Being human is an exercise in losing. You can always be better. There is always someone better than you. You can always accomplish more than you do in a given day. You can always have more money. You can always garner more attention for your efforts. But chances are, you won’t.
There are 128 Division 1 teams in American college football, and only one of them can walk away as the victor each year. Everyone else ends their season by losing. Similar odds dog us all throughout life. What measures us as people is not the fact that we lose, and do so perennially and perpetually throughout life. It’s what grace we show in the face of ever-present defeat.
Dreams are the carrot life holds in front of us to keep you slogging towards goals that invariably lie just out of reach, no matter how much hard work and sacrifice you endure, or how much wits and resolve you contain. Ultimately, even the dreams we may achieve are usually exercises in compromise from what the original dream entailed. The house is smaller than we’d like; the career arch veered just a little lower than we hoped. And even if we get a big house, there’s always one bigger, and there’s always one better, and life is always there to remind you of that.
Despite the odds, you won’t find a dearth of humans who will spurn you on as you choose to step out of the plodding line of ordinary American life to pursue your dreams. That’s because everyone wishes they had the courage to do the same, but few have the foolishness to try. From elementary school teachers to high school guidance counselors, to family, friends, and fans, to superstars receiving glittering awards themselves who say in their acceptance speech, “Follow your dreams,” they all tell you unflinchingly to pursue your passions no matter what the sacrifice. And when you’re young, you listen.
But the cold reality is that for 99% of us, no matter what those dreams are, the path leads us straight into a brick wall over and over. It’s not always our fault; there’s just only so many slots of success in a given discipline, and your timing to fill a vacancy has to be impeccable. Making it all worse, we get to witness others with patently average talent walk right through golden doors to the full realizations of their dreams with seemingly listless effort. Fairness is a quality that life seems to have no interest in. And after ramming our heads into adversity time and time again, bruised and bloody, we brush ourselves off, let reality set in, and settle for a decently-paying job in a cubicle farm with health benefits, because we want our kids to have the possibility of having a slightly better life than ourselves, and maybe the chance to pursue their own dreams when they’re still young enough to do so.
About the only consolation for the living as we cobble together what is left of our broken dreams and soldier forth through life is the artistic expression that pain, disillusionment, and the glimmers of hope and joy inspire within the human soul.
Every year, Saving Country Music goes through the exercise of choosing the “best” song in its humble estimation. In 2016, this winner happens to be a song about losing and defeat. A song like this is only made possible from the total collapse and unrelenting broken heart of a musician at the end of their rope. Is it irony that Justin Wells has achieved his most cutting and palpable creative expression of his career through his dream of being a music artist collapsing around him? Maybe so, but the burdens, the anger, the disappointment in himself and in the world that is instilled in this song can only be communicated through experience, not imagination or second-hand accounts. “The Dogs” is nothing short of a man taking center stage, pulling out a knife, and spilling his guts out in front of God and everybody.
The story of Justin Wells and his former band Fifth on the Floor are painfully common for most who pursue the dream of music. Despite early promise, quality records and live performances, and even a little bit of industry success, it was just too much to ask. So Fifth on the Floor dissolved, and Justin Wells was left wondering what’s next. His solo record Dawn in the Distance is about this struggle, but it’s “The Dogs” that separated Justin from the pack. There is no vessel, container, or recording device that can capture human struggle like a song can. Justin Wells proves this in “The Dogs.”
But this song is not just about losing. It’s also about the unrelenting spirit inside us all that despite all the adversity, keeps us churning forward, fighting, and holding on to our pride and individuality no matter how much life kicks us in the teeth.
Kudos to all of the Song of the Year nominees, including the effort from Austin Lucas and Lydia Loveless called “Wrong Side of the Dream” that deals with similar themes, and Erik Dylan’s “Fishing Alone” that ran away with the popular vote. But this was one of those unfair years where one person put out something so powerful, it was impossible to top; it just happened to be about those of us who always seem to finish at the bottom.
2016 was the Year of the Dog, and finally, Justin Wells was the top one.
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