RUNNING WITH HER HEART

Jo Dee Messina doesn't know the meaning of 'Downtime'

Story by David Scarlett

Not long before Jo Dee Messina was scheduled to perform at this summer's Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation National Race For The Cure in Washington, D.C., she received bad news. A family friend of 26 years was dying of cancer. Soon after Jo Dee got the news, he died.

"His name was Raymond 'Duke' Merrill, and I'd known him 26 years," explains Jo Dee. "That's my lifetime. He was there for my first day of school, my first bike, my motorcycles, teaching me how to drive in a big parking lot. He was a big part of my life."

So did Jo Dee cancel her appearance? Hardly - realizing that she had to do something, she stepped up her involvement at the event. Instead of just performing after the race, she planned to run.

"When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer right before the race, that's when I said, 'Okay, I'm not just gonna perform, I'm gonna run - because I can't do anything else.' I was determined to run.

"And I was saying, 'I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it.' And every time I felt like giving up, I was like, 'I'm doin' it, I'm doin' it, I'm doin' it.' "

And do it she did - finishing in the top 5 percent in a field of more than 70,000 runners.

That's pretty much the way Jo Dee approaches life - with her heart leading the way. She's 'doin' it' - and don't try to tell her she can't.

"For my big tour, I needed to fit everything into two semi-trucks, because we couldn't afford a third," recalls Jo Dee. "Everybody said, 'There's no way you're gonna do it.' "

But Don Muzquiz, Jo Dee's tour manager - and fiance - just kept saying, "We'll try it, we'll try it. Let's just try it."

"And the day we finished dress rehearsals for the tour, we packed up the trucks, shut the doors, closed the latch, and Don, the production manager and I just high-fived each other and went, 'Yes! We got it in!' "

In the midst of her first headlining tour and yet another scorching hit from her Burn album, "Downtime," Jo Dee is rockin' the house from coast to coast with an unbridled energy that leaves onlookers wondering how she does it.

"I don't think you could do what I do without being passionate about it," she explains. "Because a lot of times, it's just the adrenaline carrying me through the day. My body's about to give out and my heart just keeps me going."

But her relentless drive isn't reserved just for her tour. Even her own "downtime" is typically filled with showbiz activities, from writing with pop songwriter Desmond Child to jotting notes to her radio contacts and sending flowers in thanks for a great review.

"We had a cookout at my house the other day," recalls Jo Dee with a smile. "A couple of band members came over, we jammed and - boom! - wrote two songs. On my day off! And I was like, 'I love this! I love my life!' "

A big part of her life remains in her hometown Boston stomping grounds, a recent stop on the Burn tour. "We played my hometown, which is always a blast!" she exclaims. "It says in my high school yearbook that I just wanted to have a song on the country music charts, and be able to make a life out of it and have a career. So to go back home with a hit album was really special.

"I knew half the people in the audience! We had a great crowd and my sister and my two nieces, two nephews and my sister's husband also came. And my mom, who now lives in Nashville, flew up for the show.

"We got great reviews from the Boston papers, which doesn't always happen in your hometown. It was just awesome!"

Things got even better when local politicians presented Jo Dee with several awards and proclaimed it "Jo Dee Messina Day."

Did she celebrate her day with family and hometown friends after the show? Not exactly.

"Actually, I hung out with the radio stations," laughs Jo Dee. "That's kind of my deal. I try to give as much back to radio as I can."

It's a cliché, but when Jo Dee says that music is her life, you'd better believe it.

However, since Duke's death, Jo Dee's been trying harder to take the advice of "These Are The Days," a song from her Burn album: Pick your flowers, count the seconds, roll the dice/But baby don't wait 'til it's too late ... These are the days.

"It's like God said to me, 'Wake up,' " confides Jo Dee. "So, every now and again, I do say, 'You know what? I'm blocking the day off to spend with Don and my family.' "

That includes helping her mother relocate from a Nashville suburb into the guest house on the property of Jo Dee's recently purchased 1910 farmhouse, a few miles south of town.

"Tomorrow, I'm gonna move my mother in. I'm Mom's - all day.

"Since she runs my fan club, I'm sure she's looking forward to knocking on my back door, coming in and saying, 'Will you sign these pictures?' " says Jo Dee with a laugh.

"So it's gonna be neat to have her here," she says, then pauses and smiles. "But I might have to lock the doors occasionally!"

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