Alzheimer’s disease took his mother, heartbreak almost took him away
- His blind audition airs in Nashville at 7 p.m. Monday night on WSMV Channel 4.
- Allen began drinking six or more drinks every night before going on stage after his mother’s death.
- Allen started getting help at Porter’s Call, a free mental health shelter for Music Row types in Franklin, Tennessee.
Before the concert began, country singer Jay Allen’s mother had no idea who her son was.
And today was a particularly bad day for Sherry Lynn Rich and her battle with illness.
But an anxious Allen decided he would go ahead with his bold plan to bring his mother on stage when he sang a song he wrote about his illness.
For months, Allen – a rowdy performer who parties on stage – sang and talked about the heartbreak of living with his mother’s dementia.
That night in August 2018, he decided to start showing fans what Alzheimer’s was like.
After igniting the crowd for over an hour, Allen walked off stage, grabbed his mother’s smiling hand and slowly walked her to the mic.
Thousands of fans fell silent.
“You all, it’s my mother. Let it go ! Allen half shouted into the microphone.
The crowd went crazy.
Then they fell silent again.
Allen told the crowd that his mother had dementia before introducing his song “Blank Stares.”
He sang it emotionally as mother and son clung to each other, Allen’s mother rubbing his back.
As the song ended, audience members in his home state of Iowa stood up and roared their approval.
“That’s where it hit me,” Allen said. “I felt like this song was going to move mountains.”
He has: Videos of Allen singing for his mother on stage have racked up hundreds of millions of views on social media. And Allen has participated in concerts and other fundraising efforts that have raised more than $50 million for Alzheimer’s research.
That effort is set to grow exponentially: Allen, 36, is a contestant in NBC’s “The Voice” singing competition in the season that kicks off Monday night (Sept. 19).
“Now I can tell mom’s story in a whole new way to a whole new audience,” Allen said.
It’s a story that begins in Cedar Falls, Iowa, about 40 years ago in a country cafe. Allen’s father owned it. Her mother was a waitress.
“It’s going to be really hard”
Joe and Sherry Lynn Rich got married shortly after giving birth to their first child, Jay.
As a boy, Jay began singing in church, and he and his mother grew up more like best friends than mother and son. Some of their best moments were belting out country songs behind the wheel of her mother’s naughty purple Buick LeSabre. Well, it was ugly for Allen anyway, but purple was his mother’s favorite color, so he chose it.
After high school, Allen spent hours with his mother at a sportswear store where she embroidered names on hats and jackets all day.
The two talked about everything, and the second she had a break, they ran to the nearby market to buy Hostess cupcakes and Diet Rite sodas.
The only time mother and son separated was when Allen ran away from town with a girl who ended up being his wife. But Allen couldn’t stay away for long – he surprised his mum two years later by showing up unannounced at Christmas.
Even when Allen moved to Nashville to pursue his country star dreams, he and his mother spoke almost every day.
As Allen was heading to the bar after a songwriting session one day in 2017, it was his father who called.
“As a father, I feel compelled to tell you something that happened this morning,” he said.
This is bad, Allen thought.
Your mother called me crying on the side of the road, her father said. She told me, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know where I’m going. Pick me up.
Allen’s first reaction was disbelief: “Are you sure, man? It feels like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,” Allen told his father.
This diagnosis was correct.
But that didn’t really hit Allen until his parents came from Iowa to visit him in Nashville about six months later.
“Dad used to call me every two hours and you could hear how nervous he was. ‘I just want to remind you, son, prepare your heart, it’s going to be really hard.’
And it was.
“She walked through the door like I was nothing. She wasn’t there,” Allen said. “It pierced my soul. My mother was sick and she was dying.
Anger flooded his head, and he suddenly wanted to get out of the house, get everyone out of the house.
“She was back”
Allen drove his parents to the Melrose-area country bar/restaurant, The Sutler. Desperate to make a connection, he accompanied his mother to the dance floor, and they started dancing slowly to a fast song, the only ones on the dance floor. She continued to stare at him.
