Known for such songs as “I Love You This Much,” “Stay Gone” and the No. 1 hit “Do You Believe Me Now,” Jimmy added 'Author' to his list of accomplishments last fall when Howard Books published Paper Angels, a novel cowritten with Travis Thrasher that was inspired by Jimmy’s harrowing childhood. Growing up in poverty, the North Carolina native and his sister were often paper angels on one of the Salvation Army’s trees. His mother was married five times and was in and out of jail during Jimmy’s childhood; thus he and his sister were often placed in foster homes.
When they were with their mom, life was difficult. “The roaches in our house were so bad I couldn’t sleep at night,” Jimmy recalls. “They’d crawl on your face and on your mouth, so Mom took a mattress out in the yard and said ‘go out there and sleep’ and that’s what we did.”
Even harder than dealing with bugs was battling hunger. “Mom’s husband, who was a drug addict, sold all of our food stamps for drugs,” Jimmy recalls.
Besides the hunger, Jimmy had to deal with a dangerous cast of characters, including his mother’s husbands. After an argument with Jimmy’s brother, his stepfather returned to his brother’s home and shot up the house. “On the way back, he decided to pull over and hide from police,” Jimmy recalls. “He pulled the gun out and made me load it, then he stuck it to the side of my head and mumbled a few words. I moved my head a little bit and it was just enough that when he fired that gun, he missed. I can still see the fire coming out of the barrel.”
By the time Jimmy was in his teens, he was homeless and just looking for odd jobs to make enough money to eat. His life turned around when he met Bea and Russell Costner. He approached them, asking if he could cut their grass; he wound up with a new home. “They simply gave me so much hope that outweighed any amount of pain that I’d ever gone through,” he says. “The goodness that they gave me outweighed the bad that I experienced.”
The elderly couple demonstrated the love of Jesus on a daily basis and helped Jimmy rediscover his faith. “I fell in love with God when I was 9 years old, but I fell out of love,” Jimmy admits. “I felt neglected when I was 14, but then when I met the Costners I felt so embarrassed that I had turned my back the way I did and believed that He had forsaken me.”
Jimmy lived with the Costners for six years. He finished high school and graduated from college before moving to Nashville to pursue music. Many of Jimmy’s songs were inspired by his turbulent life. “I Love You This Much” chronicles his abandonment by his father and then in the concluding verse speaks of sitting in a church, looking up at Jesus on the cross and realizing he “hadn’t been unloved or alone all his life.” “Kerosene Kid” and “Where You’re Going” encourage kids in poverty to hold their heads up and have hope for a brighter future.
Jimmy does more than just sing songs; he’s actively making a difference in young people’s lives. On January 1, 2010, he began walking from Nashville to Phoenix on his Meet Me Halfway campaign to create awareness of foster children who were aging out of the system with nowhere to go. He walked 1,700 miles in seven months, drawing attention to the plight of underprivileged kids and lobbying for legislation to raise the age from 18 to 21 before young people are kicked out of foster care.
He admits there have been times when he’s gotten tired of telling his story, but he knows there is power in sharing it. “There are thousands of children out there who need to hear this story,” he says. “When I share it, inevitably somebody always comes back and says, ‘Your story really helped me out’ and it still is helping people out, so that’s why I keep telling it.”
Jimmy’s faith has helped him make peace with his childhood. “There’s only one person who deserves the right to carry a grudge, and instead He carried a cross,” Jimmy says. “I’ve always wondered why my mother didn’t love me, or didn’t show that she loved me as much as Mary showed that she loved her son. I always questioned, ‘Why can’t my mom be like Mary?’ But then when I looked inward and saw my own hatred and my own unforgiveness, that’s when I realized that Jesus wasn’t trying to get my mom to be like His mom — He was trying to get me to be more like Him.”