Three years ago country singer Gary Allan had a thriving career, a lakefront home outside Nashville and a Brady Bunch-style family with his wife of three years, Angela Herzberg, to fill it up. But on October 25, 2004, Angela, 36, committed suicide. A devastated Allan put his career on hold, only to find that the best medicine was his music. He poured out his agony in the recording studio, resulting in 2005’s heart-wrenchingly personal album Tough All Over. “It was scary,” says his close friend and songwriting partner Odie Blackmon, “seeing him go through it and knowing that the music was some kind of therapy. But I’m glad he did it.” With his recently released greatest hits album topping the country chart, Allan, 39, is currently recording new music and, as he tells CINDY DAMPIER, still trying to make sense of a tragedy he never saw coming.
I met Angela on an airplane. She was a flight attendant, and she was riding home to Dallas. She sat next to me up in first class, and we talked for a long time. I was lucky enough to get her number. I asked her to marry me at Christmas 2000. I was going to wait for this big moment and then couldn’t. As soon as I got the ring in my hand, I just asked her. We took a tour bus to Texas and picked up a preacher on the way and got married in her grandparents’ living room.
Angela and I moved to Tennessee from California in 2003. We had everybody together, six kids in the house—her three and my three [then aged 9 to 15]—and my ex lived just a few blocks away. That kept everybody close. There was always chaos because we had so many kids, but it was a blast.
When we moved, Angela had a lot of allergies, and the allergies would trigger migraines. Her migraines were so bad that she would black out and have to go lie down. She was depressed, but because the depression seemed to start with the migraines, she never really got properly treated for the depression. She got treated for the migraines.
The night she died she was physically sick, throwing up. I had been on the road and I had just come home. There was a Halloween party we were all going to, and I asked her if she wanted me to stay home with her. She was like, “No, the kids have been looking forward to this party, take them.” After the party, I got all the kids tucked in bed and was watching TV. It was about 12 o’clock at night, and she came over and sort of hassled me about what I was watching. Then after she walked away I thought, “Wow, that was way out of character.” She just made no sense.
I turned off the TV and went into the bedroom. I wanted to be close to her in case she needed something. She asked me to check on one of the kids. I said, “I just put them to bed, everyone’s fine. I took care of it all.” She sat there for a minute, and she said, “Would you go get me a Coke? I feel like I’m sick.” So I went into the kitchen and heard a loud pop. It sounded like she had thrown something. I had a gun safe underneath the bed, and she had taken out a pistol, stuck it in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She was on the bed. She was gone.
Looking back, Angela took care of everybody but didn’t make it to the doctor to take care of herself. I found out her doctors had asked her to go and see a psychiatrist, and she did not go. She knew she had some demons, and it was hard for her to ask for help. But you have to be an advocate for yourself and take action, like calling a suicide hotline.
After she died, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything, I was a mess. I was just packing stuff up one day, and a buddy asked me what I was doing. I said, “Just puttin’ memories away.” And then I laughed and said, “Let’s write that song.” And that’s when I realized, I’ve got a lot to say right now. It surprised me that I could do it. But what I realized is that music was my only real escape. It became like a therapy.
I didn’t want to take anything for my own depression; I didn’t drink, nothing—I just didn’t want to drop the ball. A doctor told me, “You need to find a way to reach inside of yourself and be happy, make yourself laugh.” That stuck, and I ended up taking an antidepressant. People have different opinions about the medications, but it worked for me. The kids and I also went to a lot of counseling together, and that helped a ton. It’s a scar they’ll always carry, but I think everybody is going to land on their feet. Angela’s kids have moved back to Texas with their father, but I still see them sometimes, and the kids all see each other.
The toughest part is just letting go of the guilt. She never told me she was thinking about killing herself, ever. I found out later she did mention suicide to her best friend and a lot of other people. I think she was feeling like I was gone all the time, and she was overwhelmed with her depression. At first I just accepted all the guilt. I was like, “What could I have done, what didn’t I do?” People pray for you to get better, but if you get better too fast, they look at you funny. So when is it okay to feel better? Someone told me you’ll just wake up one day and you’ll have a little spring in your step. And that’s what happened. I woke up one day 16 months later and thought, “Hey, I feel pretty good.”
I still think about her. We bought the house and decorated it together, and I love it. Angela was real big into flowers, so she planted, like, 3,000 tulips and they’re all up now. So there’s lots of stuff to remind me of her. I don’t know what’s next for me, but I’m still writing music. I take all those emotions and turn them inside out. I never understood it before—you have a lot more to draw on when you’ve been through more, I guess. Sad, but I get it now.