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Big heart: Following cancer battle, J Rex releases new album

J Rex is a singer-songwriter in WNC. Terri Clark Photography J Rex is a singer-songwriter in WNC. Terri Clark Photography

For Jerad Davis, it all started with a dry, nagging cough in the summer of 2022. With shortness of breath, low energy, brain fog and night sweats, he initially chalked it up to long COVID. But, upon going to the doctor and through some medical procedures, he was eventually diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

“I was so sick when I started chemo [treatments] that I was unable to work at all,” Davis said. “[It was] terrible. I couldn’t have done it on my own. To survive, and to try to thrive, it takes a village — I wouldn’t have been able to make without my support system.”

About the size of a softball, the cancerous mass took up most of Davis’ left chest cavity, putting dangerous pressure on his heart, lungs and throat. The surgeon estimated the mass had been growing for several years. With treatments every two weeks for six months, Davis started chemo on Nov. 1, 2022.

“It was scary. I was mentally and emotionally void. I just turned everything off. I was just an uninterested pilot of a poisoned body,” the 40-year-old said. “I had treatments [on] Tuesday mornings. Sometimes I would be in bed until Saturday or Sunday. All of my muscles were atrophied. Terrible back pain from being laid up in bed so much. But, I had my guitar — that kept a shred of connectivity to my old self.”

A respected lawyer in Western North Carolina since he moved to Haywood County from Georgia in 2010, Davis is also a well-known singer/guitarist in these parts, whether it be with popular Jackson County jam-grass act Ol’ Dirty Bathtub or his side project J Rex & His High Mountain Pals. To note, Rex is Davis’ middle name.

“I spent most of my time in the chemo chair listening to Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Doc Watson — what I learned was that timing is everything,” Davis said. “You can play all the right notes, but nothing’s right if the timing is off. I stopped trying to play so many notes and just play the right ones at the right time.”

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Throughout his cancer journey, Davis found himself at home resting and recovering, where songs started to emerge and take shape. Known as “The Chemo Tapes,” the new seven-song LP is a blend of Americana, bluegrass and folk music.

“The musicians I liked, the authors I read, they had one thing in common — they were uniquely themselves,” Davis said. “It’s so much easier to be yourself than to be somebody else. Friendships, relationships, mental health — we’re all a little funny, might as well lean into it.”

In the spirit of singer-songwriter John Hartford and with a pinch of Tony Rice guitar mojo for good measure, the record also features Davis’ signature lyrical quirkiness about life, death, love and heartache through the lens of our mysterious universe.

“I always fall back to John Hartford for songwriting inspiration. He was uniquely him. And I want to be uniquely me,” Davis said. “So, when I write a song that I’m being critical of or second guessing, I go back and listen to some weird old Hartford songs. I’m no John Hartford, but it helps me be okay with being J Rex — that’s the only person I know how to be.”

For “The Chemo Tapes,” Davis brought together a slew of talented local/regional musicians — Carter Giegerich, Chris Nesmith, Brad Waldrop, Adam Bigelow, J.B. Wilson, Neil Lippard and Karl Zerfas. The melodies were captured at Davis’ cabin high up in Balsam Gap on the Haywood/Jackson County line, under the watchful eye of Doubletop Mountain in the distance.

“Artistically, [cancer] has made me want to create more. How many days do I have left? What can I do with that time?” Davis said. “Since I have gotten back to a more ‘normal’ existence, time just flies by. If I’ve learned anything about how the world and how time works, it’s that we all need to spend more time doing what we enjoy — none of us are guaranteed any more days and time sure as hell doesn’t slow down for anyone.”

With his last chemo treatment on April 11, 2023, Davis’ upcoming blood test will be next month, which would give him one-year in remission. Beside the release of “The Chemo Tapes” and a handful of live shows already in the works for this spring and summer, Davis is moving forward — head held high with gratitude.

“I just try to enjoy life as much as possible. I don’t take friendships and family for granted,” Davis said. “When I was going through [cancer], I had this incredible realization. It didn’t matter where I lived, what’s in my bank account, what kind of car I was driving. Relationships matter — when you are looking death in the eye, that’s all you have.”

Want to listen?

The new album for J Rex, “The Chemo Tapes,” will be released on all streaming services on March 23.

For more information about any upcoming J Rex performances, you can follow him on Instagram (@j­_rex_d). You can also contact him via snail mail: P.O. Box 347, Waynesville, N.C. 28786.

As well, Davis is a member of Carter Giegerich & Friends, which hits the stage during its “Sunday Bluegrass Residency” from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each week at the Highlander Mountain House in Highlands. To learn more, go to highlandermountainhouse.com.

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