Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and one-half of the Country duo O’Kanes, Jamie O’Hara, has passed away at the age of 70-yrs-old. He courageously battled cancer and sadly succumbed on Jan. 7 in Nashville, Tenn., with his wife, Lola White O’Hara, by his side.
Jamie O’Hara’s remarkable life in country music was born of pain and frustration, and bore much in the way of healing and inspiration.
A natural athlete who excelled at swimming, baseball, golf, and football, O’Hara was offered a tryout by the Detroit Tigers right out of high school, which he turned down to play football at Indiana University. In 1969, O’Hara blew out a knee while playing wide receiver and the injury put an end to his dreams of playing professional sports. He responded by focusing his attentions on singing and songwriting, where his ethereal voice and empathetic compositions made him a crucial contributor and force for good in Nashville music.
O’Hara won a Grammy, and penned major country songs including “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” “Older Women,” “The Cold, Hard Truth,” and “Man to Man.” He and duo partner Kieran Kane wrote and sang six Top 10 Billboard country songs in the 1980s as the O’Kanes.
“He had a way of looking at life with such a beautiful sensibility,” said Emmylou Harris, who recorded two of O’Hara’s compositions and who attended Nashville Sounds baseball games with him. “We always talked baseball. I was so adamant against the designated hitter, but it was Jamie who made me see that it prolonged the life of a great athlete. He could understand that, because of what had happened to him in football. His perspective . . . I think of him as a holy man.”
Born in 1950 in Toledo, Ohio, O’Hara moved to Nashville in 1975. He signed a publishing contract and augmented his songwriting wages with odd jobs. The oddest and most lucrative of jobs was that of a creator, at which he excelled. He began working as a songwriter for Tree Publishing, where he befriended legendary writers including Bobby Braddock, Curly Putman, and Harlan Howard. O’Hara’s elders admired his craftsmanship and enjoyed his personality, at once affable and enigmatic.
In 1980, O’Hara’s “A Little of You” was recorded by Ronnie McDowell, who also sang his “Older Women,” a chart-topping hit in 1981. Four years later, the Judds recorded O’Hara’s “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days?)” and helped O’Hara to a Grammy award as the writer of the year’s best country song.
O’Hara’s major label debut came in 1986, with the O’Kanes. He and Kieran Kane wrote together at Tree, and their songwriting demos caught the attention of the brass at Columbia Records. Their vocal and musical arrangements were akin to the Everly Brothers fronting the Grateful Dead, with O’Hara’s tremulous and powerful voice blending with Kane’s dry-as-July-hardwood tenor presiding over an improvisation-friendly soundscape that featured the great Jay Spell on accordion and bass king Roy Huskey Jr.
The first of the O’Kanes’ singles was “Oh Darlin’ (Why Don’t You Care for Me No More),” in September of 1986. The record was a palette cleanser, with no synthesizers or computer-augmented sounds. In live performances, O’Hara and Kane would encourage the band to “get outside,” pushing “Oh Darlin’” to the 10-minute mark, with wild flourishes. After presiding over a particularly raucous and lengthy version of “Oh Darlin’” at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., O’Hara told the crowd, “We’d like to thank you for making that song our first Top 10 country hit.”
The O’Kanes followed that song with five more consecutive hits, including Top 5 singles “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” and “One True Love.” The band’s three albums were linchpins in an important era of country music.
“I love those O’Kanes records,” said Harris. “They came at a time Steve Earle called ‘The Great Credibility Scare of the 1980s.’ Some of the best music was happening, and it was wonderful to hear on the radio. Jamie and Kieran’s voices were so different, but they blended so marvelously that sometimes, somehow, it was hard to tell who was singing lead and who was singing harmony.”
The O’Kanes disbanded in 1990, though O’Hara and Kane remained lifelong friends and each went on to successful careers as writers, solo artists, and pillars of what is now called “Americana” music. After the O’Kanes, O’Hara wrote primarily by himself rather than working with co-writers, and the resulting compositions mined personal considerations in finding universal truths.
“Jamie draws not only from his own real life circumstances, but also from his keen observations of other people’s struggles to understand their own lives,” said Garth Fundis, who produced O’Hara’s solo debut, Rise Above It, in 1993. O’Hara released two more captivating solo projects, Beautiful Obession in 2000 and Dream Hymns in 2012.
O’Hara was gently protective of his artistry, at times declining to change lyrics to songs in order to please hit artists who sought to swim in the mainstream. Compromise could have resulted in significant royalties, but he deemed compromise to be largely unacceptable. He preferred fulfilling his own artistic visions, and those visions were appreciated by performers including Gary Allan, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Josh Turner, Pam Tillis, Shelby Lynn, Sara Evans, Randy Travis, Don Williams, Wynonna, Jann Browne, Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette and The Dixie Chicks, all of whom recorded O’Hara’s works.
One of O’Hara’s songs, “50,000 Names,” was recorded by Country Music Hall of Fame member George Jones. It was a song about the Vietnam War Memorial, and in 1997 O’Hara and Harris performed it at the 15th anniversary of the construction of that memorial.
Beth Powell of the Associated Press wrote that his performance with Harris “Brought veterans to their feet and to tears” in singing about the memorial wall’s somber realities: “There’s cigarettes and cans of beer/ And notes that say ‘I love you dear’/ And children who don’t say anything at all.”
“Those words and that song were a gift to those people: a gift of healing and acknowledgment,” Harris said. “Jamie made it human.”
Another O’Hara song, one written with Kane and recorded by Harris and Trio comrades Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, serves as a fitting epitaph for a life of worthiness:
“When we’re gone, long gone, the only thing that will have mattered/ Is the love that we shared and the way that we cared/ When we’re gone, long gone.”
There are no plans for a public memorial at this time. In lieu of flowers, donations are being accepted in Jamie O’Hara’s name to Bonaparte’s Retreat (https://www.bonapartesretreat.org/, Doctors Without Borders (https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/), MusiCares (https://www.grammy.com/musicares), and SmileTrain (https://www.smiletrain.org/)https://www.countryschatter.com/2021/01/grammy-award-winning-songwriter-and-member-of-okanes-jamie-ohara-passes/MiscellaneousPress Release"Oh Dralin'",Bonaparte's Retreat,Doctors Without Borders,George Jones,Jamie O’Hara,Lee Ann Womack,MusiCares,O’Kanes,Ronnie McDowell,The Birchmore,The Judds,Tim McGraw,Trisha Yearwood