Counting His Blessings
By Pam Windsor | Photography courtesy of Rick Diamond Photography/Shutterstock
Country music performer John Berry finishes a challenging year with his 23rd annual Christmas tour.
The holidays have always had special meaning for John Berry. The Georgia-native spends an extended amount of time celebrating the season on the road.
Not long after he made his way onto the country music scene in the 1990s with songs like “Standing on the Edge of Goodbye,” She’s Taken a Shine,” and “Your Love Amazes Me,” he did his first Christmas tour. And he’s been doing one for 23 years in a row.
“I’ve always loved Christmas,” he says. “It’s my favorite time of year. I love the weather, the time of year, and the celebration of Christ’s birth.”
A man of strong faith, he’s come to enjoy sharing the season and all it means through music.
“We have people that came with their parents and now they’re coming and bringing their own kids,” he says. “It’s really extraordinary.”
This year though, celebrating the holiday has an even greater significance for Berry. It was about this time last year that he began noticing something in his throat that didn’t feel quite right.
“I was recording my EP called “Thomas Road” and I kept having to drink water all the time because I had a feeling of having something like the skin of a Spanish peanut stuck in my throat,” he recalls. “I made it through the entire Christmas tour and never missed a lick, but it just kept bothering me.”
He finally went to see a doctor. He was diagnosed with throat cancer. There were difficult months ahead as Berry underwent 35 doses of radiation and seven doses of chemotherapy. He finished treatment in April and has been trying to rally back ever since.
“It’s has been a really impactful year for me,” he says. “Personally, emotionally, and spiritually.”
Barry gradually returned to performing, but has limited the number of shows – a challenge for someone who has spent most of his adult life performing. His love of music came early. He was just a young boy when his father brought home their first stereo complete with a turntable and speakers.
“I listened to everything from John Denver to the Allman Brothers to The Letterman,” he recalls. “And then my sister brought home Carol King’s “Tapestry” and that changed everything for me.”
He didn’t start actually playing music, though, until high school.
“Over Thanksgiving break we unexpectedly moved from one side of Atlanta to the other and I had to change schools. I went from knowing everybody to knowing nobody, and my guitar became my best friend.”
His dad helped him build a recording studio in the basement and he soon began recording his own records. Then, he got a regular gig at a small club in Athens. It was there he met his future wife, Robin. In those early days she hadn’t tapped into her own musical talent yet, but would later find her own “voice” and become a back-up singer for her husband.
They formed a strong partnership, sharing music, raising a family, and coping with life. The cancer diagnosis, while daunting, wasn’t the first time Berry had to overcome something that challenged his health and well-being, as well as tested his faith.
“How many challenges does one person have to have,” Robin asks in a lighthearted yet serious tone. “I mean, being run over by a car on your motorcycle, then have major brain surgery (for cysts on his brain) when you have your first No. 1 hit, then having to have vocal cord surgery, then having to take six months off because you have a horse accident and have to have your shoulder and your hand put back together. And then this.”
When they got the diagnosis, Berry says he told Robin these things were just God’s way of getting his attention. She then asked, “Can you listen this time?”
They both laugh as they share the story, but Berry says he believes every circumstance can take a person in one of two directions.
“I can get run over by a car… and either draw closer to God or further away from him. Just like I can lose my job and it might cause me to be angry or bitter or it can allow me to depend on him more. I could run out of gas in my car, have to walk four miles, and I can be ticked off and mad, or enjoy the beauty of walking outside.”
One of the greatest gifts from his cancer diagnosis came in April when some of the biggest names in country music came together to perform at a fundraiser to help cover Berry’s medical costs. (Some proceeds were also donated to the Music Health Alliance.) Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, the Oak Ridge Boys, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and so many more showed up to show their love and support.
“My publicist, Bev Moser, took photos from that night and put them in a book,” Berry says. “I recently had a chance to sit down and look through it. I had tears running down my face at the generosity of so many people giving their time and their talent.”
As this year winds to a close, Berry looks back with gratitude, and ahead with hope.
“I turned 60 years old a couple of months ago and to be able to get out and play music like I love to do, is a precious gift. I’m honored I still get to do it.”