Posted November 2019
Baby boomers and long-time country music fans are likely quite familiar with country artist, John Berry. He took the 1990’s country charts by a storm with huge hits as Your Love Amazes Me, She’s Taken a Shine and Standing on the Edge of Goodbye. Twenty of his singles hit the country charts with six of them hitting the top five and the three aforementioned tunes hitting number one on a variety of charts.
According to his website, JohnBerry.com, “he has earned multiple Gold and Platinum records over the years. John was nominated for the ACM Top New Male Vocalist in 1994, won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his participation in Amazing Grace: A Country Salute to Gospel Vol. 1, was nominated for another Grammy in 1995 for his smash hit Your Love Amazes Me and was nominated for the CMA Horizon Award and Top Male Vocalist Award in 1995. In 1997 he was nominated for Vocal Event of the Year (for Long Haired Country Boy with Charlie Daniels and Hal Ketchum) and in 2013 John was nominated for the Mainstream Country Male Artist by the ICM Awards. And thanks to the miracles of modern technology, he even sang a duet with the late, great Patsy Cline.”
In more recent years, his annual Christmas tours are a recurring hit for the thousands during the holidays with fans coming back each year. Maybe it has something to do with his delivery of the Christmas classic, O’ Holy Night.
Despite all of that success, John and his family were hit with hardships including John knocking on death’s door not once but twice with the second time being just earlier this year.
I met John at a Nashville area theater where he was about to shoot a video for use in his concerts (more about that in a few moments). We talked about his recent victory over tonsil cancer, other key events in his life, among other things.
But anyway, how are you feeling, man? Have you had a rough year at first? Yeah. Yeah.
“The first five months of this year, if I had to do that again, I don't if I would. That was pretty tough. But things are getting better, improving, and starting to gain a little weight back. I hope I control that. I don't wanna be bigger than Elvis, or anything. Ha! Ha! I've been able to eat a little bit more.”
When I asked if he had completed all of the necessary treatments, he responded:
“Yeah, all that ended. That was seven weeks. Started mid-February. I did seven weeks of five days a week for radiation. So, thirty-five radiation treatments and once a week for chemotherapy. So, seven chemotherapy treatments. 'Sucks' is not quite strong enough. People talk about how sick it makes you and make in the first two weeks. I was, like, 'What are you talking about?' Third week, 'This is easy.' I mean, it's a little bit uncomfortable and all that. Week four was a whole new ball game. It started really kicking in strong in the fourth week, fifth week, man. And then from the fifth week, fifth, sixth and seventh week was unbelievable.”
What Berry said next shook me to my core.
“As a matter of fact, I'm a gun guy. Lots of guns. Don't be breaking into the Berry house! But I told Robin, I said, 'Here's all my clips. Put them away where I don't know where they are.' It was that bad. Yeah.
“What kicked it over the edge was some kind of dry heave that would just be uncontrollable. It was the most horrifying thing. It was like out of a horror movie. And finally, this disgusting, green, vile, fluid was coming out. It ends up that its gallbladder fluid. I hacked so hard and so violent; you just excrete this fluid that tasted like it was from the depths of hell. It was unbelievable. It was so scary. First time it happened, we were in the car just leaving the pharmacy after treatments that day. And we were in the car up here in Gallatin and heading home. And all of a sudden it just - Robin thought I was fixin' to die. It was so violent. But man, when that kicked in - it would kick it several times a week. About three weeks of that. I was never so happy to be done with some type of treatment in my life.
“Then, I see children are going through cancer treatments and elderly people that are going to the knowing that they're having to face that kind of stuff. It breaks my heart, man.”
Obviously, I had to ask what got him through that hell. John’s answer was instant and unequivocal.
“God got me through it.
“There's that wonderful verse in Philippians 4:13, 'I do all things through Christ who strengthens me' and not just physical stuff, emotional and spiritual stuff. That's the verse that Robin and I clung to. But knowing that as tough as it was - I mean, I've been through I've had faced a lot of battles in my short life and God's been faithful to me. The other side has always been worth what I've had to fight through.
