Zach Williams and his wife of a year, Stacy, thought they were heading to safety when they and other students left Palm Beach Atlantic University and the hurricanes headed Florida’s way in 2004.
Zach, an easy talker who can string together memories, events and reflective thoughts into a story pretty as a patchwork quilt, invited about a dozen close college friends to flee with them to his parents’ horse farm bordering Cobb and Cherokee counties. They could wait out the storms, playing, flirting, hanging out around bonfires and talking about their futures. He had spent some lonely times as a young teen, exploring the woods and ruins of an old mill along the Little River. Now Zach loved surrounding himself with friends, and he attracted a like-minded group interested in the arts and acting, music and spirituality.
The tight-knit group especially enjoyed riding the American Saddlebreds on the Williams’ farm. A day or two into that long, Labor Day weekend, Zach’s best friend Caleb Clardy galloped like a cowboy on payday astride a horse named Pearl just out of sight of the house. Saddlebreds are known for a gentle temperament, but Pearl kept grumpily veering toward low hanging branches of a tree, forcing Caleb to rein her in. He rode the sweating horse back to the house where Stacy climbed into the saddle.
That’s where most of Stacy’s memories disappear into a weeks-long hole.
A few minutes after she rode off, Zach turned toward the sound of pounding hooves. Pearl was running “at full steam” toward the house and barn, her saddle empty. Zach sensed his field of vision darken at the edges. There was an eerie moment of silence save for the rhythm of hooves.
Who’s riding Pearl? somebody screamed out.
Stacy, someone answered.
Pam Williams, Zach’s mom, fell to her knees and prayed as Zach and Caleb back-ran Pearl’s path through unmowed grass. They found Stacy under the tree, unconscious, splayed awkwardly on her back with blood around her nose and running from beneath her left eye across her temple. Zach, his heart pounding, knew not to move her. But he touched her head softly, put his face close to hers and whispered her name.
Zach’s dad Tony, following the boys, called 911, and they listened together to a siren wail as an ambulance emerged from the nearby emergency station.
The next hours were a grinding blur of shock and tenderness, life-changing decisions and surreal moments.
Your wife needs surgery immediately, the doctor said. She can’t feel anything from the neck down. We think there is bone in her spinal cord.
The family was beginning to realize that their lives were about to change.
They were right in many ways, some apparent and some not. But the last thing anyone could have predicted was that the sleeping poet and musician in Zach would be awakened by the crisis.
Persistent in love
You never need nobody
You’ve never been alone
And I try to get your affection
And all I ever do is wrong.
Lyrics by Zach Williams and Sam Ashworth
Zach and Stacy’s love story was already old, though they were only 23. He first spotted her, a cap pulled low over her eyes, on a church bus as a group of early teens headed to summer camp. Soon after arriving, Zach screwed up his courage and asked her to be his girlfriend.
“He was super shy,” Stacy said.
He spent the rest of camp mostly avoiding her. “I was afraid to talk to her,” he said. About the time that camp broke up, so did the two.
Back home in Woodstock, their lives became a tangle of church events, close friendship and multiple unsuccessful attempts at being a couple.
By age 16, Zach had professed his undying love. He wrote eloquent letters. He passed her notes in church scratched on the back of offering envelopes and even on a dollar bill.
And he kept her replies. But when their relationship moved beyond friendship, it always ended with a crash. She dumped him maybe eight times, he remembers. But he never gave up.
As they got older, he told Stacy he was going to marry her.
“It kind of flattered me and scared me at the same time. He was always being so serious,” she said.
Stacy was the daughter of a single mother. She worked in high school to help her mom make ends meet, and her good looks and popularity got her elected homecoming queen in high school. But she valued her independence, and she wanted to experience freedom and have fun before getting tied down. So during their senior year, she dumped him again, maybe for the last time. She headed to Argentina to study abroad. Still, they kept in touch.
It wasn’t until he was away at college that Zach thought he might finally find happiness with another woman. He began dating a student who was pretty, funny, fun to talk to. When he talks about it now, he smiles and says it was all part of his plan to drive Stacy back into his arms for a final time.
And Stacy thinks maybe he is right. She heard from a friend that Zach was dating someone else, seriously maybe. Stacy felt jealousy and a bit of fear rise up. She might lose him for good.
The rapprochement began. It ended in 2003 in a Savannah square with Zach, down on one knee as a church bell tolled in the night, offering a ring. They married six months later.
Prepared for the worst
Your precious time, your darker days, the days I left you with no space
To breathe or even think of me without the worry that I’d always leave
I’ll never leave, I’ll always stay, I swear on all that I keep safe
I’ll never leave, I’ll always stay, I swear on all that I keep safe
Lyrics by Zach Williams
Zach listened nervously as doctors explained the injuries: four broken vertebra just beneath the skull, two of them shattered. There were no promises about Stacy’s future or even if she would have one.
