Mindy McCready had been troubled for a long time. It wasn’t a shock when I heard she’d killed herself so much as it was startling to learn how she’d gone about doing it.
In January, David Wilson, Mindy’s music producer boyfriend — and seemingly one of the few stabilizing forces in her life in recent years — shot himself on the front porch of the home they shared. No one seems to know why he chose to take his own life. A month later, Mindy shot herself on that same front porch after shooting her boyfriend’s dog (to “take him with her” so his owner could see him again, a friend explained to the press). She was thirty seven years old.
At the outset of her promising musical career, no one would have ever dreamed it would end this way. She had a record deal in Nashville, a double platinum-selling album, and a #1 hit single, all when she was barely into her twenties. She was beautiful. She could sing. She was poised to be the next Faith Hill, without the early hair issues.
Each successive album she released after her first sold less and less, until she was dropped by her record label. She got another record deal, released an album that did even worse business, and was dropped again. It’s not clear where things began to really go wrong. Maybe it was when her country singer boyfriend Billy McKnight was charged with attempted murder for beating and choking her until she blacked out. She attempted suicide two months later. She survived, they got back together, and she had his child.
Maybe it was the drugs and alcohol. She was arrested in 2004 for drug fraud after buying Oxycontin with a fake prescription. A year later she was stopped by Nashville police while driving drunk with a suspended license. Two months after that she was charged with identity theft, unlawful use of transportation, unlawful imprisonment, and hindering prosecution.
And on it went: probation violations. Assault. Resisting arrest. More probation violations. Jail time. A sex tape. A custody battle after her son was taken away from her. She tried to kidnap him while he was in her mother’s care. The two of them were found huddled together in a closet, hiding.
Something must have led to all of this. There had to be a tipping point. Three years ago, in an interview, Mindy summed up her life as “a giant whirlwind of chaos all the time. My entire life, things have been attracted to me, and vice versa, that turn into chaotic nightmares. Or I create the chaos myself.”
In January 2012, she posted an update on her website that may be the closest we ever get to an explanation of what went wrong, and why:
The following is an overview of a future book about my life.
I haven’t had a hit in almost a decade. I’ve spent my fortune, tarnished my public view, and made myself the brunt of punch line after punch line. I’ve been beaten, sued, robbed, arrested, jailed, and evicted. But I’m still here. With a handful of people that I know and trust, a revived determination, and both middle fingers up in the air, I’m ready. I’ve been here before. I’m a fighter. I’m down, but I’ll never be out.
This book is not about shifting blame. I know I’ve made mistakes and I take full responsibility for those mistakes. This book is part diary, part therapy, part confessional, part job, and part apology. But mostly, I just want people to understand me better. So when people like Nancy Grace or the TMZ parasites pass judgment, they can do so with the full story.
She went on to write:
My drive came from an abusive upbringing and the dependence of two younger brothers. My fame came from my success as a country music singer. My infamy came from outside my career: bar-brawls, secret affairs, domestic violence, drug charges, jail time, rehab stays, and suicide attempts. I could say that the information was taken out of context, blown out of proportion and completely misconstrued, and a lot of it was. Some things, however — more than I’d like to admit — are just the sad truth. But what nobody knows are the details behind the splashy headlines. The person I am, the intentions behind every bad decision, and events leading up to each “I can’t believe I did that” moment. This book will supply me the opportunity to show that I’m not so different from my fans and antagonists.
I was an underdog from birth. I was born into an unhealthy house ruled by a mother who was too young and too violent to successfully take care of children. My two brothers who would eventually look to me for rescue came later. Nature gave me the ability to sing and favourable looks. My mother taught me the art of manipulation and convenient detachment. My father taught me to depend on no one. My brothers showed me the necessity to succeed and sever the dependence on our parents. Armed with this, I graduated high school early and moved to Nashville to be a star.
Two years later that is just what I was. With my first album I became one of the top selling debut female country artists of all time. The view from the top of the charts was inspiring but fleeting. The men I dated on the way up and the way down were incredible and terrifying. I’ve been engaged to a movie star, courted by a prince, kept by a professional baseball player, and nearly beaten to death by the man who would father my son.