It's funny. The night I got the diagnosis, we actually went down on January 4th for an appointment. All this came about because a year ago, right at a year ago now, we were recording Thomas Road, getting it wrapped up. But while we were recording in October and first part in November had this tickle in my throat. I explained it, like I had the skin of a Spanish peanut stuck in my throat. Wow. Exactly what it felt like. Just annoying. I couldn't drink enough to get it washed down. It was driving me nuts.
Finally, I went to a doctor. He said, 'Oh, you have tonsil infection.' A round of antibiotics. Finished up the album, started the Christmas tour. Midway through the tour, I never lost the note. It was just driving me crazy. I got another round of antibiotics. Finished up the tour, got home, still the same thing. Hadn't gotten any worse. Hadn't gotten any better.
Finally, I got a flashlight and looked in the mirror; shined it in my throat and looked in the mirror and my tonsils are, like, huge! I was, like, 'What in the world is that?' I said, 'Robin, come look at this. It's like a big ol’ tumor.' She looked at it and she tried not to scare me with her response. She said, ‘We’re going to call and get you in to see a specialist!’
“So, they got me in to see Dr. Spire at St. Thomas West. I walked in and Dr. Spire - his said, 'It sure is good to see you again.' And I said, 'When did I see you the last time?' He said, 'You wouldn't remember.' He said, 'I was an intern with Dr. Ossoff in 1997 when you had vocal cord surgery. I was in on that surgery.'
“So, here God's put a man in line who knows that I'm a singer and that this is my livelihood. We need to address it. We talked for a few minutes about what was going on and all that. He said, 'Well, let's take a look.' And he took a flashlight. Looked down my throat. Turn the flashlight off. He said, 'I'm a no B.S. guy. It looks like cancer to me.'
“You could push me over a feather. I mean, I mean that's nothing in the realm that had ever entered my mind. Never. Not once. My bass player, Mike Steele, had the same cancer last summer - the summer before me. So, he is just coming back to work in the Fall and did the Christmas tour with us.
“And now I got the same thing. You know, it's just unimaginable. No history of cancer in my family except my sister had breast cancer. But as far as any other, I can't think of any relatives who've died from lung cancer or whatever. It's just not that kind of history. And so, when he said cancer, I was like, 'Are you sure?' And he said, 'Well, we'll do a biopsy. I've been doing it a long time. I can pretty well tell you that's what it is.' So, they took the tonsils out. They took both of them out. And of course, one of them - that tickle in my throat was a tumor leaning against the back of my throat, just touching it.
“That's what it was.”
“The other tonsil had a tumor developing in it. So that was coming. With both tonsils having tumors, malignant tumors, they were real aggressive with the treatment. They wanted to be sure they burn up everything that they could burn up. It's funny, the last week of treatments, radiation treatments, we were in there and my neck was real leathery from the radiation. But there was a white stripe right here. Robin asks the doctor, 'Is he OK? That white stripe?' He said, 'It is funny that it looks like that. But what we did is we bent the radio waves to go around his vocal cords.' They told me that they'd plot a course and take those waves around vocal cords. So that skin ended up not getting zapped. Isn't that crazy? They would just radiate and get everything they can get. That's pretty cool.”
John gave advice for those who are going through tough battles, especially medical ones.
“Well, it's a real spiritual thing. All circumstances Are used for good or bad. They'll either draw us closer to God and more in touch with God and more in tune with God and what He wants for our lives and those opportunities to get to know Him better; not for Him to get to know us better because He knows us better than we know ourselves; but for us to grow in Him or go the other direction. One or the other. We're not going to stay the same.
“And so, whatever circumstance you're in, it's going to be used for good or bad. Whether your car broke down on the way to work today and how you handle it, it's going to be used for good or bad. You go to the doctor and you get a cancer diagnosis. It's going to be used for good or bad. How do you choose? What direction do you want to go with the challenges in your life? I don't believe that God goes, 'Ooo, John. Cancer.' I just think that it was in my genes. It's just ‘there it is’, you know. But what do we do with it? What do we do with what comes our way?
John continued by sharing a story about a huge financial hit that he and his family experienced.
