In September 2016, country singer Jackie Lee was headed to a songwriting session when he knew something was wrong. It was three months after his mother died of cancer, so nothing had really felt normal since then. But this was different. He wasn’t in pain and he didn’t feel sick, exactly — it was “a weird intuition,” he said. He called his father, and after conferring, Lee decided to make a doctor’s appointment when he got home.
Multiple doctor visits, an ultrasound and one surgery later, Lee, then 25, was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Lee initially shared the diagnosis with his father and manager, and was truly conflicted over whether he should tell anyone else. His family was still reeling from his mother’s death. He was worried about how people might react. Then there was his career: While Lee had struggled to break through in Nashville’s intensely competitive pool of new artists, he was starting to get traction with a well-reviewed new single called “Getting Over You.” Previously closed doors were opening, and he didn’t want to lose momentum.
So in early 2017, Lee kept things quiet, as he continued going in for routine scans. In between, he still toured and wrote songs and promoted his single. However, as months went by, things started to pile up: He broke up with his longtime girlfriend. Unhappy in his record deal, he parted ways with his label. And in August, the doctor called: A scan revealed the cancer had returned, and this time, Lee would need chemotherapy.
Lee completed his final chemotherapy treatment this past January, and after much consideration, he wants to let everyone know everything: This week, he released “Long Year,” an achingly emotional autobiographical song he wrote with Barry Dean and Sean McConnell. The music video chronicles his cancer battle, with footage he filmed while going through chemo. He starts by simply saying, “Hey, my name is Jackie Lee . . . and I have something I’d like to share with you guys.”
“I was really on the fence about this,” Lee said recently by phone from Nashville. He feared that, especially this early in his career, he would be permanently tagged with “the cancer guy” label. “I just didn’t want this to be what I was known for my whole life.”
However, his producer, Aaron Eshuis, said these magic words that Lee needed to hear: “This isn’t your story. This is just a part of your story.”
Once Lee’s co-writers heard what he had been through, they knew they had to write about it. The lyrics don’t reveal too many specific details: “It’s been a long year, and I’m a little tired/Lived a whole life between 24 and 25,” he sings. “I’ve been to hell and back, but I never left right here/It’s been a long year.” The music video goes further, showing scenes of Lee shaving his head when his hair started to fall out, or at the hospital for treatments.
Lee, who said doctors have pronounced him “good to go” as he continues to get regular checkups, saw a huge wave of support from fellow country singers and fans when the video was released Monday. And even though getting so personal is mildly terrifying, he feels it’s the perfect opportunity to cement a new direction as a country artist. One of the biggest challenges when he moved to Nashville at age 18 was to set himself apart from other musicians. He had an impressive voice, yet he still had to figure out the critical question: What did he really want to say?
“It was figuring out . . . why am I here?” Lee said. “Am I here to be famous and make some money? Or make an impact on people’s lives?”
He’s leaned on his late mother’s influence for motivation. “I feel like I learned more from my mom this year than I did in the other 25,” he said. “That’s what I think about constantly — she didn’t raise me to be a wimp . . . or make excuses. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to carry on the legacy of who she is.”
The events since 2016 have given him a new perspective about what’s important, and the desire to inspire others going through similar situations. On the business side, he also has a new producer and talent agency, and is forging ahead as an independent artist. “The reset button has been hit on so many parts of my career,” Lee said. “I feel like I just moved here.”
His next song, which drops Thursday night, is called “Comeback,” written by Matt McVaney, Josh Hoge, Mark Fuhrer and singer Chris Young. To Lee, it’s an all-too-fitting way to kick off this new era, as the song — technically about a relationship — works on multiple levels.
“It’s not that he’s making a career comeback — he still has to be introduced to the world,” said Eshuis, his producer. “It’s more of a physical comeback, an emotional comeback, a spiritual recovery. There’s so much going on behind that title.”
And as far as Lee sharing so much in the “Long Year” video, or only being known for the worst year of his life? Michael Bryan, part of Lee’s new team at Creative Artists Agency, waves off any concerns, as the country audience is receptive to artists getting personal.
“I think authenticity wins, right?” Bryan said. “I don’t know a single superstar in the country music genre that isn’t authentic and true to themselves. The ones that really have staying power are real, and this is one of the most real stories and songs I’ve ever heard in this business.”