On March 1, 2008, the proud U.S. Navy warship USS New York was christened under sunny skies at Northrop Grumman shipyard in Avondale, Louisiana. Crafted of seven tons of steel salvaged from the wreckage of the Twin Towers after 9/11, the ship’s gleaming bow bears the engraving “Never Forget.”
Performing at the christening were country stars Charlie Daniels and Rebecca Lynn Howard. When Daniels belted out the rousing lyrics to “The USS New York,” and Howard delivered a moving performance of “Never Forget,” there wasn’t a dry eye on the dock.
Among those blinking back tears were Sherry Johnson ’03 and Liem Walker ’03, owners of Seasong Recording, which produced the album Never Forget, a tribute to the USS New York, the victims and heroes of 9/11, and the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces. The songs performed by Daniels and Howard were two of 13 songs featured on the album.
Johnson and Walker’s role in producing Never Forget is especially appropriate. Like the USS New York, Seasong Recording was born out of tragedy, but has become a symbol of hope and service to others.
Sherry Johnson and Liem Walker met on the first day of new student orientation at MC Law in 2000. The two women became fast friends, sharing a strong work ethic and an unrestrained sense of humor that saw them through the challenges of law school. “We took our work seriously, but we laughed a lot too,” Walker recalls. “In fact, some of our friends in law school stopped sitting next to us because they were afraid they’d get in trouble in class.”
Shortly after their 2003 graduations, the women decided to open a practice together. In January of 2004, they opened their doors as Walker & Johnson PLLC, operating offices in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Johnson’s hometown of Chatom, Alabama. The partners’ practice grew quickly, with both women earning reputations as tough, talented attorneys with promising futures and what appeared to be lucrative careers ahead.
Then tragedy struck.
The women were turning off of a rural road in Chatom when an overloaded logging truck traveling at more than 90 miles per hour slammed into the back of Walker’s Dodge Durango. The Durango was thrown 15 yards, slammed into a utility pole and snapped the pole in half, then spun wildly before crashing to a stop on its passenger side in a ditch.
“The last thing I remember clearly is Liem looking in the rearview mirror and screaming, ‘He can’t stop!’” Johnson says. “Right before he slammed into us, she threw out her arm and tried to soccer mom save me.”
Johnson and Walker managed to crawl out of the shattered rear window of the truck and collapsed on an embankment, where they lapsed in and out of consciousness waiting for help to arrive. Along with mangled pieces of the Durango, the women’s paperwork and personal possessions littered the roadway.
"I remember the driver of the logging truck picking up a business card off the ground," Johnson says with a wry smile. "He was already scared to death. I'll never forget the look on his face when he said, 'Y'all are attorneys? Both of you?"
The accident left both women with grievous injuries. Walker suffered a fractured skull, a severe concussion, and shoulder and back injuries that would require multiple surgeries. Johnson sustained injuries to her knee, shoulder, and eye that would also require surgeries, and began suffering from anxiety attacks that left her unable to drive. Walker’s head injuries led to short-term trouble communicating articulately, and both women were prescribed pain medications that made concentrating almost impossible. They were forced to shutter their promising legal practice while they focused on recovery.
“I spent most of 2005 reading Nancy Drew books,” Johnson says. “The part of my brain responsible for recall had been hurt in the accident, and for about three months, I couldn’t retain complicated materials or focus on new information and retain it with any clarity. Part of my occupational therapy was to read simple materials and try to recall the facts I’d just read, which led me to Nancy Drew.
“I recalled some lessons re-reading those books I’d loved as a child,” Johnson continues. “Nancy took on cases that were interesting to her or that allowed her to help someone else. Nancy also helped me remember that nothing is happenstance. Everything happened for a reason.”
In 2006, six months after the accident, Walker and Johnson felt they were ready to return to work, but both agreed their re-born law practice would have a new focus.
“Before, it had been all about making money,” Johnson says. “Coming back in, we realized life is too short. It had to mean something more than that, and it had to be fun.”
The partners began discussing a possible side project to their legal practice – something they could do that would be meaningful both to them and to others, and that would also bring them joy. Johnson had some previous experience with songwriting; she had penned a few songs that she describes as “album fillers you’d never hear on the radio,” and still had connections in Nashville. Johnson and Walker decided their new venture would be a record label that would produce projects with a specific message, and that they would donate any proceeds they made after expenses to charity.