“We've we lost everything we had in 2009, 2010, financially. The stock market crash in 2008. It's funny, we started construction on our house and the end of that week, the stock market tanked. It wasn't a small house, and, for us, it was a lot of money. It wasn't crazy, stupid money but it was a $500000 house or something like that and a lot of property around it. We just, like everybody, said, 'It's gonna get better.' And we kept plugging away. Then, a few months later, the first thing we realized was that, what happens, is the first thing that gets dumped is singers coming to town. So, all of a sudden, the work has dried up. We ended up having - we finished the house up and we ended up letting it go and land and the bus and everything.
“But God used the circumstances to draw closer to Him. It could have been good or bad. We could have been all pissy about it. I look at it as the best thing ever happened to me.
“So, here we are. Well, see. That was 2000, everything finalized in 2011. So, eight years away and our family's as solid as it's ever been or better - better than it's ever been. And, you know, God has been good to us. And so, we just that that's the biggest thing. Whatever challenge, whatever the challenges are. And, you know, when I was a kid.”
Berry then shared some insights into his younger, formative years.
“I just I just had some issues growing up. And then I was, I guess, right at 20 years old, got run over by car riding a motorcycle; broke my legs and my hip. That was in November, November 8th of 81, January of 81, my mother passed away. I was a really young 20-year-old, really young, and still lived at home with my folks. I didn't go to college. I just I just didn't go. And my dad had helped me build a recording studio in the basement of my folks’ house. And I just had a setup down there. It's just where I lived. My own entrance and exit. I'd come and go as I wanted to. No reason to go anywhere. Great folks.
“My mom died in January of that year and my dad moved out. He just couldn't come home. They've been married 34 years and he just couldn't they couldn't be there. A lot of times I'd see him pull up to the house and just keep going. He couldn't pull into the driveway.
“My brother came home for a little while, but then he went back to college and I ended up living in my folks house for a number of years after my Dad moved out eventually, for good. And I ended up living in that house until he moved to Athens in eighty-five. So, yes, another full 4 1/2 years.
“I lived in Athens, Georgia, and that's where I lived most of my life there. And that's where I met my wife, Robin, and all our children were born there. It's a neat town and a great place to raise a family. When we talk about home, that's what we're talking about. Athens's is home. We had a farm outside of Athens for many, many years and I wish we still had it. Talk about can't even drive by a place. That's me, I can't even drive by there. It breaks my heart. I wish I still had it.”
Our chat then segued about the filming that was taking place in that night in the theater we were in.
“ We're recording a video that will play after the final song or the final song of the last song of the set before the encore - should we and hopefully get called back for an encore - this video will play instead of me coming out and talking, This is going to be because I'm not going to talk about my cancer during the show, during the night. But we're going to put this video together and talk about that and what God has done in my life and use that.
“The guys who are doing it are from Long Hollow Baptist Church where my wife and I are members. And I don't know if you know anything about Long Hollow Baptist Church - It's a massive church. Robby Gallaty is the pastor. Robby's from Chattanooga been in Chattanooga for a number of years. He's from New Orleans. He was in Chattanooga for a number of years. And then he was called to come up here. He's a great pastor and has a great team.
“I was talking to the guy who's going to be producing this clip. And he said, ‘Our goal is to get about twenty-five minutes worth of great conversation.’ And he said he'll edit into three and a half minutes of sheer power video. They show these videos at church. They're fabulous. They're so good at it. They use good angles. Good ‘feels good’. Good vibes They ask the questions in such a way that, you know, that the answer has the question in them. So, you never hear them asking the question. You know what I'm talking about. They have great guys doing the editing. They know how to edit and put it together right.
“They were talking about shooting it at our house. I said, 'You know, everybody sits in a theater coming to a concert to see us. Let's sit in a theater and shoot this.' So, they rented this place for the day. We just thought it'd be a great opportunity to have a real concise me-not-stumbling-over-what-I'm going-to-say story at the end of the night and then we'll close the show.
“There's a song on our cd, Thomas Road. It's a song called, 'Why Didn't I?' Barry Weeks was one of the writers on it. And, you know, it's a powerful song. 'Words I should have spoken, things I should've said, why didn't I?' And there's lots of scenarios in there. It's just a powerful piece of music. And so, this video will lead into us be onstage doing this song. So, we're excited about that.”
With everything John told me, it begged the question: Is he going to write a book about it all?
