“If I Die Young” captures the essence of who Kimberly Perry is as a songwriter.
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Perry wrote the song that became the foundation of The Band Perry’s career in country music alone in her bedroom when she was merely a teenager. Perry, her younger brothers and bandmates Neil and Reid Perry, and their family emigrated from their native Mississippi to the mountains of East Tennessee after the eldest Perry graduated high school, writing music and forming what would become The Band Perry. The group was in the process of recording an indie rock record when they returned home to East Tennessee from Nashville one weekend. Retreating to her bedroom, Perry felt called to write a song that sounded completely different than what they were working on at the time in Nashville. Instead, she composed a ballad about her perspective if she were to die young.
“The song was really written as a prayer,” she tells American Songwriter. “It was very organic, almost like holy channel.”
Growing up in the Deep South, Perry was influenced by Southern gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and attracted to, “Very grotesque morals that were all morals of life, but wrapped up in very dark, romantic stories,” she describes. “So I think that made its way into my ethos when it came to songwriting. ‘If I Die Young’ was all about that beautiful, grotesque poetry. It’s how I like to communicate.”
Perry also got inspiration from another source of literature. Growing up, she was influenced by Anne of Green Gables, calling out a particularly memorable scene when Anne is laying in a canoe that she pretends is a casket while reciting an Alfred Tennyson poem at her makeshift funeral.
“I always found that that scene so beautiful, and so whatever was going on in my mind this particular afternoon in East Tennessee, I was thinking about that scene and was contemplating all of these things that I wanted to see manifest in my life, from a relationship to my dream of music coming true,” she explains of the song’s meaning. “It was paired with this thought of, ‘But if it all ends now, that’s really beautiful too.’”
The verses were written from the perspective of how her death would affect her loved ones, from her mother to her boyfriend. She translated this feeling into such stunningly visual lyrics as, If I die young / Bury me in satin / Lay me down on a bed of roses / Sink me in the river at dawn / Send me away with the words of a love song.
Perry approached the song with a dreamer’s spirit, hoping her ambitions would come to life, but willing to accept fate even if they didn’t. “It’s been really cool to see how that validated a lot of people’s feelings in that moment when they couldn’t quite see far enough into the future, but were hoping that it would be good to them,” she expresses. “I feel like that was a prayer that I got to sing every day since the day that I wrote it. Whether that really manifested all the things that happened next, it truly felt like such a pure moment where I was asking and hoping for things. That lyric has been incredibly important to me from a creative standpoint and a life standpoint.”
The song marked The Band Perry’s breakthrough in country music. It topped both the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and Adult Contemporary chart, as well as reached the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. After the group went through a series of musical identities, they went on hiatus in March 2023 so each member could pursue solo projects. The decision brought Perry back to her roots. During a meeting over coffee in 2022 with publisher Tamara Conniff, who co-owns the copyright of “If I Die Young” with Perry, Conniff suggested that Perry write a part two of the story, curious about the girl in the song’s perspective more than a decade later.
“When she said it, it was like a lightning bolt moment for me creatively,” Perry recalls, prompting her to write “If I Die Young Pt. 2,” which was released in May 2023. She updated the lyrics with co-writers Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins with the “hard-won wisdom” she’s garnered since the original version was written. This is reflected in lyrics like, And I’m so glad I’m here now / Instead of somewhere underground / I think I’ll always wanna stay / I guess it’s too late anyway / To die young.
Among the life lessons she channels into the new version include her divorce from her first husband to finding new love with her husband Johnny Costello whom she married in 2021. The song also addresses the couple expecting their first child, son Whittaker James Costello, in August 2023, as well as journeying through being a solo artist after spending more than 15 years in a band with her brothers.
While she still believes in many of the lines from the original, the one she now disagrees with is the anchor of the chorus when she sings, I’ve had just enough time. The new rendition replaces that line with her evolved perspective, Now I know there’s no such thing as enough time.
“It’s been an interesting thing to see all the wild and wonderful things that have happened to me in country music since writing the original version of ‘If I Die Young,’” the singer reflects. “Life does get sweeter as we live it, and that comes complete with highs and lows. I definitely have a lot more hits and misses under my belt at this point, but riding all of those waves and having the time to let things unfold and to blossom is really what ‘If I Die Young Pt. 2’ is all about. It’s a letter back to that original girl that wrote part one in her bedroom to just hang on, there’s going to be a lot of things that life brings you between here and there.”
The song appears on Perry’s upcoming solo EP, Bloom. The project is named after the line in “If I Die Young Pt. 2,” I’ve had time to bloom, which honors her personal evolution over the years.
“It felt very intentional to be here and I needed to update the story of all the things that have happened since part one. It felt like the responsible thing to do, but also the most honest thing to do,” Perry observes. “‘If I Die Young’ truly was the catalyst for us beginning and defining our career in country music for me as a songwriter. It served as a North Star for me creatively because it truly felt like a snapshot of the most pure way that I hear and create melody, and that I hear and write lyrics. It’s been incredibly important for me to go back to that origin.”
Photo Credit: LITV/JETBLACK/Ryan Waneka