'The Voice' contestant: After Alzheimer's took his mom, grief nearly destroyed him – Tennessean

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Before the concert started, country singer Jay Allen’s mother had no idea who her son was.
Early onset Alzheimer’s.
And this day was particularly bad for Sherry Lynn Rich and her battle with the disease.
But an anxious Allen decided he would go ahead with his bold plan to bring his mom onstage when he sang a song he wrote about her illness.
For months, Allen – a rowdy, party-on-stage performer − had been singing and talking about the heartache of living with his mom’s dementia.
That night in August 2018, he decided he’d start showing fans what Alzheimer’s looked like.
After winding up the crowd for more than an hour, Allen walked off stage, grabbed his smiling mom’s hand, and walked slowly with her to the microphone.
Thousands of fans went quiet.
“Y’all, this is my mom. Give it up!” Allen half-shouted into the mic.
The crowd went nuts.
Then they went silent again.
Allen told the crowd his mother had dementia before introducing his song “Blank Stares.”
He sang it soulfully as mother and son hung on to each other, Allen’s mom rubbing his back.
The moment the song was over, audience members in his home state of Iowa stood and roared their approval.
“That’s when it hit me,” Allen said. “I felt like this song is going to move mountains.”
It has: Videos of Allen singing to his mom on stage have racked up hundreds of millions of views on social media. And Allen has been part of concerts and other fundraising efforts that have raised more than $50 million for Alzheimer’s research.
That effort is about to grow exponentially: Allen, 36, is a contestant on NBC singing competition “The Voice” in the season launching Monday night (Sept. 19).
“Now I get to tell Mom’s story in a whole new way to a whole new audience,” Allen said.
It’s a story that starts in Cedar Falls, Iowa, about 40 years ago in a country café. Allen’s dad owned it. His mom was a waitress.
Joe and Sherry Lynn Rich got married shortly after she gave birth to their first child, Jay.
As a boy, Jay started singing in church, and he and his mom grew up more like best friends than mother and son. Some of their best times were singing country songs at the top of their lungs driving in his mother’s ugly purple Buick LeSabre. Well, it was ugly to Allen, anyway, but purple was his mom’s favorite color, so he went with it.
After high school, Allen spent hours with his mom in a sports apparel shop where she embroidered names into hats and jackets all day long.
The two talked about everything, and the second she got a break, they’d run to the market next door to get Hostess cupcakes and Diet Rite sodas.
The only time mother and son drifted apart was when Allen ran out of town with a girl who ended up being his wife. But Allen couldn’t stay away for long – he surprised his mama two years later by showing up unannounced at Christmas.
Even when Allen moved to Nashville to chase his country star dreams, he and his mom talked nearly every day.
As Allen was driving to the bar after a songwriting session one day in 2017, it was his father who called.
“I feel obligated as your dad to tell you something that happened this morning,” he said.
This is bad, Allen thought.
Your mom called me crying on the side of the road, his dad said. She told me, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know where I’m going. Come get me.
Allen’s first reaction was disbelief: “Are you sure, man? That sounds like Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Allen told his father.
That diagnosis was spot on.
But it didn’t really hit Allen until his parents drove from Iowa to visit him in Nashville about six months later.
“Dad called me every two hours, and you could hear how nervous he was. ‘I just want to remind you, son, prepare your heart, this is going to be really hard.’”
And it was.
“She walked in the door like I was nothing. She wasn’t there,” Allen said. “That 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, to get everyone out of the house.
Allen drove his parents to the Melrose area country bar/restaurant The Sutler. Desperate to make a connection, he walked his mom to the dance floor, and they started slow dancing to a fast song, the only ones on the dance floor. She continued to look through him.
Then the band switched to a slow song to match the mother-son swaying – and that flipped a switch.
“She inhaled and suddenly came back to her old self. She pulled me in and said, ‘Jay, I’m missed you. Jay, I’m so glad you’re here.’”
But that lasted only as long as the song did, and his mother seemed to disappear the moment they got back to the table.
Allen found himself chasing those moments again, trying music, chocolate, ice cream, even alcohol to try to get his mother “back.” But for the next two weeks in Nashville, those moments rarely came.
“She was back to being gone,” 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 had his mom join him on stage every now and then. Crowds reacted strongly, lovingly, generously. Allen did more and more Alzheimer’s Association gigs, raising more awareness and more money.
And his mother kept getting worse. Before one concert in Minneapolis, she started striking out, shouting and glaring at people, all while asking constantly for her husband, even when he was there. “I want Joe! Where’s Joe?”
The night she died, Allen and his band were on the road. Allen’s sisters called him so he could say goodbye.
“I said, ‘Hey mom, this is Jay.’ She hadn’t talked for 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 never felt more stupid playing for drunk college kids in a club.
His mother died within 30 minutes of him getting to his hotel after that performance.
“That was a long drive back to Nashville,” he said. “I sat in the front seat and buried my head in my lap. Then stared out the window. It was the most beautiful day. It was the longest, most quiet day.”
When he got home, Allen walked upstairs to see his fiancée, fellow singer/songwriter Kylie Morgan. They embraced 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 ok.”
But, soon, Allen was not ok.
He threw himself into playing concerts and raising money for Alzheimer’s research, almost always hearing from some fans afterward how they’d lost loved ones to dementia.
That was fine, at first: “I don’t know if we’ll ever find a cure for this disease. But I want to be a safe platform for everyone else to get their stories out, that they know they’re being heard and they’re not alone.”
Soon, though, it was too much.
“It f****d me up,” he said. “I would do shows, events, galas and get blasted [drunk], it was so overwhelming, emotional. To rehash all that heartache every single weekend, on stage, in interviews? Man.”
Allen found himself having four gin and tonics and two shots of tequila before shows, beer during shows and a bunch of drinks after.
His fiancée confronted him and gave him an ultimatum about his drinking.
That set him on a path toward slowing down on the alcohol.
“I know I want to marry this girl, and I know a lot of people look to me, and I’m failing them. I need to be a rock, not just for all those people and Kylie, but for myself.”
Allen started going to a free mental health cooperative for musicians called Porter’s Call in Franklin, Tenn. He got therapy around his drinking and some unresolved childhood issues. “It has prepared me to be a better husband, a better son and a better brother.”
Since then, Allen said he drinks much less, much less often. He and other contestants on NBC’s “The Voice” were banned from drinking during taping, and that helped.
And Allen said he’ll continue to do what he needs to do to stay on a healthy path. He wants to take advantage of the national platform he’ll have on “The Voice” to keep telling his mother’s story.
“I think I’m going to be in a good space for that, to have some real balance,” Allen said. “These next steps are going to take it all to a whole new level.”
Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt. Please consider subscribing to The Tennessean to support this kind of powerful storytelling.
Nashville singer/songwriter Jay Allen will appear on the upcoming season of “The Voice,” starring 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 Monday (Sept. 19), with his dad and his fiancée standing with host Carson Daly on side stage.

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