Tony Cummings has a long talk with JERRY ARHELGER about his five decades in music
Jerry Arhelger is a veteran singer/songwriter who over the five decades of his career has worn many hats - and only one of them a Stetson. Best known as a country singer who sings songs of both the "secular" and "gospel" variety, in times past Jerry has been a mainstream rock singer, an early (and largely unheralded) pioneer of Jesus music and even, when I first met up with him at Greenbelt '83, a practitioner of rockabilly gigging with Britain's Barbary Coast. Last year during one of his frequent tours of the UK Jerry kick-started a recording career that had once seemed permanently curtailed after the veteran contracted cancer in the mid '90s, and recorded a new album, 'Waves To Shore'. Now he sits with me in the Cross Rhythms office and attempts to chronicle this long and winding road of his five decades in music.
Jerry was born in Florida in 1951. His father was in the military, six years in the nave, 15 in the air force. Remembers Jerry, "I went to seven different secondary schools, just raised to travel. Had my first band when I was 12. When I was 15 I was in a recording studio and at 19 I was with Columbia Records." Jerry's original band were called Sound Sensation. Continues Jerry, "We had some things out that were singles in those days. I wrote for some local rock and roll groups. Then in '71 I was with a group that started off called Purple Passion then became Myth and we recorded some stuff. We did fairly well locally or maybe in the south, south east. It went pretty well."
But also in 1971 Jerry was to have a Christian conversion. Says Jerry, "My grandfather had prayed over my car and I tell people I believe my car became a Christian before I did. I was in that Christian car and the Lord really transformed my life and turned my life around. In '69 a friend of mine had drowned and some people went through some real experiences praying for me. I sang in a group in those days, it was called Revelation Generation, that was a little bit of a gospel touch to it. But I was trying to mix what I knew in the occult and what I knew of the Lord and it just didn't work. In '71 Jesus really became Lord of my life. I had a conversion. Suddenly the whole direction of my music changed. Later I was working Expo '72, it was the days of the Jesus Movement."
As the revival amongst America's youth gathered momentum there was a willing audience for Jerry's evangelistic rock'n'roll. What there wasn't in place though were many record companies prepared to record it. Explains Jerry, "Contemporary gospel really hadn't taken off, it was just beginning but the radio stations were still playing Evie and stuff like that. It was Jesus rock which I was doing, I was playing things like the Doobie Brothers' 'Jesus Is Just Alright' and a lot of my own songs." Jerry recorded an independent album, 'Basic Brothers And Sisters In Christ' which as well as some originals contained a cover of the early Jesus music classic by Love Song, "Little Country Church". The album was produced by Erv Lewis, a folk singer turned country gospel artist who was also the president of the small label Herald Records. Jerry signed with Herald and recorded a Jesus rock album, 'Let Jesus Love You'. Explains Jerry, "It was all contemporary gospel and all geared toward what I'd done in rock and roll except one song which was 'Breaker Breaker Sweet Jesus'. It was the only country gospel song on the album. 'Breaker Breaker Sweet Jesus' was geared towards the trucking industry and CB radio. My father was from Texas so I was raised on some country but ended up being sort of thrown into that arena as nobody knew what to do with me until 'Breaker Breaker' became a big hit on Southern gospel and country radio stations. That project sort of thrust me into the direction of country. I fought it for a while. But I'd have other songs off that project going in the charts and when they did they'd start playing 'Breaker' again. And when they did, it went back on the charts several times so I pretty much sort of gave into it."
Over the next few years Jerry recorded more albums for Herald: 'I Don't Belong Here' (1978), 'Portrait' (1980) and 'Slip On Over' (1982), the latter a non-gospel album of mainstream songs. Unusually, Jerry was beginning to build up a following in Britain. In 1979 he'd made his first UK visit, being asked by the United States Air Force to come and speak at a Holy Spirit conference and that same year Britain's pioneering Christian music magazine New Music, edited by Paul Davis, ran their first article on Jerry. The record label arm of New Music were through the '80s to release most of Jerry's albums in the UK.
In 1983 Jerry did a tour with British band Barbary Coast who normally backed Australian yodelling hitmaker Frank Ifield. Jerry remembers ruefully, "I know , they wouldn't mind me saying this but Barbary Coast were probably known as one of the rowdiest groups around. I was talking to Robo, one of the guys from the band the other night - we did a concert and they were talking about how they first came to the church down in Romney where we were rehearsing. They'd never been in a church in their lives. Robo was in the back making tea. We were laughing about it the other night. I just loved them. I fell in love with these guys and we started playing and travelling and they became brothers to me and still are. In the process of that we recorded a project down there, with Derek Tomkins. He'd been involved in all sorts of rock and roll and all sorts of music through the years. Somehow or other we ended up as rockabilly, or rock country and ended up at Greenbelt."
In '88 Jerry recorded the album 'The Diary' and in the early '90s a project, 'Jesus And Mama', made in Knoxville, Tennessee with famed producer and studio owner Norbert Stovall. But then in 1996 things began to unwind for the gig-seasoned veteran. "My mother went to be with the Lord and I took on a lot of responsibility, my father, and a lot of stuff went on. I was mc-ing a big tour with Charlie Daniels. We were averaging about 23,000 a show. I was doing a whole lot. But then I got to a place where I couldn't function. I thought it was grief. I came over to the UK to tour, bringing my father with me. I met Dave Clemmo and Dave and I did something together for a bit. I wrote the song 'Walk The Talk' with Dave. But I began to fall apart and then after that it just got worse until one day I'm on a motorway and I wake up on the motorway driving and I only went less than a mile but I didn't know where I was. That was the beginning of knowing something was really wrong. My thoughts got cloudy. I got to a place where physically I was tired and worn out all the time and then when it finally came down - they found a mass in my throat, a mass in my neck. I went in for surgery which was supposed to take one hour, and seven hours later I came to. A doctor came into the room to tell me it was aggressive cancer. It changed my life at that point. And I'll say this - it was easier to prepare for death than it was after the Lord healed me. I was ready to go be with the Lord and I expected that was what was going to happen. My days of travel were over and I was going to go home. But it didn't work out that way."
