Jimmy Fortune: Like my mom used to say, “Whenever things happen, son, don’t run from Christ. You run to Christ.”
And if I stand before Christ, I stand before Him and say, “Hey, I don’t deserve what you did for me. I don’t deserve it at all. But I’m not going to turn my back on that gift. I’m going to hold onto it because it has saved me.”
Lifting Up Others Through Service: Country Singer Jimmy Fortune and US Army Veteran Jess Key – Episode #154
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today’s guests have overcome great odds to serve others and lift up those who have given their lives to service: US Army veteran and dragon boat racing champion Jess Key, and country and gospel music legend Jimmy Fortune.
Jimmy Fortune grew up in a musical family and played gospel music from a very young age. Shortly after college, Jimmy auditioned to become part of the world-famous country group The Statler Brothers. Through that group and his own solo career, Jimmy has been honored to use his music and his notoriety to share his faith and to bring attention to the specific needs of others. With his new album God and Country, Jimmy celebrates the beauty of America and those who have made it free.
Jimmy Fortune: I am Jimmy Fortune, and I am an entertainer, singer/songwriter. I have been doing this for a long time. I was with a group called The Statler Brothers for about 21 years of my career, and they retired in 2002. When they retired, I assumed a solo career, and I’ve been in a solo career now for about 17 years.
A Mother’s Prayer, A Father’s Redemption
I grew up in Nelson County, Virginia. I was born in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1955, and then we moved to Nelson County. Whenever I tell people about where I grew up, if you ever saw The Waltons TV show, you pretty much saw how I grew up.
I’m number 7 of 9 children, and we were always singing. Daddy played mandolin, Mama sang some, and she got us all to sing in a church at a young age. And then as time went on. I got a guitar, a real guitar, when I was twelve years old. I started playing that guitar, and I told my daddy I was gonna make a living at this if I could. He thought I was crazy. He said, “I don’t think you can make a living playing guitar. Why do you think they call it ‘playing?’”
I didn’t listen to what he said. I just kept kept on [playing]. Even at a young age, I felt a calling on my life to sing and to play my music.
Mama was a prayer warrior, and she thought that prayer and devotionals and [reading] your Bible and going to church were very important. My father, he wasn’t saved until about 1967, when I was 12 years old. Before that, he was an alcoholic, and he was a kind of a worldly guy. My mother prayed for him so much. I remember her praying and praying for him.
He got down to about the end of his life. He was at the end of everything—end of his rope, you might say. He’d almost lost everything, including his family. And then one day he went to my mom, and long story short, he said, “I’ve tried everything, but I haven’t really tried God, and I haven’t given him my life.”
He went that evening, and we saw my dad go up and give his life to the Lord. My mama’s prayers were answered.
She said it was worth every prayer that he gave his life to the Lord and that he quit drinking. [I didn’t want my dad] to come home sometimes because I knew he’d be drunk and it’d be chaos at home when he came home. I didn’t even care if he came home or not. It went from that to him being my hero. [My dad’s true character] came to the forefront when he let God have his life.
“[My dad’s true character] came to the forefront when he let God have his life.” – Jimmy Fortune
Even though my mama was a prayer warrior and she was a saint in my mind, she would always say, “No, I’m not the real saint. Your dad is the saint because he had all those things that he had to give up to follow Christ, and he did that.” So I saw what God could do through my father and through my mother. Whenever I got into situations in my life where I got down and needed Christ, I saw where my daddy turned to, and I did the same thing.
Called to Play Music
Eventually [I began playing music in] the clubs and things like that around Virginia, and I started doing cover music.
I look back on and I see where I was guided. There was something guiding me into places that I would go, and I didn’t know how I got there or why I was going there—just like going to audition for The Statler Brothers. But I thought, Why am I going to audition for this group that’s bigger than life? I mean, that was one of the biggest groups in country music [at the time]. Why am I going here to try to sing with you?
I knew a higher power than me was driving this. And somehow I knew even though I was going to try out, I knew I was gonna be there. I don’t know how to explain that. I just felt this feeling of, This is where I’m going to be.
Then all of a sudden I go from playing clubs 6 nights a week, 4 hours a night and having 2 daytime jobs to support my music to being with one of the most awarded acts in the history of country music overnight.
”The Statler Brothers were a safe place for me because they were all about God and family and their country.” – Jimmy Fortune
And then after they retired, I was scared as to how it’s gonna go on. [I thought,] I built this beautiful home in Virginia. I’m near my family. Why don’t I just give up the music and to stay here?