“My manager Brian's been badgering me, almost with a hammer and nail in my head, to get me to write a book. I don't know. I wrote a chapter. I wrote the chapter, ‘Thomas Road’, which is the road I grew up on down in Decatur, Georgia, that's really where we're from - from eight-years-old, seven-years-old to thirteen-years-old and a very formative time in my life. Wonderful time. And there are some good things that happened. There are some tough things that happened there. I wrote a chapter just to see what it was and just have a few people look at it and see what their thoughts are. I've had a few people look at it, but unfortunately, they all love me, and they think it's fabulous. So, it would be nice to get someone to look at it who don't know me, don't like me, don't know to like me; to have somebody look at it and read that chapter, see if it holds their attention; see if they want to hear anymore."
“John St. Augustine. He was on Oprah's radio network for a long time and he's written a lot of books. He was really, really close friends with John Denver and John Denver is one of my favorite people in the world and favorite musicians. There was an anniversary coming up of the passing of John and I went to Chicago and did the radio show with him and ever since then, we've just been pretty good friends. So, he just came out with a new book this past two weeks or so and he's (John’s manager) been talking to Brian some about coming down and just sit with down me for a few days and just talking and reporting and coming up with an outline; do some things and let him run with it and see what he comes up with.”
John then talked a little bit about his CD, Thomas Road.
“The cd was a lot of fun and it was great to work with Chuck Howard, again. Chuck produced all the records I had radio success with. And it was a lot of fun to work with, Chuck. And he brought Barry Weeks into work with us. And Berry was awesome. It all came about because Chuck had a song that he produced. It was written by a girl here in Gallatin, Jenny Slate Lee. What's Jenny's father's name? It's John Slate. Anyway, Chuck - he produced this movie. It's a true story about the genocide in Rwanda in the late - mid late 90s.
“Of course, I didn't know there was a genocide in Rwanda. I was busy having babies and hits. We were all running up down the road, going crazy and, plus, I had a little brain surgery mixed in there - which I don't recommend unless you really need it.
“Basically, one group of people didn't like the other group of people and they slaughtered them. Over a million people lost their lives in a very short period of time. I mean, a horrific, horrific story; true story. This story is about three families - a family in Franklin, Tennessee, and two families in Rwanda - and the tapestry that God weaves for these three families literally that saved each other's lives in different ways.
It starts by these two young girls writing each other. Then the family in Franklin decide they're gonna go to Rwanda to visit because the little girl here in Franklin started became a teenager getting a little out of control. It's like, 'Maybe we just need to get away from the influences here. Let her see a different side of life.' They go to Rwanda, Africa on a trip and they get to meet this other family. They’re there when it's post-genocide.
“It's just a remarkable, true story. One of one of the families from Rwanda lives here now in Nashville - the Nolensville area. They have a mission there and they help refugees get acclimated to U.S. culture, find jobs, find housing, all that. They give every Thursday - I think it is - or the first Thursday of the month or something - the number of diapers they give away is astounding. Thousands of thousands of them. And they have music class, guitar class and stuff and just different things that keep them doing more positive things than getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. So, they're real active.
“When I got the rough cut of this movie that Chuck Howard sent me, I watched the rough cut. I was like - the scenes with the genocide's taking place - it's so realistic. It's horrifying. I called him and I said, ‘I'm in', and I hadn't even heard the song, yet.
'Beautifully Broken' is the title track. But in the meantime, I sent the rough cut of the film to my son's father-in-law in Texas, who's become a dear friend. He's a fine Christian man and said, 'Take a look at this. See what you think, faith wise and how it stands up.' He called me back and he said, 'Man, it's awesome.' "He said, 'It's a great story. Good faith story, good message, everything.' He said, 'But you know what's really cool?' I said, 'What's that?" He said, 'You know the scene where they're at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, Africa?' I said, yeah. He said 'That's where we're flying into on our mission ship mission trip in July. You want to go?'
“So, a year ago July, we went and there we're getting off the plane in Kigali, Rwanda, Africa, where this all took place. The first thing we did, we went to the Rwanda Genocide Museum and Memorial. And we took the tour. And it was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. It was a great setup for what we were about to go do that week because we had an understanding of what the culture had been through in the past 20 years. Just 20 years ago - twenty-five years ago! And one of the things that really hurt me the worst is there was a story, pictures and all this of where all these people went into the church and hid and the clergy from the church told where they were and they were all slaughtered in the church. I don't know why but they'll get theirs.
