John Berry has had plenty to be joyful about in his four-plus decades in music. He’s topped the charts, been nominated for one of the highest country music industry awards, and he’s carved out a career where even all those decades later, his fans continue to show up in droves when Berry graces a stage in their town.
Amidst all of the highs, though, Berry has weathered his fair share of trying times that tested his joy: from undergoing brain surgery the day he earned his first number one single, vocal cord surgery at the peak of his artistic rise, and most recently, a cancer diagnosis in 2019, Berry has soldiered on, keeping his love of performing intact.
Berry’s most recent album offering, Find My Joy, captures the South Carolina native singing about the joy he had lost in the midst of his cancer battle, which was rekindled through a shakeup of mindset, as he delivers an album chock full of beautiful arrangements of classic hymns and original tunes that he had been yearning to make for quite some time.
Before he was carving out his own niche in the music industry, though, Berry was drawing influence from legendary singer/songwriters like John Denver and Neil Young, clinging to his guitar to recite the songs he was hearing on the radio.
“At that time in our country’s history, singer/songwriters were happening. I was drawn to them because it was music I could play, or at least somewhat play, on my guitar,” Berry says with a laugh. “I started playing guitar when I was 12 years-old in the summer of 1972. In high school, we moved unexpectedly over Thanksgiving break, and the only person I knew at my new school was my brother, Scott. My guitar became my best friend; my only friend.”
Before he graduated high school, Berry not only knew he wanted to pursue music for a living, he wrote and recorded an album, Humble Beginnings, learning the ins and outs of recording music as he went.
“My dad and I built a studio in the basement of our house. We had no idea what we were doing, and I don’t know what we were thinking,” says Berry. “We recorded on a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. I’ve got a better system now on my iPad. It was a learning experience. I wouldn’t call it studio experience, it was more basement experience. It was all these average songs I wrote. We learned a lot.”
Over the next decade, Berry continued to put in work at that basement studio, and eventually professional studios, releasing five more independent albums and honing his craft along the way.
“I started figuring things out. My songwriting got better and I started finding songs that were really good,” says Berry. “We moved on to real studios, as opposed to the basement in my parents’ house. The last record we did, Saddle the Wind, was recorded in Studio 805 on 18th Avenue South in Nashville.”
After a decade of self-releasing his albums, Berry eventually realized that if he wanted to fulfill his musical dreams, he had to cast a wider net and seek out a record deal.
“I had no intention of going to Nashville and getting a record deal. I was perfectly happy playing clubs in Georgia. I had a massive following there. My wife and I had built a farm out in the country, and we were living the dream,” says Berry. “I was driving home really late one night and listening to the radio when the DJ said, ‘Hey y’all, turn it up, we’ve got a brand new song from Joe Diffie.’ They played a song called ‘Ships That Don’t Come In.’ I turned it up, and it occurred to me that my ship might never come in. For the first time, I thought that maybe the most I would ever be was just a big fish in a little bitty pond. You could go 100 miles in any direction and nobody would know my name. I got home through tears in my eyes and told my wife about the song Joe had sang and that I had dreams bigger than that.”
With that moment of realization, Berry and his wife, Robin, decided to be present in Music City, which quickly lead to a record deal.
“We came up with a plan to go to Nashville every six weeks for a year and do a showcase. We were going to invest the time and money to see if we could get some attention. The first trip was in 1992. We went to Douglas Corner and did our first industry showcase. We sent out about 250 invitations to industry professionals, and quietly hoped nobody would come, because I wanted to make sure I sounded he same in Nashville as I did in Georgia,” says Berry. “My wish came true: nobody came, except on guy: Herky Williams. He’d come to town to see another band. He had heard about me from his sister at the University of Georgia. He came by to see me that night, but he couldn’t get in because the line was down the street. He came back later and the line was still down the street. After the show, he said he loved the performance. He called me the next day and told me that Jimmy Bowen from Capitol wanted me to come over for lunch, and I told him I was back in Georgia. They set up a private showcase a few weeks later. I did my one showcase and got a record deal. All the stars lined up.”
With a record deal under his belt, Berry entered the studio to record his self-titled debut for Capitol Records. After two singles, “A Mind of Her Own” and “Kiss Me in the Car” peaked on the charts at number 51 and 22 respectively, Berry’s third single, “Your Love Amazes Me,” showed promise right out of the gate.
“I knew it was a special song before I ever recorded it. We were playing it at clubs in Georgia for about six months. Athens is a college town: you get in a room with a few hundred college kids, and they get to throwing down pretty good. I would play that song, and a hush would come over the whole place. We knew we were on to something with that song,” says Berry. “I wasn’t first in line to record that song. Tanya Tucker had it on hold for her album. I told the label that if anything happened, I wanted to be first in line to get the song. A few weeks later, she turned in her completed album and ‘Your Love Amazes Me’ wasn’t on it. I’m the lucky guy that drew the card to sing that song.”
