August 31, 2008
Written by Don Henry and Jon Vezner
Everybody loved the song, but nobody wanted to cut it. A slow and simple tale of an aging couple that ends with them both in a hospital, as the wife is succumbing to Alzheimer’s? Not exactly the formula for a smash hit. Co-writers Jon Vezner and Don Henry pitched the song all around Nashville, and it was finally Vezner’s wife, Kathy Mattea, who committed to recording the song that was piercing her heart with every listen.
The tale of Claire & Edwin starts simply enough, with Claire wondering “where’ve you been” when they fall in love, and she finds the man she always dreamed of. She asks the same question when a storm delays his coming home from work – “Her frightened tears fell to the floor, until his key turned in the door.”
The gentle instrumentation – Mattea is accompanied only by acoustic guitar through much of the song – gives the tale an unassuming nature. There’s no foreshadowing of the turn the lyrics will take, and country fans certainly hadn’t been conditioned to three-act story songs that end like this, even though there would be countless numbers of them during the boom years. But the turn comes, as the bridge pulls the rug out from under the listener with disarming humor: “They never spent a night apart, for sixty years she heard him snore; now they’re in a hospital, in separate beds on different floors.”
The final verse, where Edwin and Claire have their last conversation, captures the very best of what country music can be, revealing deep truths about the human experience through careful observation of word and deed: “Then one day they wheeled him in. He held her hand and stroked her head, and in a fragile voice she said, ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day.’”
There is no bombast, no cheap appeals for sentiment or manipulative vocals. Mattea lets the song shine, and only slightly increases the intensity of the last “where’ve you been.” Still, the scene is so perfectly constructed that it’s hard to believe it really happened, though Mattea’s reverent delivery indicates otherwise. She recalls:
It’s a true story about Jon’s grandparents. They had both gotten very sick and were in the same hospital, but didn’t know it. His grandmother had been slowly losing it, and she didn’t recognize anybody. She was in unfamiliar surroundings, so she finally quit talking altogether. Jon was there visiting, and he was up seeing his grandfather; he said to the nurse, “Has anybody brought him down to see her?” She said no, and he asked if he could do that.
They said yes, so he wheeled his grandfather into his grandmother’s room. His grandfather kept stroking her hair, saying, “Look at them hair, nobody has hair like grandma,” and she looked at him and said, “Where have you been?” It was the first thing she had said in weeks.
When Jon told me the story for the first time, it was before we had even gotten engaged, and he just cried and cried. When he played the song for me and the first chorus came around, I knew where he was going with the lyric, and I just couldn’t believe he could be that vulnerable as a writer, to put that moment in a song.
The song was Mattea’s biggest hit, winning her a Grammy. It also won Song of the Year at the Grammys, CMA’s and ACM’s. While Mattea had wondered to herself, “Do people want to hear this on the way to work?”, the song struck a deep chord, and it was the first time Alzheimer’s had been captured in a mainstream hit song.
The quiet grace of this single is the perfect illustration of what country music can be, without any of the annoyances that often bring the genre down. Great song, fantastic vocalist, tasteful arrangement and the honest truth – these are the things that keep country fans wading through a sea of mediocrity to find treasures like this.
“Where’ve You Been” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.