“We chose the name ‘Seasong,’ which loosely translated from Vietnamese means, ‘you’re playing and having a good time,’” Walker explains. “It seemed like the perfect description of what we wanted to do with this label.”
By the summer of 2006, Johnson and Walker had chosen the theme for Seasong’s first album.
“During the 2005 Christmas season, there had been a big backlash against people saying, ‘Merry Christmas,’” Johnson recalls. “Liem and I had strong feelings regarding the fact that Christmas seemed to be losing its true meaning.”
The women’s response was Seasong’s debut album, Still Believing in Christmas. Johnson called upon Mark Moseley, a music engineer and studio owner in Nashville, for help recruiting country music stars to sing on the tribute to the real meaning of Christmas. The result was an album featuring renowned country artists including Little Jimmy Dickens, Crystal Gayle, Lorrie Morgan, T. G. Sheppard, Tanya Tucker, and the legendary Porter Wagoner. The album included a few Christmas classics, but more than half of the songs were originals written for Still Believing in Christmas.
Johnson and Walker spent weeks in Nashville organizing the project, working with the artists, and even singing back-up on a few of the songs. From concept to distribution, the part time project required 10 months, juggling their law practice and their personal lives the entire time. The
proceeds from Still Believing in Christmas were donated to charities, including Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic Charities, and Toys for Tots.
“We began receiving e-mails, letters, and cards from people who benefitted from the project or had been touched by the music,” Johnson says. “A mother met me in a parking lot to pick up presents, and cried when she thanked me for helping her provide Christmas for her children. Experiences like that helped me realize that I’d actually been fortunate. The injuries I received not only led me back to music, but also helped me find a real purpose through music.”
“We got into it to have a creative outlet and because it was fun,” Walker agrees, “but seeing it make a lasting, positive difference was just magic.”
Two years later, a fellow songwriter asked Johnson and Walker for help on the Never Forget project, a planned tribute to the USS New York. The project had lost its financial backing and was in danger of being shelved. Johnson and Walker not only agreed to take over production, they expanded the one-song project into a 13-song album including 11 original works. Based on the reputation they had already built in Nashville, Johnson and Walker were able to assemble an impressive roster of country stars to work on Never Forget, including Charlie Daniels, Rebecca Lynn Howard, George Jones, Tracy Lawrence, Pam Tillis, Aaron Tippen, Randy Travis, and Darryl Worley. Sherry Johnson co-wrote the song “An American Woman,” performed on Never Forget by country icon Tanya Tucker.
Proceeds from Never Forget benefit Hope for the Warriors, an organization that provides assistance to injured soldiers and their families, and the Fisher House Foundation, which provides free or low cost lodging to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers.
Seasong Recording’s current endeavors include a blues project tentatively scheduled for release in late 2011 or early 2012. Johnson and Walker are also excited about an international project that’s still under wraps.
While they find producing record albums creatively fulfilling and personally rewarding, neither woman plans to give up her day job. Today, Walker and Johnson PLLC has offices in Vicksburg and Brandon, Mississippi, and Walker also serves as the public defender for Sharkey County.
“The work we’ve done through Seasong has been so rewarding, but I love practicing law and a lot of that work is also personally rewarding,” Walker says. “I can’t see myself leaving the law. Or maybe that’s just because I had a good day in court today,” she adds with a laugh.
It still amazes Johnson and Walker that an endeavor born of tragedy and intended primarily to be “fun” has grown to touch so many lives.
“This music will never make me rich, it may never win a Grammy, and most people will never hear it, but this music provides people comfort and joy, which in turn brings meaning and value to my own life,” Johnson says. “Winning a lawsuit can’t compare to seeing the smile of a child who receives Christmas gifts as a result of our work, or knowing that proceeds from our album helped send a military wife with three children to Germany to be at the bedside of her injured husband.”
“The music industry part of it is so much fun, but the charitable part of it, helping others – just feels good,” Walker says. “And I don’t know that it gets any better than that.”
Seasong is Just a Click Away
Still Believing in Christmas and Never Forget are available for download on iTunes and amazon.com.