Sailor Jerri vividly remembers the date: April 4, 2017. It’s the day her life changed in a matter of hours.
Jerri always enjoyed singing but strongly disliked performing for others. That began to change as she began performing for veterans groups in Central Minnesota. Performing for recognition was far from her mind, and making a career out of singing was unthinkable.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Jerri took the melody from James Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah” and wrote music to pay homage to combat veterans.
She sang her song, put it on YouTube on a whim and went to bed. A few hours and about 800,000 views later, Jerri was getting attention she neither sought nor expected. She officially went viral. Jerri thinks it’s been viewed about 150 million times since.
“I recorded it in my living room in a hoodie, so everyone calls it the hoodie video,” Jerri said. “Then I recorded it in a studio because the original was not very good. The song wasn’t supposed to be for anyone else. No one else was supposed to hear it other than veterans groups. When it first went viral, it made me kind of uncomfortable. I was going to delete it because I’m really bull-headed and I didn’t want people to see it.
“But I had musician friends saying, ‘Are you kidding me? We’d give our left eyeball for something viral.’ But then I started getting messages from around the world and from veteran’s wives. I found out it had been downloaded in 38 countries.”
Sailor Jerri (sailorjerrimusic.com), as she’s now known, grew up in the Milaca and Princeton areas and had a rare chance to perform for familiar faces when she and her band took the stage for the inaugural Milaca Homegrown Music Fest on Saturday, Aug. 24.
The event featured six local acts and began at noon at Milaca’s Recreation Park.
Sailor Jerri finished the daylong event by performing at 8:30 p.m. Other acts included The Cooper Kids, She’s My Sister, Backstage Pass, Dram Shop Country Band and the Maddy Braun Band.
Maddy Braun, a 16-year-old Milaca musician, had the idea to bring local musicians and food vendors together for the one-day event.
Crazy turn of events
No one was more surprised by her rise to notoriety than Jerri herself. She only started playing the guitar three years ago, and her experience singing in front of people was limited to family at campfires and the occasional karaoke performance.
“I’ve always liked music,” Jerri said. “My biggest anxiety in life is being on stage. Then I found out that veterans at the (St. Cloud) Veterans Administration facility don’t get a lot of visitors. I had just learned guitar and I said I wanted to come sing to them.”
There’s a reason veterans hold a special place in Jerri’s heart — she is one. She joined the Navy with two close friends in 2002 and served as an aviation mechanic until 2006. Familiarizing her audience with veterans and some of the perils they experience inspired her to write a different version of “Hallelujah.”
“It 100 percent came from the veteran groups,” Jerri said. “I got some people in the groups talking, and when they wanted me to do it, I wanted to tell their story. I’m not a combat vet, but the song is obviously more combat-vet related, so I took their stories that I heard over six years and turned it into words. I don’t take any claim to it. They’re the vets’ stories. Leonard Cohen wrote one of the greatest songs ever, and I just put their stories to it.”
Though Jerri remained reluctant to take the stage, she was eventually convinced to perform the song — the first time in front of a crowd was in front of 7,000 people at Navy Pier in Chicago.
Playing at home, Jerri said, will be special. She used to sing for students at lunch during her time as a paraprofessional at Milaca Elementary School. Many of them show up to hear her sing when she’s in town. Along with that, she enjoys being herself.
“What’s so great about being home is that when I’m home, nobody cares that I do this,” Jerri said. “When I go to other states, it’s a surreal experience and it’s a big deal. But at home, it’s just me. It’s hard to describe. They know me not because they saw my face on internet. I get to play for people I’ve known for 20 years. It’ll be neat to get the whole band together and play with other musicians who are from here. I never get to play with them because I’m never at home.”
Speedy ascent, promising future
Sailor Jerri already has released two albums – “No Rules In Sight” and “Screen Doors and Steel Guitars.” The latter was released on May 17, 2019, and reached No. 8 on the iTunes country chart. Her busy tour started at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and has taken her to 12 states, including a veterans event in which she sang with country legend George Strait.
Her busy schedule continues through November, though she plans on taking the winter off before recording another album.