Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Jamie O’Hara died on Thursday (Jan. 7) at age 70 after a long battle with cancer.
O’Hara, who tallied 31 hits as a songwriter on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart — including 10 top 10s and three No. 1s with tracks including The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)” in 1986, The O’Kanes’ “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” in 1987 and Gary Allan’s “Man To Man” in 2003 — was also one-half of the country duo The O’Kanes.
According to a statement from a representative, O’Hara “courageously battled cancer and sadly succumbed on Jan. 7 in Nashville, Tenn., with his wife, Lola White O’Hara, by his side.”
In a statement on Facebook, Lola White O’Hara wrote, “It is with a broken heart that I must tell you that 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, 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.”
Born on August 18, 1950, in Toledo, Ohio, O’Hara was an accomplished high school basketball, baseball and football player at Toledo’s Ottawa Hills High School according to his official bio. After playing football at Indiana University, O’Hara’s dreams of moving on to the NFL were dashed due to a knee injury that set him off on a singer-songwriter track. After moving to Nashville in 1975, O’Hara quickly landed a publishing contract, but spent five years doing odd jobs before transitioning to full-time songwriting.
His high and lonesome voice, combined with O’Kanes duo partner Kieran Kane, helped the duo land six top 10 Billboard country songs from their three studio albums and scored a Grammy nomination for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals for “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You.” The pair are credited with helping to spearhead the burgeoning late 1980s-early 1990s alt-country/Americana movement before O’Hara pivoted to a solo career with his 1994 solo album Rise Above It. In addition to reaching No. 1, the Judds hit “Grandpa” also won O’Hara a Grammy for best country song in 1986.
“He had a way of looking at life with such a beautiful sensibility,” said Emmylou Harris in a statement. Harris, who recorded two O’Hara songs and who frequently went to Nashville Sounds minor league baseball games with the songwriter, added, “We always talked baseball. I was so adamant against the designated hitter, but it was Jamie who made me see that it prolonged the life of a great athlete. He could understand that, because of what had happened to him in football. His perspective . . . I think of him as a holy man.”
O’Hara released two more solo albums, 2000’s Beautiful Obsession and 2012’s Dream Hymns, and, according to his bio, steadfastly refused to change his lyrics to please “hit artists who sought to swim in the mainstream” because “compromise could have resulted in significant royalties, but he deemed compromise to be largely unacceptable.”
His uncompromising vision did nothing to impede his songwriting career, as he became a prolific Nashville force, penning tunes for artists including Gary Allan, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, George Jones, Shelby Lynne, Sara Evans, Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette and The Chicks over the years.
At press time, there were no announced plans for a public memorial, and the family has asked that in lieu of flowers fans send donations in his name to Bonaparte’s Retreat, Doctors Without Borders, MusiCares and SmileTrain.
Check out the O’Kanes’ “Oh Darlin'” below.