Twenty years ago, Jimmy Wayne was in high school listening to Jody Lee Hager, an inmate from the local prison in Dallas, NC, talk to his class.
“The prison would send him around to the schools to tell the children, ‘Think smart. Don’t be like me,’ Jimmy recalls.
Hager also had a guitar. He picked it up and played an original Christmas song called “For Days Like This.” It was a song about what it’s like to spend Christmas behind bars. Jimmy was was transfixed — and transformed. The troubled kid who’d spent most of his childhood either in foster homes or living on the streets was all too familiar with the pain he heard expressed in the song. Suddenly, he had a new reason for being: music.
“Immediately that weekend, I bought my first guitar at a yard sale for forty bucks,” he says. “I noodled around with it, but I wanted to learn so much from this guy. I contacted the prison warden and begged him to let me inside the prison just to sit down with this convict, to learn. And eventually, he did. So I would be in this prison surrounded by murderers and life-timers. We would sit there in the prison yard and he would talk to me about songwriting.”
In a twist of fate that sounds straight out of Hollywood, prison officials recorded Jody playing guitar and took his cassette tape to Nashville. He met Kix Brooks, who played the tape for producer and Asylum Records president Kyle Lehning. Lehning flew to North Carolina, saw Jody play live and offered him a record deal.
But Hager never recorded an album. “Under some very unfortunate circumstances, he lost his record deal and writing deal because he didn’t learn his lesson the first time,” says Jimmy. “I found out that he had gone back to prison and served six more hard years. During that time he would hear me on the radio.”
By then, Jimmy had moved to Nashville and gotten a record deal of his own, earning hits including “Stay Gone,” “I Love You This Much,” “Paper Angels” and the three-week No. 1, “Do You Believe Me Now.” But before his move to Music City, he pursued a degree in Criminal Justice and worked for a while at the same prison where Hager had served his time.
“At night,” Jimmy remembers, “the Sergeant would let me work the prison yard. I’d go into that old music room where Jody used to teach me music. I’d get that guitar out and start playing, thinking about him. I’d think, ‘Man, one day I just want to move to Nashville.’”
Fast forward two decades. “For 20 years I never saw him, until two nights ago when I went back to North Carolina to perform,” says Jimmy. And this week, he’s coming to Nashville. I’ve talked to Pete Fisher [General Manager of the Opry] and they’re going to let him play on the Grand Ole Opry. He’s going to play that Christmas song that inspired me.
“What are the chances of ever being able to tell your hero, ‘Thanks’ and being able to bring them back full circle,” says Jimmy, “playing the song that inspired you to do everything that you do in your life?”
Jimmy says one day he’ll record “For Days Like This.” But this Saturday, December 22, Jody Lee Hager will sing it. And Jimmy will finally be able to thank his hero — on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.