Now, I have no delusions about my seemingly precarious situation. I have served a total of seven months in jail. I have just spent six weeks at an inpatient facility where I worked with doctors and counsellors every day. The FBI and U.S. Congress are currently seeking my testimony against Roger Clemens, a man I once loved. My public persona is badly warped and bears little resemblance to the person those closest to me know. My musical career has been on hold for several years. Still I have a record deal, a reality TV show in the making, a full team of managers, lawyers and assistants, and a new clarity to accompany my devilish determination and ferocious work ethic. I’m ready for whatever comes next. This extraordinary life, begging to be written, is a comeback story.
She didn’t live to write that story.
Mindy’s last boyfriend, with whom she had a second child, was probably the closest thing to an anchor she had left. She called him her soulmate. Once he was gone, she must have felt alone, abandoned, and used up by life.
She attempted suicide four times in seven years before finally succeeding. You get the feeling more could have been done by those around her to try and help her. I’m not sure Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew was the answer. She was hospitalized in the aftermath of Wilson’s death to receive treatment for “alcohol abuse and mental issues”, only to be released to an outpatient facility almost immediately when it was determined that she didn’t fit the profile for alcoholism and was capable of living on her own.
Some people have written about how selfish it was for her to leave her children behind. I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t think they understand the way a person’s mind works when they’re in that amount of pain. You just want it all to end. You feel like you’ll be doing everyone a favour if they’re rid of you. You don’t think you’re doing them any good at all by sticking around, because in your mind you’re nothing but a soulless void. Human waste. You can never feel any real forward momentum, no matter how hard you try to search for reasons to keep going. You’re running in place on a set of legs that no longer respond to the signals your brain is trying to send them. And you don’t see any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. There’s just a viscous sea of black stretching out in every direction, as far as you can see.
Try waking up and dealing with that every day, all day. Then try being a woman who has it hammered into your head by the media that your best days are behind you and, nearing forty, you’re no longer considered beautiful or desirable. Try realizing you’re no longer welcome in an industry that’s more interested in Taylor Swift’s six millionth brain-dead song about what an awful boyfriend some other celebrity douchebag was than anything you might have to say. Try fighting for years to gain full custody of your oldest son, finally winning that battle, and then a month later having the man you plan to marry and spend the rest of your life with shoot himself in the head on your front porch. Try then having your children taken away from you for good and placed in a state care facility, and dealing with the possibility that at some point the ex-boyfriend who tried to kill you may get custody of at least one of them.
See how well you do.
Mindy wasn’t a songwriter. Not really. And this is what I keep coming back to. On her last album, she’s credited as a co-writer on a few songs. In the music industry, all that usually means is the singer came up with a vague concept or contributed a few rhymes, while the “professional” songwriters did the heavy lifting.
She was a song interpreter. And that’s very different from being a writer. The most skilled song interpreters — singers like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Elvis Presley — could take just about any song and make it sound like no one in the world had ever sung it before them, and no one else ever would or could again.
The trick is, a singer who isn’t a writer needs other people to write the songs for them. Architects to build them rooms to walk around inside of. And I don’t imagine it’s easy to find songs you connect with on a deep enough level, and rooms you feel comfortable enough inhabiting, to make music that means something to you.
Those of us who are writers, we’re lucky. We can at least throw a leash around our demons and try to lead them somewhere. We don’t need to look to someone else to do it for us, hoping they’ve got strong enough hands for the job. We don’t need anyone to ghostwrite the autobiographies of our souls.
Mindy McCready didn’t have that catharsis — that place she could go to wrestle back some control, however fleeting. And I can’t shake the feeling that it might have made a difference if she had. It might not have saved her, but it could have given her an oar to row through that deep black muck she got lost in. Maybe she would have been able to keep herself afloat a little while longer.
How lonely it must be, to be a singer who can’t find the song that might set you free.