After someone dies, people are quick to offer their sympathy. Some say they're sorry, others compliment your strength and, the particularly curious, ask what exactly happened.
But what about the person you lost? In the three years since my dad passed away, I still get condolences, which are always appreciated, but what I really want—and rarely get—are the questions about who my dad was. I want the chance to talk about him, not his death.
So, rather than just praise Gavin DeGraw for his music and his resilience—we get to that too, don't worry—I asked for a story about his parents. His mom, Lynne, died in 2017, and his dad, John Wayne, in 2020.
"My folks were very different people," the 45-year-old began. "My mother, though tough, was tender. And my father, though tender, was tough."
Gavin took me back to when he was about 19, living at home in upstate New York after dropping out of college to focus on his career. "I was in my room working on a song I had written called ‘Waterfall,'" he recalled. "I caught my mother sitting at the top of the staircase, and she said, ‘I want you to know that your father and I feel what you're doing matters.' She gave me her vote of confidence and reminded me they weren't a couple of idiots just saying, ‘Whatever my baby wants to do, they can do.'"
His dad was less straightforward but just as sure of his son. Driving home from a gig one night, "my truck broke down on a country road," the singer shared. "I heard a noise in the woods, and I told my dad I was scared to death. He said to me, ‘Run to the lion, Gavin. When you're scared, attack. Whatever is out there, you're not going to outrun it.' That was a great life lesson: Sometimes, you have to just face it."
Though both are gone, their words—and lessons—live on. Today, Gavin pours his soul into his new album, Face the River, a stunning mix dedicated to his parents. But before you grab the tissues, know this isn't a 30-plus-minute downer. Rather, his seventh studio album is a celebration of lives well lived.
"I watched them put in all the sweat equity they possibly could," he said. "I watched them go off to their daily war to make a living. I watched them suffer, but I watched them prosper and push through so their kids could dream."
Now, you've heard his 2003 hit "I Don't Want To Be" (yes, the One Tree Hill theme song) so know the basics: Wayne was a prison guard; Lynne was a detox specialist. And over these 10 tracks, including "Freedom (Johnny's Song)" and "Hero in Our House," Gavin recounts their highs and lows—and confronts his own pain.
"I needed to write something important because I was in a place where I needed to get these feelings out of me: Some of it is joyful and some of it is poison," he admitted. "And these are the type of people I want to brag about. Nothing can compare to the hero your parents could be for you. Nothing at all."
But, for Gavin, it was a race against time to tell their story. After Lynne died from pancreatic cancer in 2017, he turned to his music—"it's my therapy"—but, by 2020, his dad's health was also quickly deteriorating.
The musician presented three songs to John Wayne while he was in the hospital, moving him to tears. "He said, ‘Oh, I wish your mother could have heard this,'" Gavin recalled. "And I told him, ‘She wrote the record.'" Because she did. Her presence, her spirit, everlasting.
When his dad was finally back home, Gavin gave him the full Face the River experience. "I played the album front to back, straight through," he explained. "And he said to me, ‘Masterpiece.'"
It was, ultimately, the last one John Wayne got to witness. Thirty minutes later, after he relived his life through the album, he was rushed to hospital and died shortly after. "I got to it in the nick of time, within half an hour of him not being able to hear it, enjoy it or process it," Gavin said. "My closure was that I got to play him the album. If there's any silver lining at all, that's it. And I got to tell him I felt I fulfilled my potential as a musician and a songwriter. And he said, ‘You did it.'"
And he'll keep doing it. Because while life can be unfair and grief can certainly suck, Gavin was taught to run to the lion. And in those moments when he feels like he can't, he knows where to look for a little push.
"When we lost my mother, my dad said, ‘We were made for this,'" Gavin shared. "We were made to withstand these great losses. And that's what I think of now. There are going to be hard times, but not one single thing is going to happen that we are not designed to deal with."
If you're new to loss, it's OK to disagree. But as time goes on, you'll be surprised by your own resilience, your ability to simply put one foot in front of the other. Gavin's life is an example of just that.
But what resonated with me the most from our hourlong conversation is the last piece of advice he shared from his dad, a simple phrase that I too had gotten from my own: Enjoy life.
"'That's it?'" he remembered asking John Wayne. And, spoiler, yes, that was it. "He didn't say, ‘Make a great mark on society.' He didn't say, ‘Change the world,'" Gavin shared. "There's no reason to put that pressure on yourself. By enjoying life, you're changing the world."
And he's well on his way to doing just that…
Face the River is out now.