Music Row is rough on every dreamer.
However, few, if any, have faced as many obstacles as John Jarrard, who at 26, lost his eyesight and, later, both of his legs to diabetes. On most days, the tall redhead could be seen tapping his white cane, lugging a guitar and walking, painstakingly, on two prosthetic limbs to Nashville offices and studios, where he often arrived bruised and bloodied from bumping into telephone poles and falling over curbs. Nothing, though, could trip up his art. Jarrard wrote 11 No. 1 hits and hundreds of other tracks for most of country music’s royalty, including Alabama, Don Williams, George Strait and John Anderson.
“John wrote songs that were real, about his own experiences and the people he loved,” fellow songwriter Bruce Burch says of his lifelong friend, who died in 2001 at age 47. “He was a colorful person with a great sense of humor, and a lot of his songs display that. But, most of all, he wrote with a lot of love in his heart, and that’s why I think his songs continue to reach so many people today.”
About 1,500 of those fans turned out in August for the fifth annual “Bruce Burch and Friends Honor John Jarrard Benefit,” a night of music and barbecue that is becoming a twangy, good-time tradition in the songwriter’s hometown of Gainesville, where it has raised more than $250,000 for some of his favorite charities as part of an ongoing endowment for the North Georgia Community Foundation. This year’s lineup included Alex Harvey (author of “Delta Dawn”); T. Graham Brown (“Wine Into Water”); Tony Arata (“The Dance”); vocalist John Berry, who enjoyed a hit with Jarrard’s “What’s In It For Me?”; and up-and-comers like Nathan Long, Allen Nivens and J.P. Williams. With all of the storytelling, back-slapping, and sound checks, the event felt like a combination of high-school reunion and classic Nashville guitar pull.
“I’m coming full circle playing here because John Jarrard visited my school when I was younger and really inspired me to pursue my music,” says Williams, who attended the Tennessee School for the Blind. “I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can, too.’”
Jarrard not only stoked students’ musical aspirations; as a fund-raiser for the school, he gamely rappelled down a dozen stories of the headquarters of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
“He had a high profile as a songwriter,” observes his widow, Janet Tyson Jarrard, “but more importantly, he was widely thought of as one of the most extraordinary people on the planet – truly a testament to the sheer power of will and the faith that no matter how bad things seem, there is always a lesson to be learned, a challenge to rise to.”
Adds Burch, “It’s hard enough to make it in the music business with all of your faculties, and he succeeded as much as anyone ever has.”
Burch and Jarrard met on the playground in second grade in Gainesville and forged a friendship that reads like a country song, or a buddy movie. “I was new; I’d just moved here from Hiram, and didn’t know a soul, and he was the first kid to talk to me,” Burch says.
Early in their calling as songwriters, they attempted to record their ditties in a Days Inn bathroom, “the only place we knew that had any reverb.” After graduating from the University of Georgia, they lit out for Nashville in the scruffy 1970s to follow the example of poets such as Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Mickey Newbury.
“John would say, ‘You’re the reason I moved to Nashville,’ and I’d say the same thing back to him,” he says. “We fed each other’s fire for songwriting and helped each other through the hard times. It’s such an unstable business – when one of us was cold, the other would be hot, and vice versa, so we tried to be each other’s cheerleaders. I don’t think we could’ve made it without each other.”
Burch penned two No. 1 hits for Reba McEntire, “Rumor Has It” and “It’s Your Call,” and he had cuts with George Jones, Faith Hill and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others. He currently is co-director of the music business program at the University of Georgia. The annual John Jarrard benefit serves as one more musical ode to friendship – to overcoming hard times, with country-style resilience.
“John wasn’t afraid to ask for help if he needed it, but he wasn’t afraid to do it on his own either,” Burch says. For more information, visit www.johnjarrardconcert.com