‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Songwriter Breaks Down How ‘Sassy on Sunday’ Came Together

Joseph Stephens also explains how Telly Savalas influenced that incredible season finale

"Righteous Gemstones" (HBO)
"Righteous Gemstones" (HBO)

One of the greatest elements of Danny McBride’s already great hit HBO comedy “The Righteous Gemstones” is the music. The show, about a dysfunctional family of wealthy televangelists, uses original and licensed music to make everything feel real despite being an over-the-top satire, and set a particularly high bar in Season 1 with “Misbehavin,’” a hilarious take on early 60’s country music that arguably serves as they show’s unofficial leitmotif.

But Season 2 surpassed that achievement twice, first with the original song “Sassy on Sunday,” and in the season finale with an absolutely incredible cover of country legend Don Williams’ 1977 song “Some Broken Hearts Never End.”

That’s thanks in large part to Joseph Stephens, the show’s songwriter and composer. Following the end of Season 2, we were lucky enough to talk to him, and he walked us through the creation of these classic moments, explaining just how much Danny McBride is involved (turns out it’s a lot) — and in the process introduced us to an incredible artifact of 1970s pop culture we somehow missed.

Written by Jennifer Nettles and Stephens, “Sassy on Sunday” was introduced in the Season 2 episode “And Infants Shall Rule Over Them.” The song is an in-universe Christian contemporary hit performed by deceased Gemstones matriarch Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, but while it brilliantly captures the way Christian popular culture is sort of out of time — it is implied to have come out in the late 1980s but it sounds more like a late 70s artifact — it’s also a brilliant song on its own.

Stephens told TheWrap that the song title was just another good idea McBride “threw” out while building the episode, the primary inspiration being 70s-80s country pop star Barbara Mandrell.

“The idea that [Danny McBride] threw at us was, he wanted to have this song that was in the back catalogue of Aimee-Leigh. And the Gemstone siblings were going to discover this, or revisit this recording of the song and play it while their father Eli is laid up in a hospital bed on life support,” Stephens said. “He liked the juxtaposition of Elijah, you know, fighting for his life. And then us hearing this kind of like silly, upbeat song. So we were kind of like adding this weird kind of comedic levity to this sort of dramatic moment with with Eli and his in his family.”

For inspiration, Stephens said he “just did a deep dive with Barbara Mandrell,” which included her 1978 hit “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” and 1981’s “Crackers.”

“There’s a pity party, there’s… songs that are very catchy. It’s a band playing, they’re upbeat. They’re kind of kind of wholesome, but also really naughty,” Stephens said about Mandrell’s music. “She was one of the first country artists, female country artists, to sing about cheating on a man. You know, during a time when, when male artists were always singing about, you know, other women, so he was, she was, she kind of broke a lot of ground and that and that, that world.”

“So we wanted the song to feel like it’s akin to that, like it was it’s definitely an homage. We wanted to feel kind of jokey, but also very authentic and, and well-loved.”

But, Stephens says, it was Nettles who actually brought the whole song together as they pair wrote the song in part through phone calls.

“I wrote a bunch of ideas down. And then they all kind of went — They were kind of dashed when Jennifer presented some idea on the piano that she recorded on her phone,” he says. “And it was just like the kind of opening bid to the to the tune. And so I took that and ran with that. And she and I went went back and forth with structure and some lyrics and just all through voicemail voice memos, and I would plug into my studio and send back to her, and then we just kind of like exchange ideas.”

“Once it was approved by Danny, we went and had her touring band playing in the studio; we wanted it to feel like it was recorded differently than other like songs for the show, [more] similar to what we did for ‘Misbehavin’,’ the kid version from the 60s,” he continued, explaining that it would have sounded like a completely different song if he had put the song together by himself in his own studio.

“So it had that essence of a live band doing it in studio the same way it was done in the 80s or the 70s,” Stephens added. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, the Season 2 finale ended with an incredible performance of “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” which also serves as the soundtrack to a brutal revenge scene. The country classic by Don Williams was, somehow, successfully reinterpreted as a revival church song by the Gemstone kids (played of course by Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam DeVine). Obviously we had to find out how that came about.

Stephens credits McBride with the idea — but also blew our mind with the fact that the performance wasn’t just riffing off Don Williams — it was also inspired by “Kojack” star Telly Salavas.

“We needed a song in the script, there’s a song that covers is like a big, you know, sing along with all the family and everybody’s on stage. And it’s parallel action with what goes down with the Lissons in Alaska. And so we knew we needed to have a big song there,” Stephens told us.

At first they started writing songs, while also thinking about existing music that might work as a more “conventional Christian performed song,” Stephens said. McBride sent the Don Williams version of the song around — listen to that here — but, Stephens added, he also sent them a cover of the song performed by Savalas.

“Our version is kind of a blend of both in a weird way. And I think that I mean, overall, we liked the vibe of the song done William style, because it had the country kind of old school country laid back feel. But then there’s this Telly Savalas version that is a little more showmanship.”

Stephens and his team set about arranging the rather simple verse/chorus/verse structure of the song to fit the needs of the scene and its context — expanding it so it works as something you’d see people in church singing. “We wanted it to feel like it needed to grow more and more, so by the end we wanted to feel like the majority of the Coliseum was singing along with the people on stage.”

Of course, Stephens notes the song itself is “about sorrow, a lost lover, and finding comfort in other people while remembering some other lost lovers. So it’s very not a conventional Christian hymn. But we wanted it to feel that way.”

In the end, that worked out. “It just all just felt like this big, glorious extravaganza,” he told us.

“The Righteous Gemstones” Season 2 is now streaming on HBO Max.