Jimmy Landry stares down cancer with a smile

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

One common thread has connected each day of Jimmy Landry’s life for the past decade.

“I’m grateful for every day that I wake up,” the Black Mountain singer-songwriter known for evoking emotion through folksy tunes over an acoustic guitar said with a smile. “I’m always thankful for the opportunity to participate in life.”

That gratitude culminates at the White Horse near his Oct. 4 birthday each year with a celebration of life itself, which has boasted an impressive list of Landry’s friends from Asheville’s music scene and beyond. 

Jimmy Landry performs at the Kraken in Chapel Hill earlier this year while undergoing treatment for cancer earlier this year.

However, after facing health challenges throughout much of the year, Jimmy Landry’s 10th Annual Big Birthday Bash, set for 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6, was thrown into uncertainty following a throat cancer diagnosis in April.

Of course there weren't supposed to be any birthday bashes for Landry after he learned he had congestive heart failure in 2008. Doctors told him he likely wouldn't live through the year. Landry responded by making drastic lifestyle changes, which included him switching to a plant-based diet. 

A year-and-a-half later Landry hosted the first of nine birthday performances at the Black Mountain venue. Last October, he finally received word he was placed on a list for a heart transplant.

"They don't give transplants to people with cancer," he said. "So they deactivated me from that list."

Since it wasn't the first time Landry was forced to deal with life-altering medical news, he began doing research. 

"I did my homework and found this doctor in Chapel Hill," Landry said. "He wouldn't do surgery because of my heart, but he told me he had a low-dose radiation study going and thought I would be an excellent candidate for that treatment."

Swannanoa's Malcolm Holcombe will join Woody Wood for the Jimmy Landry's 10th Annual Big Birthday Bash at the White Horse on Saturday, Oct. 6.

He decided he would focus on writing music while undergoing the treatment.

"I hadn't written a song in a while," Landry said. "There's a direct link between the words "creator" and "creativity." These songs don't come from me they come through me and I had been blocking that somehow."

He took his guitar to Chapel Hill, but he also took his own approach to dealing with the path in front of him.

"I didn't want to use that language that's about 'fighting' and 'battling,'" he said. "I kept thinking: 'Do I want to puddle upstream or go with the current?'"

Instead of focusing on the fight, he opened himself up to inspiration and connected with musicians in the area that he had gotten to know throughout his career. One of those was Jonathan Byrd, who played at Landry's birthday bash last year. 

"I fell into this group of great singer-songwriters out there," he said. "I went to see my buddy Jonathan, who played last years bash, the first Wednesday I was there."

Almost immediately Landry began writing songs. 

"I immersed myself in music," he said. "In the second week I finished a song that had started falling out of me when I was driving to my first radiation treatment."

Jimmy Landry's 10th Annual Big Birthday Bash will feature the music of Woody Wood, pictured, as well as Landry and Malcolm Holcombe.

He would go on to pen five songs during seven weeks of treatment. He was onto the stage by Byrd, who plays every Wednesday night to a packed house at a bar in Chapel Hill called the Kraken. 

"He gets a big crowd out there," Landry said. "Jonathan got up there and said: 'I love Jimmy Landry; this man's a warrior.' That's not a bad thing to be."

Landry describes those who supported him during his treatment as "angels."

With a renewed dedication to his craft, Landry reached out longtime friends and acclaimed area musicians Malcolm Holcombe and Woody Wood about joining him this year. 

"They're both powerhouses in the Asheville music scene," Landry said. "I want to see what happens putting those two together on the stage. I was pretty clear that last year I was the weak link on the bill, and I'm even more sure of that this year."

There's no telling what the musical combination of Holcombe, a Swannanoa resident who recently released his 14th solo album "Come Hell or High Water," and Wood will produce, Landry added. 

There are a couple of things that Landry is sure of, however: One is that, pending additional tests, doctors believe he is now cancer-free. The other is that creating new music helped him get there.

"I think writing cured my cancer," says Landry with a smile. "Now I want to see if it can cure heart disease too."