and there is nothing left to break. ...” And that was it. I fell across the bed. It spoke to my spirit, which was processing years of hurt and anger and frustration. By the time the song was over, I had cried so much, I switched from napkins to paper towels to a bed sheet. I started writing poetry, and later met Babbie. She gave me the artist name Neo Souljah, which was so empowering. I moved back home to Ohio. I eventually got a job in corporate America and have had success with my artistic endeavors. That song was the turning point. It literally saved me.

The Moment: Coping With the Death of a Child

The Song: “Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw

Karrie Thomson, 51

Spokane, Washington

In 2016, my only child, Monte Jr., was killed in a car accident at the age of 17. Our bond was one of a kind. We did everything together and had just gone camping with family the day before his death. When we had to choose songs for the funeral, one of them was “Humble and Kind,” which perfectly described him. In addition to taking high school and college classes simultaneously, Monte had a part-time job and regularly volunteered. He was such a giving kid; he’d drop anything for anybody. When he died, it broke me. I didn’t leave the house for months. I couldn’t work for two and a half years. But that song — it would always lift me when I was at my lowest. When I couldn’t get up, when I didn’t know if I could make it through the day or endure the pain, it would suddenly come on, and I’d be like, All right, kid, I’ve got this. Seven years later, I am much better. But to this day, that song still inspires me to persevere through the dark days and make Monte proud. It’s amazing how heartfelt and heartwarming it is, and how a song can make you feel so connected. I always say, “God gave me a perfect child because he knew I didn’t get him forever.”

The Moment: Challenging Teenage Years

The Song: “How Soon Is Now?” The Smiths

Thomas Inskeep, 53


I was a depressed kid, and part of that was because I was a queer kid in a rural town, and I felt very alone. To hear someone articulating how I felt in such a specific way was amazing, because I felt very unloved and unwanted. To hear the first couplet in the chorus, “How can you say / I go about things the wrong way?” The singer, Morrissey, seemed to understand me in a way that no one else did. And those last line in the chorus, “I am human and I need to be loved / just like everybody else does.” I absolutely considered suicide as a teenager. With those two lines, I felt if he understands me, then maybe there are other people who understand me. It literally may have saved my life.

The Moment: Business Struggles

The Song: “Little Room,” The White Stripes

Kevin Shinn, 60

Lincoln, Nebraska

Over the course of three years, a series of terrible events unfolded. My two restaurants failed and shuttered, we filed for bankruptcy and I lost my next job because that business closed as well. My wife, Karen, died from ovarian cancer and then COVID hit. It was a domino effect of crisis, trauma, hardship and heartache. I had no wife, no job, no business, no money. To cope, I started making music playlists and rediscovered this song. The lyrics go, “Well, you’re in your little room / and you’re working on something good.” I knew I had to reinvent myself and my life. It was time to work on something good again. The song continues: “If it’s good / you might need a bigger room / And if you get a bigger room / you might not know what to do / You have to think of how you got started / sitting in your little room.” That’s so profound. I cooked dinner for a friend’s 25th anniversary during COVID. By the following spring, cooking specialty meals turned into an opportunity to start a new business, a “micro-restaurant” that serves a table of six each night. This is my fourth season in this setting. I’m literally in my little room.

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