“Then, when it's all over with, you walk outside and there's this kind of a garden area and there's three slabs of concrete at each one about the size of a tennis court and you're like, 'I wonder what the heck that is?' And there's a memorial you read and there's a quarter of a million people buried there; what to do with all the bodies? A quarter of a million people. That's like taking Athens, Georgia, with the University of Georgia and the entire surrounding area, seven, eight counties, and killing everybody. Even more than that. I don't think there's that many people there. Just because I couldn't get along. It's amazing what hate will do. It was quite a trip. It was quite remarkable and quite remarkable to be a part of that scene; what the other side of the world does.
As for Berry’s TV show, he said, “We did two seasons, so we'd love to do it again. We're going to propose it around a couple of places and see if we can get somebody interested and help us put it together again. I know there's some new network things popping up. So, if there's some interest . . . because it sure was a lot of fun. And as much fun as I had doing it - and I know the audience thoroughly enjoyed it, the artists - every show, every taping, the two weeks we taped for season one, we did a week. In season two, we did a week - they were just like, 'Man, this is so cool. You got to keep doing this somehow.' I'd love to figure out a way of doing it. You know, we could do it if the publishing wasn't so expensive. It's insane. Crazy.
“Who would've thought that, for a little cable TV show - I mean, how many people watch cable TV? It's not like a network show on cable. It's just a little cable show, you know. And it's like, 'You're kidding, right?' They were gonna make me pay royalties on songs I'd written; get clearance on them. 'You're crazy. I wrote that dag gone song!”
Because of those comments, I asked John if he thought the music business was broken and, if he were made “Music Czar”, what would he do to fix it.
“I don't think the music is broken. I think the music is evolving. And that's what music does. It follows trends. It follows fads and what tells what good music is, is time. What are you still listening to thirty years later? You can tell real quick because of all the music came out in 1978 - I'm not listening to a lot of disco. It was fun when it was out. It was a fad, and everybody went dancin' and all that kind of stuff.
“It's going to evolve and it's going to - and that's the thing about it, especially about rock and roll music. It's all experimentation. It's all experimenting. And you can't go getting all high and mighty, 'It ain't what we're used to. That ain't rock and roll.' It is. It is what they want it to be.
“That's the whole thing about it. You don't put any rules on it. If you go putting rules on it, then you're being what you are fighting against back in the 60s. Don't be putting rules on it. Let the kids do what they want to do. Time will tell. If it's not what you want to listen to, find something else to listen to. I don't like it. I don't. There's not a lot of modern-day music that I listen to, but I'm 60 years old and you know? I listen to what I like. And I find new things that I like from time to time. But let the youngsters go, do what they want to do. And if and if radio wants to play it, let him play it. And if the audience doesn't like it and the radio keeps playing it, let them die by what they put, let them live or die by it. But, you know, the way the format is or the form the technology is, you can find what you want to listen to.
“The only fix I would find for the music is the business part of it and being sure that guys and girls that write the songs get paid for. There are songwriters I know that are not turning in any more songs. They're just not going to turn them in. They're closing out the publishing deals and fulfilling their obligations and they're not going to write for publishers anymore. They're going to write their songs, are going to hold on to them until the tide turns, until they can earn - I mean, why write a song like 'The Dance', and turn that sucker into a publishing company who's going to get it recorded by somebody and it's going to get 4.5 billion plays on Spotify and you're going to make enough money to go buy a burger, you know? Just hold on to that baby man because it's going to turn. Somebody is going to figure out how to monetize it for the songwriters.
“If I was going to change anything about music business, that's what I do: figure out how to monetize it for songwriters and also, I'd figure out how artists don't have to pay for everything. You know? They just do it; they pay for everything!
“I mean, it's like me. I paid for my albums through my royalties. I had to pay back the advances from my work. So, if you loan me money to record my album, and I pay you back for that album through my royalties, I pay the advances back, shouldn't I own that album? Oh, no, never. You don't ever own it.