As the doctor spoke, Zach watched the face of his new mother-in-law, surgical nurse Edna Coleman.
She listened with the knowledge gained from watching countless doctors cut and sew and talk in brightly lit rooms of steel operating tables and cold tile floors. This time it was her daughter. Edna had to hold in her rising tide of emotions.
“If I needed to cry, I would get up and go to the bathroom,” she said.
Zach remembers registering the gravity of the situation when a surgeon told him, we are going to try to get her where she can breathe on her own. She was transferred to Atlanta Medical Center for emergency surgery. The doctors did what they could. She would live, at least.
Stacy remembers regaining consciousness days later, rolling on a gurney with her head clamped securely in place with a metal halo screwed into her skull and anchored to her shoulders to prevent neck movement. As she rolled into the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta institution renowned for its work with spinal cord and brain injuries, the wheels clacked over the lines of grout between tiles, sending shocks of excruciating pain through Stacy’s head and neck.
“Whose brilliant idea was this floor?” she said to her mother.
The seriousness of her situation dawned on her as the haze of painkillers and the shock subsided over the next few days. She could see it in the faces of others.
“I didn’t fully grasp what was going on around me but knew whatever was going on must be pretty bad, because people get this look, they look at you in this forlorn way.”
The reality of the situation become more clear when the doctor administered a daily “scratch test.” He would come in, prod with a pointed instrument on her feet, legs, hands and ask, “Feel that?”
She could not feel anything.
In the hallway sat a wheelchair with Stacy’s name on it.
When Zach wasn’t by Stacy’s side, he paced or sat in the garden at Shepherd Center. And he began taking classes on how to care for a paraplegic. About a week into the ordeal, Zach’s parents noticed Stacy’s hands starting to curl in on themselves.
“That’s when I really hit a dark place,” said Zach.
But it was in that place where the first cracks of light appeared.
Tragedy begets beauty
Our tearful thoughts and hopeless times,
It knows no other face so blind,
It whispers deep, ’til I can’t sleep
This room, it begs for you to keep
Lyrics by Zach Williams
Since Zach was young, his parents had encouraged him to keep a journal, and he filled a stack of them with his thoughts. After Stacy’s injury, he took up his pen in earnest while living in a little apartment provided him by the Shepherd Center. When friends visited, he would share his writings. His friend Caleb noted that Zach’s writing swerved toward the poetic.
Caleb told Zach he should put the words to song and learn to perform them on guitar. It would be cathartic, he said.
Tony and Pam Williams had paid for years of guitar lessons for Zach and purchased a top-end custom Les Paul guitar to encourage him. But the lessons had come to naught other than bedroom strumming. And the coordinated skill of playing and singing at the same time eluded him completely. But he left the Shepherd Center for home and searched through storage for his old acoustic guitar. He brought it to the apartment and tried to put his words to chords during long stretches of night.
Then the morning came that friends and family had prayed for. Zach was in Stacy’s room listening to her recount a dream she’d had when he saw her move an index finger. Doctors and therapists were called. Excitement and hope took root as therapists started with what they had, making her work that one finger against a rubber band.
Over the next few days, her body began to wake up. Doctors could finally scan through the damage and shattered bones and see that her spinal cord had not been severed or pierced by bone fragments, but severely bruised. Her recovery picked up momentum, and hope turned to inspiration for Zach.
He told Stacy one day about his new musical interest, but she was preoccupied with getting better.
“One day he came in and said, ‘I feel like I ought to write a song about this whole thing.’ And I was like, ‘Cool. Would you pass me that water?’ ”
But when he finally sang to Stacy a song he wrote titled “Hospital,” it reduced her to tears. There is a lyric in the song about the butterflies painted on the ceiling. Stacy recognized it as the rehab room at Shepherd Center. For her, the song encapsulated not just the hardness and sadness of those moments, but also the hidden beauty in the support and the love she felt.
Soon Stacy progressed from moving fingers to hands to arms to legs. Within a month, Zach surprised his parents by walking Stacy out of her Shepherd Center room, the halo long gone and her head perched on a marshmallow-fat neck brace.
As she healed, Zach tested his growing performance skills with a few tentative open mics at a Starbucks on Peachtree Street. They were bad enough that he brushes by the memory with “I barely remember...”
After about a month at the Shepherd Center, Stacy was well enough to move to the Williamses’ home to finish rehabilitation. Six months later, the couple was back at school and Zach, a religion major, was thinking seriously about following his heart rather than returning home and rejoining the family real estate business as he’d originally considered.
During that year of school, he tried more open mics in Florida bars. The first one ended poorly. He was scared to death and still tentative in his skills. He lost his place on the guitar in the second song and had to finish a cappella. But he also began playing and singing in the school chapel, picking up momentum almost as fast as Stacy had in her recovery.