After 20 weeks on the Hot Country Songs chart, “Your Love Amazes Me” peaked at number one on May 21, 1994, the same day Berry was undergoing surgery to remove a cyst on his brain.
“I had brain surgery that morning, and I couldn’t remember squat,” says Berry. “They got a Xerox copy of the chart and taped it beside my bed so I could see it. It was an interesting time to say the least.”
As he recovered, Capitol Records released two more singles, “What’s In It for Me” and “You and Only You,” both of which reached the top five and kept his momentum rolling.
“It was crazy. I have to give credit to Jimmy Bowen: when you throw something against the wall and it sticks, they start throwing money at it to make sure it does well,” says Berry. “During the ACM Awards, Jimmy bought a slew of commercials and played my song in them. It was quite a ride.”
As he prepared his sophomore major label album, Standing on the Edge, Berry entered with the approach of keeping his sound fresh and offering another strong record.
“The sophomore record is always a big deal. It’s a ‘You did this last time, but what do you have now, dude?’ kind of thing. You have to go and do the best you can to find the best songs you can find or write the best songs you can write,” says Berry. “I wanted to bring something fresh without changing everything. I didn’t want to alienate what I had built, but I wanted to bring a little freshness to it.”
As the first two singles from Standing on the Edge, the title track and “I Think About It All the Time,” both entered the top 5, it was clear that radio responded positively to Berry’s effort. However, a CMA Horizon Award nomination proved that the industry was taking notice as well.
“That was really awesome,” says Berry. “You hear people say it’s just an honor to be nominated, and it really is. Of all of the singers and songs, they pick five. You look at the list of people they select to honor with a nomination, and it’s a really cool, thankful moment.”
After earning two more top ten hits on his third major label album, Faces, Berry underwent vocal cord surgery, which delayed the release of his next album, stalling the momentum Berry had found.
“I had to take a year off,” says Berry. “After I had brain surgery, I didn’t do any interviews for a long time. I just started getting momentum back, and I had to take that year off. That’s like an, ‘Adios, you’re gone.’”
After parting ways with Capitol Records in 1998, Berry signed with a new label the following year, though the deal was admittedly short-lived because of his attitude.
“I had moved back to Georgia to be closer to the label. I moved in August of 1999, and by Christmas, I got a fax from the label saying they were letting me go. It was because I was such a jerk,” says Berry. “If you’re a jerk and making the label a ton of money, it’s okay, but if you’re a jerk and not making them a bunch of money, they’ll show you the door. And they did.”
With no label home, Berry instinctively stayed active with releasing music independently.
“I had literally just sold my farm to be more involved with that label, so I was pretty bummed,” says Berry. “I started making records on my own and doing my own thing. It was important to stay active because it was a form of cash flow. I got back on the horse and just started doing it.”
Berry continued chugging along, until a cancer diagnosis in 2019. However, it was a song that his manager sent to him that changed his mindset.
“It wasn’t the best of times. I ended up being sent a song called ‘Find My Joy.’ I didn’t even listen to it at first. I didn’t want to hear it, because I had no joy,” says Berry. “The cancer and the treatment had riddled my body, and I was so miserable. I finally listened to it and realized what a great message and piece of music it was. It was so truthful.”
“Find My Joy” became the title track to his new record of hymns. Released in April of 2022, Berry felt the time and music were right for that type of record.
“I’ve been wanting to make a record like this for a long time, but it never came together. We started it a few times, but it didn’t feel right. The music and arrangements didn’t feel right,” says Berry. “I got together with my producer, Steve Dorff, and started talking about doing it. Steve brought something really special to the sessions. He did a beautiful job with the arrangements and brought a freshness to them. We included six hymns, three originals that Steve had written, and we covered ‘Blessings,’ a beautiful song Laura Story did ten years ago.”
After making their way through the album, Berry says he hopes that the songs can be as much a friend to listeners as his guitar was when he was a kid.
“I hope people realize they’re not alone. We all face things that are difficult,” says Berry. “I hope they realize that there is a God that created the universe, and that he loved us so much that he sent Jesus to us to make a path.”
As he sets his sights on continuing a touring tradition in 2022, Berry says that the road is still his happy place, and is a place he continues to find joy.
“This year will be the 26th year of doing our Christmas tour. We’re going to be doing 24 cities this year. There’s a couple of songs on the record that we’re going to start kicking around at radio, so we hope that they can pick up a little airplay,” says Berry. “I love getting to sing. I love touring and seeing people on the road. I just love singing for people.”
*Feature image by Moments by Moser Photography*
**We’ve added some of our favorite John Berry songs to The Best of Pro Country playlist!**
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