I had a conversation with God, and God wanted me to continue on. So I proceeded to do my solo career.
So I was out on my tractor one day, and I had that beautiful home sitting on a hill, and God spoke to me again and said, “You got to leave here. You’ve got to move to Nashville, and you’ve got to give all this up.”
The physical part of me didn’t really want to do that, but I knew the spiritual part of me and God wanted me to do it.
And I said, Whatever I do with my music, I want it to be in a positive way to help people in their lives.
We had loaded up all the trucks and the trailers and stuff to leave Virginia, and I just walked out on my front deck of that house looking across the valley.
“Whatever I do with my music, I want it to be in a positive way to help people in their lives.” – Jimmy Fortune
And all of a sudden these words started coming to me and the words were the song “I Believe,” which has been a mainstay in my career over the last 15 years. God gave me that song and so many people have recorded it, and it’s affected so many people’s lives—including mine.
God works through us. And in His love for us, He works through people and He works through books like this Jesus Calling. He works through that.
A friend of mine, Billy James, and his wife, Tammy, she became a chaplain and now she’s at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia. And before I left her house, she gave me the first Jesus Calling that I ever read.
It’s just amazing, the words, and how it can make you feel the message that God wants you to hear every day. It’s almost like when you could say a prayer to God [like] , “What do you want to tell me today?” You can just read this Jesus Calling, and it’s just like Him talking right to you. It’s really helped me along the way for devotionals and things like that [and helped me realize how] important it is that we let Jesus have our lives and realize what He wants us to do. We get fed through it all.
“So we [need to] all work together to accomplish the goal that God wants us to accomplish, and that’s to help the downtrodden and the people of this world who need to hear about Him.” – Jimmy Fortune
Jimmy’s Latest Project: God and Country
We all got together and asked, “So what do you think we should do?” And we all agreed on, “Let’s do a project called God and Country, because if ever our country needs God, it’s today.”
There’s so much division out there in the world. All you have to do is turn your TV on and see what’s going on. There seems to be a lot of shouting back and forth and a lot of hatred toward one another. We tend to lose God in all that.
There’s a song [on the album] called “More Than a Name on a Wall,” which I wrote years ago, and a new song called “Meet Me at Arlington,” which is about a Gold Star mother who had lost a son. She saw some guy ranting and raving on the news about putting down our soldiers and putting down our country, and she was asked how she felt.
This song came to me from my good friend that happened to live next door to me, Mr. Dave Clark, who’s a great Christian songwriter. He came over and told me about that, and he told me what she said. Then we saw the news clip where she said, “I wish this man could meet me at Arlington, and then I could tell him how I feel, and introduce him to my child, and tell him about him. [Maybe then] he would know and understand why I feel the way I feel, and why it’s so important that we acknowledge our soldiers and thank them for what they did for us. They gave, they sacrificed their lives for us.”
“It’s so important that we acknowledge our soldiers and thank them for what they did for us. They gave, they sacrificed their lives for us.” – Jimmy Fortune
I got caught up in it, and it was emotional to me. When you hear me sing in this project, you can hear . . . I mean, I started crying in this thing and I almost couldn’t continue on when I got to a song called “It Is No Secret What God Can Do,” an old Stuart Hamblen song.
Right before The Statler Brothers hired me, it was Thanksgiving 1981. The night before Thanksgiving, I went to a jam session, and Lew DeWitt of The Statler Brothers happened to be there. He heard me sing that night, and I went to my mom’s the next day told her I’d met Lew DeWitt that night, and I felt like something good was going to happen in my life.
She was really upset because I walked through the door, and I was sick. I’d been anemic, and I’d been working really hard, and I got there early because I wanted to get some of my mom’s good food. We sat and talked, and my mother came over and put her hands on my shoulders, and she started singing, “It is no secret what God can do.”
At that moment, I sat there, and I broke down, and I cried. I felt God in my mom, [like He was] trying to give me a message of, “Son, yes, some good things are going to happen to you, but also some things can happen in life that you’re going to need strength. You’re going to need some stability.” So remember that God is where you need to turn to and give your life, because He’s going to be the one that’s going to help you through all this, because it is no secret what God can do.”
“God is where you need to turn to and give your life, because He’s going to be the one that’s going to help you through all this, because it is no secret what God can do.” – Jimmy Fortune
And so when I started singing that song in the studio that day, I broke down because I realized how powerful that moment was. I realized how powerful that song was to me.