Zach and Stacy and their friends were celebrating New Years when Zach sprung an idea that had been roiling his thoughts. He wanted them all — aspiring actors, musicians and friends — to move to New York and chase their dreams together. The idea wasn’t so far-fetched to Stacy, who had always been the pragmatic one in the bunch. She had also learned something in Shepherd Center.
“Once I lost control of everything, I remember being like, ‘We are not promised tomorrow. We don’t know what the future holds. Let’s just do it. We have our lives and our health, and what is the worst that could happen?’ It does give you that carpe diem attitude.”
Excited, they grasped hold of the idea and after graduation more than a dozen of them drifted to the city over the next year. Caleb ended up pastoring a church. Zach worked part-time jobs. Stacy got a job working for a boutique public relations firm. She calls it her “Devil Wears Prada period,” but it kept them in health insurance and food. And Zach played gigs in seedy bars. Often Stacy and a small clutch of their friends were the only ones listening.
Once they settled into life in Brooklyn, the daughters began arriving. First was Loretta. Then Elizabeth Pearl. She was named after the horse, and also the jewel an oyster makes from the pain of an embedded foreign object.
She is a reminder, Stacy said, of the story of their lives. Finally, Hazel Lee came.
Zach continued writing songs filled with heartbreak and redemption, good times and bad, based on personal experiences including some rocky times he and Stacy worked through in their young marriage. He developed a passionate style of singing. Equal parts Elvis and evangelist onstage, he encourages the audience to sing along and breaks into sweats from the energy he works out. Over the next six years the crowds at his gigs grew from a few friends to sold-out venues with hundreds of seats.
In 2010, Zach asked two fellow Southern ex-patriots, former college roomie Brian Elmquist and friend Kanene Pipkin, to join him on a dozen songs he had written based on the tough time he and Stacy had in their marriage.
Brian and Kanene had pure, powerful voices to match Zach’s, as well as training in music and the same sensibility in taste — a genre-bending mashup of folk rock meets country meets hand-clapping gospel. The music took on new life with soaring, three-part harmony. Zach knew in minutes he had found his match in passion.
They ended up with the name Lone Bellow, taken from a late night experience with a bull on the Bartow County farm of Zach’s grandparents, and they began working the club scene as their local reputation grew. Nashville producer Charlie Peacocke guided their self-titled 2013 album, which landed on several “Best of the Year” lists.
The calls started coming quickly 18 months ago. Rolling Stone. “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” The Newport Folk Festival. National Public Radio. They played South by Southwest in Austin in 2013 to great response, left their jobs and began touring full-time. Their second album, “Then Came the Morning,” is out this month, and has already made it onto NPR’s list of new sounds in 2015.
Zach, who still answers “Yessir” to older people and hangs around after shows to talk to fans, loves making listeners part of the concert. He likes to create an experience that brings people together for a few moments. When he sings, he says, it brings those memories alive for the moment and he feels the passion again. Brian and Kanene share those sensibilities whether gathered around a single microphone to cry out the prayerful “Watch Over Us” accompanied by Brian’s single acoustic guitar or when backed with a eight-piece band as they involve the whole crowd in singing the chorus of the autobiographical “Bleeding Out.”
“I used to not be able to make it though a show with dry eyes,” said Stacy, who has made a complete recovery except for occasional neck stiffness. “Almost every one of his songs is a very personal story of ours.
“Now, I love that each of his songs has such a real meaning to us. I think that is what makes the hard work and time he is putting in now bearable. He is away so much and has three little girls. But when you hear the songs and the beauty and truth of them, it is like, OK, I can do this for another month, another year, another summer.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
My wife and I first saw The Lone Bellow blow away a crowd of thousands last September at a concert in Nashville. Driving home, we Googled the band and discovered Zach Williams was from metro Atlanta. We were delighted to discover a week or so later that the band was coming to Atlanta. I did a quick interview with Zach prior to the concert to preview the show in the AJC’s Living section, and he told me the amazing story of his wife, Stacy, and how her life-threatening injuries had helped launch his fast-rising career in music. I’ve spilled more than my share of ink telling tragedies over nearly 30 years as a journalist, and this story, with its happy and miraculous ending, created an itch that I had to scratch. Zach, Stacy and their families opened their hearts and homes to me with uncommon grace. I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed hearing it.
About the reporter
Christopher Quinn is an AJC editor who has written exactly two stories about music, this one and the pre-concert story for The Lone Bellow that ran last October. He joined the AJC in 1999. Prior to that he worked at the Winston-Salem Journal.
About the photographer
Branden Camp is a freelance photojournalist based in Atlanta. He grew up in a musical family and planned a career in the music business. It was not until later in life that he found his true passion — visual storytelling. He is studying communications at Kennesaw State University with a focus in journalism.
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