When there’s a special song in your life, you can easily recall hearing it for the first time.
I was thinking about this recently when I heard Alabama’s “Angels Among Us.” I still remember watching the video in 1994: Randy Owen singing about angels while surrounded by a children’s choir, and regular folks who had saved lives. I was moved to tears as Owen hailed those who “wear so many faces, show up in the strangest places, and grace us with their mercies in our time of need.”
I still get misty-eyed when I hear the chorus: “I believe there are angels among us, sent down to us from somewhere up above.”
I never dreamed I would meet the man who wrote those words. Then one day, I was covering a news story about “Operation Song,” the program that links top Nashville songwriters with military veterans and surviving family members, encouraging them to express their feelings in song. The group has been active in Chattanooga since the July 2015 attack that took the lives of five servicemen.
The wordsmith is Don Goodman. As he was being introduced that day, someone ran down the list of hit songs he has written. Suddenly there it was: “Angels Among Us.” As I shook his hand, I said, “There must be a story behind this song.” He said, “Absolutely. But there’s not just one. There are many.”
It dates back to the mid-1980s. Goodman said Nashville musician Becky Hobbs and her band members were in a van, headed home from a concert. With her road manager behind the wheel, Hobbs had taken a nap. She woke up in time to see an eighteen-wheeler barreling through an intersection, about to run a red light. She yelled at her driver to get out of the truck’s path, and he swerved to avoid being “T-boned” by the truck. For years, she thought back to that day, and how she and her friends were spared from certain death. The phrase, “Angels Among Us” wouldn’t go away.
More than six years later, she called her songwriter friend Goodman. “Don, I have an idea,” she said. “All I have is a title, and a melody. I need your help to finish this song.”
As she played the song on her piano, “We just sat there and started talking,” Goodman said. “I believe in angels too. Just a few months earlier, my son Jeremy, who was 16, was in a car accident. His friends Adam and Trent were killed. They were golfing buddies. Every time I was on a golf course, I would see their faces. I was in the presence of angels.”
The songwriters took one evening to work on the verses, and the chorus, and came back the next day to “tweak it,” Goodman said. Unlike most Nashville-written songs, this one did not bounce around to various artists. Hobbs had only one singer in mind: Randy Owen.
She sent the song to the Alabama singer, who was recovering from a heart scare, and had experienced tragedy in his own life. His teenage daughter’s best friend Jacey Colburn, who had babysat for his three-year-old daughter Randa, had died in a car accident just weeks earlier. Owen had begun singing the song around the house to familiarize himself with the lyrics. One day Randa asked him to sing “Jacey’s song.” He asked her which song that was. She replied, “The one about angels. That’s about Jacey.” He told me, “I knew right then, I had to record it.”
Alabama was finishing a new album, and needed one more song. He suggested “Angels,” but there was a problem. “The producer didn’t like it, and RCA didn’t like it,” Owen said. “Teddy Gentry and I were the only ones who believed in it, and we sort of forced them to use it.”
Despite RCA’s lack of enthusiasm, “the song wouldn’t die,” Owen said. “It was bigger than any of us.” St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis adopted the song, which became a source of inspiration to families battling cancer.
Goodman said, “I’d see Randy sing that at St. Jude, and I’d see the faces of these parents, just praying that their child would see another Christmas. And you know what? A lot of them did.”
He continued, “I’ve probably written three thousand songs in my life, and I’m not done yet. But this song is special. If I don’t ever write a better one, that’s fine with me.”
Owen said, “That song is a miracle. It changes lives. It gives people hope. I thank God I listened to my little three-year-old girl. She heard something no one else did.”
Goodman said, “Excuse me if I get emotional, but it’s every songwriter’s dream to write a song that helps people through the tough times. My dream came true.”