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“I just got my halo off four weeks ago,” John Jennings says. The 49-year-old producer and musician is referring not to some midlife bacchanal involving a cigarette boat and a toupee, but to another step in his recovery from an accident that nearly sent him to the angels almost seven months ago.
On the evening of July 28, 2002, as Jennings and his girlfriend, Tamara Meyer, returned from a movie to their home in Potomac, their car was hit by a falling 100-foot tree that had been eaten through by time and insects. “A limb, what I thought was a tree, appeared. And I heard the rustling of leaves,” recalls Jennings. “And then I woke up, and there were flames coming out from under the hood of the car. And I had this really nasty pain in the back of my neck.”
Laughing slightly as he tells his story, Jennings is quick to clarify: “I mean, it wasn’t particularly funny then! But I’ve got a much better sense of humor about it now.”
Meyer had managed to unbuckle Jennings’ seat belt, and he stumbled to the curb. Laurie Ellard, a Montgomery County police officer who had strayed from her usual route to fill up her tank, spotted the wreckage and was able to extricate Meyer, who was trapped in the burning car with a shattered tibia.
These days, Jennings can’t help thinking about the what-ifs of the accident: What if Meyer hadn’t undone his belt? What if Officer Ellard hadn’t come along in time to rescue Meyer? What if the trunk had fallen a few inches to the left or right? “The tree fell almost right in between us, which is amazing,” he says. “I don’t have pictures of the car here, but the first time I saw them I was fairly nonchalant, and the second time I saw them I wasn’t. One of the cops on the scene said, ‘You mean someone got out of that?’”
Despite the seriousness of his neck injurya fracture of the second vertebraJennings was in Bethesda’s Suburban Hospital for a mere five days. “The guidelines that they establish to let you out are fairly arbitrary,” he says, careful to note that his criticism is of the insurers, not of the fine folks at Suburban. “All I had to do to be able to get out was walk up and down a flight of stairs. And I feel like I was ready to come home when they sent me, but I think there are probably a lot of people who wouldn’t have been.”
Jennings spent nearly six months with his head, neck, and upper body immobilized by the circular apparatus that many spinal-cord-injury patients must wear in the aftermath of their injuries. Although his Feb. 22 show at Wolf Trap is being billed as a “triumphant return,” the accident didn’t keep him from working, even if it slowed things down considerably. “I did two or three gigs while I was still in the halo,” he says. “Not without its challenges: The guitar would rest against this
shoulder-pad piece, and the sound
would come right into my skull.” He also produced an album for singer-songwriter Catie Curtis in December. “I couldn’t turn my head,” Jennings recalls. “I couldn’t really put on a set of headphones.” Despite the difficulties, “after a while, I wanted to get out and playin self-defense.”
A musician who kept that busy while his body was encased in metal and plaster must have spent his recovery with itchy fingers. Jennings was as careful as he needed to be to recuperate smoothly, but, he says, “I hit the ground running.” Indeed, he booked the Wolf Trap gig not too long after the accident, as if to give his body a timeline: A job’s coming upbe ready.
Born in Harrisonburg, Va., Jennings spent some of his youth in Luray but also several years in New Mexico, near Carlsbad Caverns. “We used to let tarantulas crawl up our arms and stuff like that,” he recalls. “‘Cause you don’t think when you’re a kid, and they’re just everywhere, so what are you gonna do? You’re gonna play with them.” He entertained rock-star fantasies as early as sixth grade, and by his early 20s, he was playing with Bill Holland and Rent’s Due, a jazz-oriented outfit headed by pianist Holland, who is now the Washington bureau chief of Billboard.
Jennings has made a living at music throughout his life: as a producer (of the Indigo Girls and BeauSoleil, among others), session musician (guitar, organ, dulcimer, bass), educational-video scorer (for Scholastic Press), and local jingle writer (“Whatever you want, think Belmont”). He’s released three solo albums of his guitar-based pop-folk music, the most recent the optimistically titled It’s All Good, and often backs blues-rocker Mary Ann Redmond at the Starland Cafe in Upper Northwest.
Jennings cites the three turning points of his career as meeting Holland, “who made me realize that real adults made serious pop music”; working at Springfield’s Bias Recording Studios, where he “started to learn how one makes really great recordings”; and meeting Mary Chapin Carpenter. Indeed, Jennings is best known for his working relationship with Carpenter, whom he met when she was gigging at local clubs in the early ’80s. He’s produced and played on all of her albums, and a spontaneous Jennings remark was responsible for the title of her most recent one, Time*Sex*Love: “Time is the great gift; sex is the great equalizer; love is the great mystery.”
“There are a lot of ways to make a living as a musician,” Jennings muses. “You can play in clubs, you can teach, you can do jingles….You can go play in a pit band somewhere. You can play in the symphony if you’re good enough.” But he notes that in a town that’s not recognized as a music center, “it’s very, very difficult…to judge what’s really good. Because if you can get 30 or 40 people to come see you play once a week, you’ve got a gig. So if you can call 30 or 40 of your friends and get them to come out, you can play….And I don’t think that indicates a lot.
“I remember when we first started out working with Chapin,” he continues. “When she first got signed, and we first started touring, we would go in places and play for like 15 to 20 people. Everybody does it. And it took years of doing this religiously for things to kind of catch on. And it also took a lot of good luck and a label that started to understand what she did and figured out how they could maximize what they had.”
Jennings says that making it in the music industry is “arbitrary”circling back, he compares the criteria for success to the standards insurance companies set for sending the sick and injured home from the hospital. “I wish that I could tell you what it takes to succeed in the music business,” he says. “I can tell you what it takes to succeed on a smaller levelthat’s pretty easy: It just takes making more money than you spend.”
Did he ever have a vision about where his career should go? “Never,” he says firmly. “I’m really bad at that. I think if you find it necessary, then it’s necessary. For some people, that’s exactly what they need. And some people are really good at setting goals and achieving them. It’s never worked for me particularly well. Because it’s a process. To me, that’s the great thing about beingand I use this term very guardedlyan artist. Because to me, it’s pretty much about the process, the actual doing of it.”
Viewed in these terms, Jennings’ is a success story: He’s doing what he loves and getting paid for it. When asked whether he’s ever wanted a bigger share of the limelight, he says he’s comfortable where he is: “I get enough shots to be out in front that I’m relatively content. The only thing that could persuade me to be more of a frontman would be huge piles of cash. But other than that, I’m pretty happy.”
Even the D.C. area’s recent batch of nasty winter weather hasn’t dampened his spirit: Jennings’ was the first car to leave his neighborhood after last weekend’s record snowfall, taking him back to his Charlottesville, Va., studio to work on various projects. He’s especially looking forward to doing more writing, although he says he hasn’t yet written a song about the accident.
“It would be a very short song,” he jokes, “and probably consist entirely of the lyrics ‘I’m so lucky.’” Pamela Murray Winters
John Jennings and Friends perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Barns of Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna. For more information, call (703) 255-1860.