When I sit back and listen to that CD, I could hear the emotion, and I could hear what it meant to me to be an American, to have grown up in a place called the United States of America, and live my life in my family. I grew up as number 7 of 9 children, and I saw the hardships, but I also saw the anchor of my family and my faith. My life was in Christ through my mom’s prayers. and her believing in Christ and how important it was that we put God first in our hearts and in our whole lives.
Narrator: Jimmy’s new CD God & Country is available to order online or at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores.
Narrator: We’ll be right back with our next guest, US Army veteran and dragon boat racing champion Jess Key, after a brief message from Jesus Calling.
Narrator: Jesus Calling products are now available for a limited time at Zulily.com! Zulily is a unique online retailer—known for their great prices on gifts, jewelry, clothing, accessories and more. Starting July 7th, for a limited time you can now find Jesus Calling products at Zulily.com. Check out what they have to offer by visiting Zulily.com. That’s Z-U-L-I-L-Y dot com, now, for all the latest products from Sarah Young and Jesus Calling. Let’s get back to our show.
Narrator: US Army Veteran Jess Key grew up on the island of Oahu. Jess lived in an unstable home that gave her deep trauma from the time she was a toddler. As she grew older, Jess chafed under authority and struggled to find purpose, until she found a family and a sense of duty in the military and in her faith. She tells us how going to a counselor and seeking help from a mental health professional changed her life forever.
Jess Key: My name is Jess Key. I’ve been married to a wonderful husband for about 19 years now. I’m a mom of three. I love to surf and paddle. I just love being in the ocean. It’s my passion.
Growing Up in Chaos
I was born and raised on the island of Oahu, and both my parents were drug addicts. They never married, so my dad left.
My mom was alone, raising two toddlers on her own. And the first seven years of my life were the most traumatic, most scary thing you could imagine. I had to endure physical, sexual, mental abuse. I remember just being so fearful and anxious all the time as a toddler.
My mom was, obviously, dealing with her drug abuse and addictions. I didn’t know it then, but she was also struggling with paranoid schizophrenia. Because of that, we were sent to live with my maternal grandmother.
I recall a big fight that happened between my grandmother and step-grandfather. And from that point on, we were somehow removed from the home and placed in foster care.
We were finally adopted, and at that time, I was eleven. We moved in with a wonderful adoptive family. They already had five children of their own, and they were very well known in Hawaii. He was a professional, All-American wrestler. He was a paddler, surfer, just an elite athlete and well-known in the community. And [my brother and I were like,] “This is our family now.”
It was an adjustment. I was a natural athlete growing up. I liked to surf, to paddle. It was definitely a gift. So when I moved to our adoptive family, we got into paddling and surfing and all these amazing water sports that I fell in love with it. Being in the water was therapeutic. I didn’t know it then, but it was therapeutic for me, and I loved it. I was great at it. I was also a cross-country runner. I guess I could translate that and use this all this energy and put it into something positive.
Things began to fall apart with the adoptive family. Obviously, my brother and I had issues that had never been dealt with from our childhood. Looking back, I didn’t even know I was struggling with childhood PTSD. I had some major issues and I didn’t know why.
For example, I found out my adoptive mom was hiding letters that my great-grandmother was sending me. My great-grandmother was a sweet lady, the Christian in our family, the only person who showed love and affection to my brother and me. I found out she was sending letters, and I got so furious and upset that the first thing I did as an 11-year-old was go to 7-Eleven and steal a bottle of vodka, and I got drunk that night. I never saw this [before]. My adoptive family never did this or my foster home. That’s what I did naturally.
That was my first taste of alcohol. I didn’t even know it, but [that was the] same path my mom took. I was heading down the same path, and I had no idea why.
So after things weren’t really working out with my adoptive family, my brother and I ran away from home. We ended up in a runaway shelter in Hawaii. And it would come to the agreement that we would not return to my adoptive family. We didn’t want to go back.
The only person that would take us was my grandmother. So after seven years of being away from my biological family, I’m put back into that toxic environment from which I was taken from. Long story short, it was like opening Pandora’s box. I was hanging out with the wrong crowds. I started drinking a lot at age 15.
I was in a very toxic relationship. I grew up seeing this abuse, and I was abused myself. I thought it was a normal thing, but come to think of it, I was becoming the abuser. I would get drunk and ballistic with an uncontrollable kind of anger. If you imagine an MMA fighter, that’s the kind of rage I had inside and I didn’t know why.
