Country Songwriter & O’Kanes Member Jamie O’Hara Has Died

Jamie O’Hara with Emmylou Harris

From the Grammy-winning song “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” that became the signature song from The Judds, to Gary Allan’s first #1 hit “Man To Man,” to Ronnie McDowell’s #1 “Older Woman,” songwriter Jamie O’Hara made major contributions to the songbook of country music, often as the sole writer on a composition, while also finding success as one half of the performing duo, The O’Kanes.

Now, like so many other country greats lately, Jamie O’Hara has passed away. Earlier this week, O’Hara’s wife, Lola White, had announced that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of Cancer and could only have weeks to live. On Thursday morning, January 7th, it was confirmed that Jamie O’Hara had succumb to the disease. He was 70-years-old.

Born August 8, 1950 and from Toledo, Ohio, before he ever discovered he had a penchant for writing and performing music, Jamie O’Hara was a four-sport star athlete at Ottowa Hills High School. They nicknamed him “Gold” from the way he excelled at every sport, and he even received a contract offer from the Detroit Tigers at age 17. But in 1969 during a football scrimmage, O’Hara tore his ACL, which was a career-ending injury in that era.

It was then that Jamie O’Hara poured his heart into his passion for music that simply started as being a fan of performers such as Kris Kristofferson and Roy Orbison. With the same dedication he pursued sports, O’Hara started writing songs, moving to Nashville with 10 songs he had written in his hand. After being turned away at Monument Records, he walked across the street to Tree Publishing (later Sony Tree), where he would spend much of his career.

Between 1975 and 1980, O’Hara worked odd jobs to pay the bills, all the while slaving to write a hit song. He found a mentor in legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard, as well as other legends such as Curly Putnam, and then in 1980, took the plunge to be a full-time songwriter, writing songs for Conway Twitty, Ronnie McDowell, Don Williams, and Tammy Wynette. But the lack of major success cost him his first wife, and he continued to struggle to find success. Then one day in 1985, he sat down at a picnic table he used as a dinner table in his three-room house and wrote “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days),” and everything changed.

“The bosses at Tree International didn’t like much about it, including the long-ish title,” Jamie O’Hara recalled years later. “I said, ‘No, you’re not changing a thing.’” Offering a respite from familial dysfunction, “Grandpa” resonated deeply with country fans and critics alike, not only going #1, but being awarded both Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group by the Grammy Awards in early 1987.

By that time, Jamie O’Hara had formed a duo of his own called the O’Kanes with Kieran Kane, and signed with Columbia Records. The duo released three records between 1986 and 1990, landing six Top 10 hits, including the #1 “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You.” Now Jamie O’Hara wasn’t just writing big songs. He was singing and performing them.

But the duo disbanded in 1990 so the two could pursue solo careers, and O’Hara signed with RCA Records and released a solo record in 1994 called Rise Above It. He failed to find the same commercial success he did with the O’Kanes, but kept writing songs, and successfully so, while also working as a mentor to many of the new class of songwriters making their way to Nashville. The O’Kanes rebanded in 2000 to some success, and later Jamie became a big writer behind Gary Allan.

“What Kind of Fool,” “Nickjack Cave,” and “No Damn Good” co-written with Gary Allan and Odie Blackmon all sprang from the pen of Jamie O’Hara. As his career went on, he also became quite reclusive, despite his time in the spotlight previously. Instead of hanging around the Tree Publishing offices during the day, he would sneak in at night, leaving new contributions in a bin. They would check security camera footage to confirm O’Hara had stopped by to leave some more songs the night before. Unlike many in Nashville, O’Hara wasn’t about soaking up the credit. It was all about the song for him.

Jamie O’Hara was also part of a moving moment when he performed his song “50,000 Names” at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial with Emmylou Harris (see above). Along with being a bridge between Nashville’s original songwriters such as Harlan Howard, O’Hara was also a huge fan of Jesse Winchester.

“My husband, friend and love of my life took his last breath this morning at 11:11 at Alive hospice, as my son Brian sang him a plethora of Jesse Winchester songs, all stunningly appropriate, though we’d never thought of them in this context before,” O’Hara’s wife shared on Thursday (1-7). “…and Jamie’s own songs, including the earliest ones, which were shockingly sophisticated for a man as young as he was when he began his career; and those of other friends. Jamie suffered tremendously in recent months. He’s no longer suffering, and for that we can all be grateful. He will live in our hearts and in his songs.”

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