Very weak in body and spirit Jerry left hospital and returned to the farm where he was living in Lebanon, Tennessee. He remembers, "A friend of mine called me and said 'let's go hear Phil Keaggy.' He was going to be doing something in Nashville. I felt very fragile and didn't want to be around people because I couldn't speak, I couldn't put sentences together because of my disability and because of what I went through. Eventually though I said yes. I thought I'll sneak in, say hi to Phil and I'll sneak out. I went and it was an ACT meeting - Artists in Christian Testimony with Byron Spradlin. Back in the Jesus Movement Byron had been the first one who had recorded for Light/Lexicon. There were 35 people there and it's hard to hide in 35. Terry Anderson, the drummer for Phil Keaggy and a great friend of mine, started to say 'where you been, what you doing?' And I said, 'Well, I had cancer,' looking at the floor, and I mumbled, 'I'm still recovering.' I wasn't feeling good. Terry said he had a band called the Melvin Mission Blues band playing blues music and blues gospel. He said, 'How about coming out and singing and playing with us?' So I went out with him and every week at ACT I led praise and worship and sang there and it was a great opportunity to do things. Eventually I started going back out playing gigs."
As he says, "I had some wonderful friends that just kept saying you're not going to quit. You're going to keep going. And of course when you get sick, as everyone knows, you get depressed. I went a year and a half without a bank account. We used to do Jesus festivals out on the farm and the precious Moishe family were such good friends. I lived out there and they took care of me along with my family. To really promote a healing they kept saying 'you got to go out and do it' and as I began to it got better. Then you go out and people . you begin to realise this was what you were called to do. Today the music is better than it's ever been, the ministry is better than it's ever been."
In 2007 a short tour of the UK reconnected Jerry with his old friend, "the Kettering Cowboy" Dave Clemo. Says Jerry, "I've recorded a few things along the way for different people but the thing with Dave that has been so good is I felt I was returning to my songwriter roots, just returning to doing what I like to do. I'm not doing it for the press, I'm not doing it for a perceived marketplace. So on 'Waves To Shore' I got to record Joe South's 'Don't It Make You Want To Go Home' with the old Curtis Mayfield 'People Get Ready', songs I used to sing back in the old days when I started off. Another album is already being planned. "In the future I'm probably going back to the singer/songwriter, acoustic thing I used to do, a little bit of blues in it, stuff like that. Go back to what I used to do." He pauses then chuckles, "But there will still be a little country for those who like it."
Today Jerry is busy with gigs all over the US and in May 2009 is set to return to the UK for another tour with old friend Clemo. For the future this grizzled veteran of country gospel is quite philosophic. "You know, I realise that it takes money to do certain things. But I also realise that one of these days all these things will pass away. Every one of 'em, every award, every recording studio, every building, every glitch, every glitter will be gone and what will remain will be Jesus Christ and our love for him and our love for one another. The Lord showed me something some time ago. I was in a conference, a very small church and a woman drove 1875 miles one way to bring her 11 year old granddaughter who was deaf from birth. And the Lord opened her ears and healed her. I said, 'Lord, why isn't this happening everywhere?' And the Lord told me when a lifeguard goes in the water to rescue somebody who is drowning the lifeguard is hoping and praying that the person in trouble is exhausted. Because if they're not exhausted they'll fight the lifeguard and he might have to knock him out to save them. The person's options are to stop struggling and let the lifeguard save him or to crawl up on the back of the lifeguard and possibly drown him.
Jerry continues, "God said the Christian church in the West still has options. The fastest growing church a few years ago was the underground church in Russia because their options were you're either a Christian or you aren't. And the fastest growing church today is the underground church in China because you're a Christian or you aren't. God said until we exhaust our options we're not ready for the healing. In our church culture if you don't like the way one praise and worship leader does things we move down the street and go to another one; if we don't like the way the preacher preaches, we go to another; if we don't like the name of the church because it doesn't fit well on our tee shirt we find another one. It's ridiculous. We have so many options. We sit in front of the TV and go through 300 channels of options. We have to exhaust our options so there's no one left but Jesus. We're building temples to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration but when all the smoke clears it's just Jesus standing there, you know. The Lord ministered one last thing to me. He showed me a vision of this lifeguard stand with this beautiful sign over the top that read, 'Free Hot Dogs, Free Hamburgers, Free Coke, Free Coffee, Free Tea.' And there were all these lounge chairs and a lifeguard walking round with a bullhorn saying, 'Come on, if you get here you can have this free coffee, free tea, whatever we've got.' As the lifeguard was speaking, he would back away from the water when it came up the shore. As the water receded I saw bodies lying there, people who had just made it to shore. And when the Lord showed me the ocean people were drowning. In the old days we used to go after 'em. We swam out in the ocean to get 'em. We didn't care if our life was at stake, we went out there. Today we have a mentality: if you build something the people will come. We've got to return to reaching out, to swim out beyond our comfot zones and try and rescue some folk. I know that's what keeps me making music and touring. The reason we go is because of Him."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.