Web Exclusive: Lucky to Be Alive
In the July 2 issue of Country Weekly, you’ll find an article recounting 10 amazing tales of survival—near-death experiences that nearly silenced some of our greatest artists for good, but instead made them relish living all the more. But believe us, there are a lot more than 10! Here, in this web exclusive, are more astonishing stories of harrowing close calls.
The Man in Black’s struggles with drugs during the 1960s were vividly documented in the movie Walk the Line. But what the film didn’t tell you is that his relapse into addiction in the early 1980s was at least as severe, and perhaps even worse. In his new book Anchored in Love, son John Carter Cash recounts the terrifying experience of discovering his dad in a hotel room not breathing. The 12-year-old and his mother, June Carter Cash, eventually revived Johnny by dragging him to the bathtub and splashing him with cold water. In Steve Turner’s biography The Man Called Cash, Johnny’s bass player Marshall Grant said that during this period, “He would have been dead on more than one occasion if I hadn’t found him.”
Johnny himself had attempted to end his own life in the late 1960s, crawling into the seemingly endless darkness of Nickajack Cave, 30 miles west of Chattanooga, Tenn., with the intention of staying there until he starved to death. Once inside, he lay down to die—but recalled in 1995 that he “felt this great comforting presence saying, ‘No, you’re not dying. I got things for you to do.’ So I got up, found my way out. . . . I don’t know how I got out, ‘cept God got me out.”
In 1998, suffering from pneumonia, Johnny fell into a coma. Wife June Carter Cash posted a call for fans to pray for him to emerge—and, after 12 days, he did. He finally died of complications from diabetes in 2003.
Plans had been laid for Kenny to shoot a video for his song “The Tin Man” in front of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001—but the shoot was canceled a couple of weeks beforehand. Had it not been, the superstar would have been literally at ground zero for the most horrific act of terrorism in American history. "God works in mysterious ways," he said afterward.
In the fall of 1984, Barbara Mandrell appeared to have it all. She’d had a string of more than 40 charting singles since her recording debut in 1969, including six No. 1s in the preceding six years. She’d won the top awards the industry had to offer and her successful TV show with sisters Louise and Irlene had ended a couple of years earlier. But on Sept. 12, Barbara and two of her children were driving on a Tennessee highway when a car crossed two lanes of traffic and hit them head on. The driver of the other vehicle was killed and Barbara suffered a fractured leg, ankle and foot, numerous cuts and bruises and a severe head injury that left her in a year-long depression. Thankfully, her children faired better, but the road back to health was an arduous and emotional one for Barbara, who credits her family’s support and her personal faith for enabling her to begin performing again in 1986.
Sammy Kershaw’s been through his share of personal and career ups and downs. But in 1980, he absolutely hit rock bottom.
“My second wife had just left me,” he recalls. “I owned a dry-cleaning business in Antlers, Oklahoma. I was singing with house bands in clubs, but I couldn't get the career to go anywhere.
“One day at the cleaners I said, ‘That's it. I can't take anymore.’ “ Sammy was alone and went into the boiler room, put a stick through the trigger of a shotgun and held the barrel under his neck. Just before he pushed the stick, he heard somebody come in the front door. “I set the shotgun in the corner and walked to the front,” he explains. “There was a lady standing there, probably in her 60s. I said, ‘Yes, ma'am, can I help you?’
:She said, ‘No, not really. I just stopped to see how you were doing.’ Her words struck me funny. We got to talking about little things, like the weather. When she started to leave, she turned around and said, ‘See you again someday.’”
When Sammy followed her outside to see what she was driving, she was gone without a trace. “It was an empty parking lot,” he proclaims. “From that second forward, I have never thought about taking my life again. I unloaded the gun and went back to pressing clothes. Ever since that time, I've known I have a guardian angel.”
Waylon faced death in the summer of 1972, when he contracted hepatitis after eating a tainted meal at a restaurant. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, Waylon, the experience was a turning point: “Lying there, I started thinking about what I’d won after 10 years of banging around on the honky-tonk circuit.” The then-struggling singer resolved to take control of his musical career, straighten out his business affairs and get his life back on track.
Back in 1998, Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker recalled to Country Weekly how close he came to tragically missing out on all that he had built in his career.
Billy missed the airplane flight that ultimately took the lives of the great Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Patsy’s manager Randy Hughes, March 5, 1963. He was performing at the same benefit in Kansas City for radio disc jockey Cactus Jack McCall. During the evening, he received an emergency phone call about his seriously ill father-in-law.
“I had to get back to Nashville right away, and Hawkshaw gave me his plane ticket,” Billy recalled. Hawkshaw ended up going back to Nashville with Patsy and the others aboard a plane that Randy was piloting. Even though the weather reports warned of hazardous conditions, the group decided to press on and make the trip. The plane crashed near Camden, Tennessee, not far from its destination.