By the time I was a senior, I was full-on alcoholic. I drank every single day of my life. I barely went to school. My grandmother couldn’t even get control of me. She kicked me out of the house.
“I grew up seeing this abuse, and I was abused myself. I thought it was normal thing, but come to think of it, I was becoming the abuser. I would get drunk and ballistic with an uncontrollable kind of anger. If you imagine an MMA fighter, that’s the kind of rage I had inside and I didn’t know why.” – Jess Key
I was homeless at one point. I had no control of my life, didn’t know what control looked like because I never had any kind of structure in my life.
So I was literally living [out of] trash bags, my clothes were in trash bags. My grandmother threw them in the yard. I’m going from house to house [with my clothes in trash bags] wherever I could land as a 17-year-old.
“One night I got drunk, and I attempted suicide. I was not in my right mind. I thought that was the way out. I had suffered so much that I didn’t know how to cope.” – Jess Key
My adoptive family actually found out that I attempted suicide and reached out to me and said, “Jess, hey, why did you do this? We just we want you to graduate from high school. Please just come live with us.”
Miraculously I graduated, but I was still heavily drinking and out of control. One night I was leaving a party and I got into a head-on collision. I was driving under the influence, and my adoptive family said, “Hey, this isn’t this isn’t acceptable. You already graduated. We want you to either get help or you need to leave.”
I couldn’t help myself because I didn’t know how to. So what did I do? I said, “Fine. I’ll leave.” And I left my adoptive family.
I call a friend. She’s a few years older than me, so she was in her twenties, and I was 18. I go to her house, and I didn’t know it then but her cousin was a drug dealer. And so that first night I was there, I’m depressed. I have no family, no boyfriend, nothing. I feel like my life is just a wreck, and she offers me crystal meth.
I’m like, “Oh okay, sure. I don’t care. What I have to lose?” So instantly I was hooked on crystal meth. And for about eight months straight, I live this life. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I was just high as a kite, like, absolutely losing my mind.
And as a kid, I always said to myself I would never grow up and be my mom. Yet I was living that same life, choosing the same path that she did.
“As a kid, I always said to myself I would never grow up and be my mom. Yet I was living that same life, choosing the same path that she did.” – Jess Key
Becoming a Soldier
The Army changed my life. I had so much gratitude and thankfulness. I was fully motivated fully dedicated. Whatever my authorities or chain of command asked me to do, I’d do it. I highly respected and honored my authority and enjoyed every aspect of it. So given what the Army has done for my life, I was all in.
For one, I would meet my husband to be, Sean. And there was something different about him. When we met he was kind, patient, compassionate, just hilarious. He made me laugh, and it’s just something that I was not used to.
He was a complete opposite from me. I mean, he’s from Virginia. I’m from Hawaii. I had a very traumatic background. He had a pretty solid family. So the saying “opposites attract” is definitely true for my husband and I.
I shared my entire story with my husband Sean. He knew I had some anger issues, and it was uncontrollable anger, especially when I would drink. I would get drunk. I would be verbally abusive to him. I would want to physically fight, so I brought this very unhealthy dynamic into our relationship.
We were 21 years old when we got married. Within the first four months of marriage, we got into this explosive fight. I cursed him out, yelled at him uncontrollably. It escalated so badly that we got into a physical fight. He was arrested in front of all of our peers in the Army. He was facing felony charges for domestic violence charges—you name it. He was gonna be in for a long time. It was not looking good. The charges were reduced to harassment, because I confessed that I caused this huge fight.
And so through it all, God worked these miraculous things out. We had our first child. I was twenty-three years old, had another child, and we started our life as parents.
“Through it all, God worked these miraculous things out.” – Jess Key
“Your Story Is Not Over.”
We moved to Charleston, South Carolina, a place where paddling and surfing and stand-up paddle boarding is alive and thriving. It’s a very coastal city, so it’s an absolutely stunning place to live in.
A friend of mine invited me to try dragon boating for the first time. I had no idea what that was because I grew up in Hawaii, and I paddled on an outrigger canoe, which is a six-person canoe with an outrigger.
But when I got in that boat, it was an awakening. It was like everything I knew deep down in my soul, it just came alive. I was so happy. I was fulfilled. I was doing the things that set me free as an 11-year-old, whenever I was living with my adoptive family. And it was something I truly believe I was born to do.
“When I got in that boat, it was an awakening. It was like everything I knew deep down in my soul, it just came alive. I was so happy. I was fulfilled.” – Jess Key
I attended a dragon boat training clinic. The coach that was leading this clinic, he was from the National Dragon Boat team. One day he messaged me and said, “Hey, are you trying out for the US National Dragon Boat Team?”