“That’s one thing is that Buck Owens - he was always - he was a very nice to me - and he said, 'Whatever you can do, if you can ever get a hold of your masters, get them.’ He said, 'If you ever record and you can pay for the masters and you own them yourself, own your masters.' He says, 'It's like real estate.' It's true. It's a weird business model, but it's a business model that's been refined like a real estate contract. Over the years and years and years, refined by the people who are in the business all the time. Because people buying real estate - who don't buy a lot of real estate - they buy a house three in a lifetime. You know what I'm saying? They don't have much experience in it. But the people that are developing those real estate contracts, they're in it 24 hours a day and they have been for years and they’ve got those contracts dialed in. Same thing with entertainment. They’ve got lawyers out there just tweaking those things.
“I had an offer come across my desk in recent history - couple of years ago where they wanted to sign me. They literally made an offer for whatever the percentages were. They were good percentages, but they owned everything. They owned my touring. They owned my publishing, my recordings, my songwriting. They owned my signature. They owned my likeness. They owned everything. Literally everything. And I was like, 'I'm good’, and it was chunk change. It was it was big ol' dollar figure and I couldn't do it.”
To conclude that subject, I asked Berry if he had any idea what would facilitate the kind of changes he sees needed.
“Dinosaurs die, man. On one on one hand, the Internet has been an evil force and making all the music available for nothing. But, then, on the other hand, it's leveled the playing field where this kid can record a song in his house and get it out there. And if people dig it, it can go crazy and he can become a rock star in 24 months. You live in royalty because of nothing else other than the availability of the Internet. But, on the other hand, the evil part of that is, is people are just giving music away. It used to be you put a record out and you go and tour to support that record and you'd take dates in Los Angeles because it wasn't the best money in the world. But you've got to play Los Angeles, visit the radio station, promote the heck out of it, and you pick up other dates along the way. You're out there.
“Now you tour so you can give away albums. You give away music to get people to come to your show. It's completely bass ackwards. And, you know, you give the music away for free and, hopefully, you'll sell tickets as a result.
“I was down at McBride's studio, Blackbird, yesterday, and Richie Furay's recording an album there. He's awesome and I'd never met him before. But we've chatted online a few times. And because of a friend of mine who saw him post something about me and 'Your Love Amazes Me', and how much that song meant to him, he ended up getting us in touch with each other. So, we had great online conversations and it was great to meet each other yesterday. But, man, everybody was there. I mean, there are so many artists from years gone past and rock and roll legends, you know, from his era. It was just awesome. They were getting ready to track a song and the solemnness of it. Oh, my gosh! It was so cool! Dan Dougmore was playing pedal steel and they had an upright bass, which sounded like a million bucks and they were in there playing. There's no click tracks. It's just playing music. Just a bunch of guys, sitting around a circle, playing music. It was awesome. It was just awesome.
Wrapping up our chat, I asked John Berry what was on his radar for the next year or two as well as how he wished to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy will be.
“Yeah, well, as far as upcoming projects, I have no idea. After the Christmas tour, we've got a cruise. We're going to go on with the Opry, the Opry cruise, the end of January, first of February and next year. I don't know. Maybe we'll record something and see what happens. I don't have any real projects in mind. Of course, you know, if Brian was here, he'd be going, 'Write a book! Write a book! Write a book!' So, we'll see about that. I know my wife is putting together a cookbook called Mixed Berries. She's doing it with her, our daughter and our two daughters-in-law. They're putting that together, working on that. That’ll come out this time next year. And, then, hopefully, we'll get a biography together, something like that.
“As far as the legacy, you know, I guess more than anything, I hope people know where my faith is. That's the most important " allowtransparency="no" width="120" height="240">thing that they know. I would just walk through this earth, you know, doing my time here. I was here. I had a reason for being here and my purpose is Christ.
“Yeah, it's an interesting question. I don't have a need for a monument when I'm gone. You know, there'll be people that will continue to enjoy my music for some period of time after, I guess. I guess that's the main thing: just people know that my faith was in Christ and that I was a kind person. I hope people will know that. I think that, whatever trials I faced in my life, that I'd had a God that was faithful to me. He was faithful; has always been and that’s important stuff to me. Trying to get out there and be remembered for ‘he sold so many records and sang for so many people and three presidents and all that kind of stuff’, it doesn't really matter.
I invite you to keep up with John Berry at his website, JohnBerry.com, and to catch his shows and order his work!