“They were all killed,” said Billy in a shaky voice. “Ever since then I have felt that God did not let me on that plane. He had other things in mind for me.”
Ironically, Billy and his wife Bettie died May 21, 2006, in an auto accident returning from a show.
Incidentally, Patsy herself barely survived a head-on auto collision in 1961, suffering terrible cuts on her face, a broken wrist and dislocated hip.
Ty Herndon figured he would just save a few minutes—and a caring person ended up saving his life. In April of 2002, Ty had dropped off some friends at a Los Angeles restaurant and saw a long line at the valet parking stand. So, he decided to park the car himself a few blocks away. As he walked from his car, Ty recalls, “These three guys jumped out of their car and held me at gunpoint. My dad once told me, ‘If you’re ever in a place where your mortality’s questioned, see the face of God.’ And that’s what I did.” Then, out of nowhere, Ty was saved. “I don’t know her name,” Ty explains, “but a sweet lady lived in a nearby house. She came out her front door and yelled that she had called the police.” The muggers took off. “I could’ve been killed if she hadn’t done that,” says Ty.
In April of 1994, John Berry entered an Athens, Ga., hospital with wife Robin as she was ready to deliver the family’s first son, Sean Thomas. But the soon-to-be-dad was the real emergency.
John had been feeling extremely sluggish and complaining of blinding headaches. While at the hospital, John was told by a doctor that he did not look well and was given an examination. The test revealed a cyst on John’s brain. After five hours of delicate surgery in an Atlanta hospital, the benign cyst was drained. Had John not been examined while waiting the birth of his son, the tumor could have proven fatal.
“The main thing I learned from that whole experience was don’t take things for granted,” John told Country Weekly in a 1995 story. “That’s the biggest thing.”
DANA WILLIAMS OF DIAMOND RIO
In September of 1990, Diamond Rio bass player Dana Williams was involved in a serious accident while doing one of his favorite things—water skiing on Center Hill Lake not far from Nashville.
“I’d been having problems with the boat’s carburetor and didn’t have the $250 to fix it,“ recalls Dana. Still he thought it would work well enough for him to take a skiing run. But when the boat came back to pick him up out of the water, it lurched forward—coming straight at Dana from about 15 yards away.
“When it went by me,” he recalls, “the prop just went right through my two knees.”
Three quarters of Dana’s kneecap was gone, and his femur bone had a piece sliced off. The tendon that lifts the leg also was severed.
“I was on crutches after two months,” remembers Dana. “Something like that happens to you and it becomes clear how fast everything can be over. You start really paying attention to . . . that spiritual end of your life and everything that means anything to you—your wife, your family.”
It began innocently enough in 2005 when bluegrass queen Rhonda ordered a room service meal from a Denver hotel. “I got a burger, and it was very rare, although I ordered it medium,” she recalls. “I ate it anyway and was instantly sick.” Several agonizing weeks later, after being misdiagnosed at five hospitals, she finally received life-saving abdominal surgery. “It was some sort of bacteria that had destroyed 10 inches of my large intestine,” she explains. “Had they not found it and stopped it, it would’ve killed me.”
On the night of March 9, 1989, young singer Sammy Sadler and his friend Kevin Hughes had just left a Music Row record-label office when they were accosted by a man in a ski mask. He shot Sammy in the arm and shoulder, then chased Kevin down the street, fatally shooting him. Sammy was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. “It severed the main artery in my arm,” explains Sammy. “If not for a great doctor over at Vanderbilt Hospital, I might not have an arm now.” The case went unsolved for 13 years, but Kevin’s former boss was eventually convicted of the shootings. Sammy finally released his debut album in 2004—15 years to the day after the incident.
SCARES IN THE AIR
Country stars inevitably spend a lot of time on planes, and plenty of them have tales to tell of frightening flights. A pair of incidents in the last several years could each have cut short the careers of several of country’s brightest lights.
In 2002, Brad Paisley, his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Kimberly Williams, and SHeDAISY’s Kelsi and Kassidy Osborn were among the passengers on American Airlines flight 1307 from Nashville to Los Angeles. During takeoff from Nashville, the jet’s tire ripped apart and blew out an engine. For the next four hours, the passengers endured an agonizing flight and prepared for the worst. “We didn’t know if the plane was going to plummet or stay in the sky,” recalled Kelsi. The plane eventually landed safely, after circling Nashville for four and a half hours to burn off gas.
Three years later, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shannon Brown, GAC’s Storme Warren, video director Shaun Silva and several of Nashville’s most successful songwriters were traveling on a same plane from the Caribbean to Miami after playing at weeklong charity event when the 757 jet liner’s engines suddenly shut down, forcing a harrowing emergency landing in Puerto Rico. “To be honest, I did feel for a minute that maybe this was it,” Billy Ray said afterward. “But my intuition told me no, that we were going to make it. Thank God, we did.”