Then the band switched to a slow song to match the mother-son swing – and that flipped a switch.
“She inhaled and suddenly came to her senses. She let me in and said, ‘Jay, I’ve missed you. Jay, I’m so glad you’re here.
But that only lasted for the duration of the song, and his mother seemed to disappear as soon as they returned to the table.
Allen found himself chasing after those times, trying music, chocolate, ice cream, and even booze to try and get his mother to “come back.” But for the next two weeks in Nashville, those moments rarely came.
“She was back,” Allen said.
The only thing that worked consistently was when he picked up the guitar and sang and played for her.
Allen wrote “Blank Stares” and his mother joined him on stage from time to time. The crowds reacted with strength, love, generosity. Allen did more and more Alzheimer’s Association gigs, raising more awareness and more money.
And her mother kept getting worse. Before a concert in Minneapolis, she started hitting, yelling and people-watching, while constantly asking for her husband, even when he was around. “I want Joe! Where’s Joe?
The night he died, Allen and his gang were on the road. Allen’s sisters called him so he could say goodbye.
“I said, ‘Hey mom, it’s Jay.’ She hadn’t spoken in months, but she said, ‘Jay.’ I said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to talk. I know you’re proud of me but I’m proud of you. Mom, you can go. You can go to heaven.
His band members cried with him on the way to their gig, and Allen has never felt so stupid playing for drunk college kids in a club.
Her mother died within 30 minutes of arriving at her hotel after that performance.
“It was a long drive back to Nashville,” he said. “I sat in the front seat and buried my head in my lap. Then looked out the window. It was the best day. It was the longest and quietest day.
When he got home, Allen went upstairs to see his fiancée, singer/songwriter Kylie Morgan. They kissed and cried together for 20 minutes as the sunset turned the sky purple that evening.
“I was sad, but I was covered in peace,” Allen said. “I felt like my mom was fine.”
Find a way forward
But, soon, Allen was not well.
He threw himself into gigs and raised money for Alzheimer’s research, almost always hearing fans say afterwards that they had lost loved ones to dementia.
It was good, at first: “I don’t know if we will ever find a cure for this disease. But I want to be a safe platform for everyone else to get their stories out there, to know they’re heard and they’re not alone.
Soon, however, it was too much.
“It screwed me up,” he said. “I would do shows, events, galas and blow myself up [drunk], it was so overwhelming, moving. To dwell on all that heartache every weekend, on stage, in interviews? Man.”
Allen ended up with four gin and tonics and two shots of tequila before the shows, beer during the shows, and a bunch of drinks afterwards.
His fiancée confronted him and gave him an ultimatum about his drinking.
This put him on the path to slowing down on alcohol.
“I know I want to marry this girl, and I know a lot of people are looking up to me, and I’m letting them down. I have to be a rock, not just to all these people and Kylie, but to myself.
Allen began attending a free mental health cooperative for musicians called Porter’s Call in Franklin, Tennessee. He went to therapy for his drinking and some unresolved childhood issues. “It prepared me to be a better husband, a better son and a better brother.”
Since then, Allen said he’s been drinking much less, much less often. He and other contestants on NBC’s “The Voice” were banned from drinking while taping, and it helped.
And Allen said he would continue to do what he had to do to stay on track. He wants to take advantage of the national platform he will have on “The Voice” to continue telling his mother’s story.
“I think I’m going to be in a good space for that, to have real balance,” Allen said. “These next steps are going to take it all to a whole new level.”
Contact Brad Schmitt at [email protected] or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt. Please consider subscribing to The Tennessean to support this type of powerful storytelling.
New season of NBC’s ‘The Voice’ premieres Monday night
Nashville singer/songwriter Jay Allen will appear in the upcoming season of “The Voice,” along with judges/captains Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, John Legend and Camila Cabello.
How to watch: Nashville NBC affiliate WSMV-Channel 4 will air “The Voice” at 7 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays.
Jay Allen’s first appearance this season: His blind audition is set to air on Monday (September 19), with his father and fiancée alongside host Carson Daly on the secondary stage.