And I said, “What? What is that? I don’t even know what that is.”
And he’s like, “Yeah, they’re going to China to represent the United States. You should do it.”
I was like, Wait a minute, Should I? I mean, I only had eight months of experience in dragon boating. But I was like, Yeah, I’ll do it. If anyone can take a challenge, it’s me. I can take any mental, physical challenge you can think of. I can do it because I’ve done that my whole life.
I paddled with some of the most elite paddlers from all over the United States. We’d all come in and meet up and race.
We raced in China, and I can tell you that when we were lining up for our gold medal race, right? We had to do a 1000-meter race. So as we were lining up. there was a beam of light shining down from heaven. And shortly after that, I said a prayer. I said, “God, just be with us. Give us the strength to endure this race.”
And after that race, we won gold. It was absolutely amazing. You’re on this high. You compete at a world level.
And then I came home. I didn’t know it then, but I was a little depressed.
I started retreating. I was having a few communication issues with my husband. And from that point, he wanted to see a counselor, a Christian counselor.
He kind of said, “Jess, have you ever thought about seeing a psychiatrist?”
I remember going to my car and bawling. I knew something wasn’t right, so I decided to seek help from a professional.
And it was at that point I realized that I had severe childhood PTSD. I was still living in constant fear. I had anxiety. I feared for my children’s lives all the time.
After eight months [of treatment], I can truly say I’m walking in freedom. And I’m so thankful that this pastor just reached out to me on a personal level and said, “You should get help.”
I’m a living example that God can take a person with all of this trauma and turn it into something beautiful. Your story is not over. It’s just beginning. God will use any circumstance, whether it be good or bad, and He’ll turn it into something beautiful.
“Your story is not over. It’s just beginning. God will use any circumstance, whether it be good or bad, and He’ll turn it into something beautiful.” – Jess Key
Finding Freedom in Jesus
My first experience with Jesus Calling [came from] a friend of mine. We kind of inherited their library. I just remember seeing this cute little book, and it was a devotional, really simple to read.
I didn’t have an earthly father. So when I would read this book, I felt like God was speaking to me on a personal level, [in a way] I could understand. It was something different. It wasn’t complicated. It was really simple, and I really appreciated that.
I would love to read the Jesus Calling passage from February 27th. It says:
Keep your eyes on Me! Waves of adversity are washing over you, and you feel tempted to give up. As your circumstances consume more and more of your attention, you are losing sight of Me. Yet I am with you always, holding you by your right hand. I am fully aware of your situation, and I will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able to bear.
Your gravest danger is worrying about tomorrow. If you try to carry tomorrow’s burdens today, you will stagger under the load and eventually fall flat. You must discipline yourself to live within the boundaries of today. It is in the present moment that I walk close to you, helping you carry your burdens. Keep your focus on My Presence in the present.
Wow, I absolutely love this. This is my life. The waves of adversity crashed over me all throughout life, but God is simply saying, “Keep your focus on My presence, and be in the present.” I can’t say anything more than that. It’s so beautiful.
“The waves of adversity crashed over me all throughout life, but God is simply saying, ‘Keep your focus on My presence, and be in the present.’” – Jess Key
Sometimes you might you have to be that hero for your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker. You might have to be that hero who says, “Hey, have you thought about getting help for that?”
Or maybe just listening. Be a listener, and be that ear for someone who is terrified to step out of their comfort zone.
It’s never too late to get help. You’re going have to face those “demons,” or they will follow you the rest of your life, and it will be a constant battle.
“You can find freedom once and for all, and it’s through Christ. He is our freedom. He is our hope. He is our everything. You’ve just got to trust in that.” – Jess Key
Narrator: If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, there is free and confidential support for you. Call the National Suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 to receive prevention and crisis resources. That’s 1-800-273-8255.
Narrator: If you’d like to hear more stories about everyday heroes and the importance of serving others, check out our interview with country music artist Neal McCoy and Chick-fil-A Foundation Executive Director and Air Force veteran Rodney D. Bullard.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we talk with pastor and writer Mark Eaton. When we met up with Mark at the ranch he shares with his wife, Susie McEntire Eaton, he reflected on the way his faith has evolved and the way he sees Christ in his life today.
Mark Eaton: I don’t see life so black and white any more. I see the nuances and the subtleties and how Christ wants to enter those places of faith. If life is black and white, I don’t need faith.