Few Christians I’ve met in this life truly embodied 2 Corinthians 5:8 more than Jason McMahan:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
So devoted was he to his walk in faith that he named his band after that verse. Absent From the Body played absolutely punishing metal, but every song, every lyric, every show was devoted to carrying the message of salvation to those who would hear it.
That’s also the way Jason lived his life. Regular readers of this space know that last week, I detailed his battled with COVID-19. I’m saddened to report that Saturday, two days after that column was published, he died.
Over the weekend, one social media post after another extolled not just his musical abilities ... not just his mentorship of so many young musicians, especially those who play metal, in Blount County and beyond ... not just his smiling presence behind the counter of USA Super Pawn on Washington Street in Maryville ... not just his devotion to his wife, Melissa, and two children, David and Kayla ... and not just his faith, which was the most important thing in his life.
He was all of those things, but more than anything else, he was the sort of person who left this world better than he found it.
“He had such a large impact on so many people — most of them musically, but he was also a great example to people on what a Christian should be,” drummer Michael Young told me this week. “He never judged anybody, and he always loved anyone, and he helped anyone who needed it. He lived and breathed music, but he loved everybody around him. His faith and his walk in Christ was the most important thing in his life.
“His family came second, and music was third, but with all of that, he was such a huge inspiration and a role model to so many people. So many people got their start in music because of him, but his faith and his walk were what made him the type of person he was, and they made him the type of person everybody looked up to.”
One of those young musicians was Richard Tallent, who was 17 years old in 2004 when Jason, then part of a band called Hallowed Refuge, booked Tallent’s group, Burnt Offerings, for their first show. As Tallent grew into adulthood and as a machine gunner of a metal guitarist for other bands and eventually Absent From the Body — watching him and Jason headbang while they played, long manes of hair flying in rhythm, was truly a sight to behold — he and McMahan became friends, and more.
“Being on stage with him, I was very happy to be up there with him, but it’s the Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays that I’ve celebrated with him that I’ll remember the most,” Tallent told me. “He and his family were my extended family. I have my brothers and my stepfather, and I love them more than life itself, and Jason and his family are equal to that. To see the outpouring of love on Facebook is something Melissa needs, but honestly, I think if Jason were still here, he would be blown away.
“He wouldn’t know what to say, because he was very humble. He always made sure you were OK, even in the worst times he was going through, even in the last week he was with us. If someone had something going on, he would tell them, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ even when he was in the hospital. He wanted to make sure you were OK, because he loved you no matter what. He didn’t care if you were gay, straight, bi, trans, black, white or purple — he loved you anyway.”
That he was devoted to others, and to his band, all the way to the end makes it an honor for bassist Ernie Smith to have joined Absent From the Body. He came on board less than a year ago, when Jason wanted to focus more on singing rather than pulling double duty as vocalist and bassist, but he knew the burly, long-bearded rocker as long as Tallent did. As a member of other Christian rock groups — Seraphim and Eden’s Way — it was hard to play a show in East Tennessee and not be familiar with Jason’s presence, and if there’s one regret that Smith has, it’s that because of the scene shutdown due to COVID, he never got to play a live show with Jason.
“I always knew that he was a good writer, and I definitely knew he was a great musician, because I was familiar with a lot of the pieces he put together when he had his band Awake the Suffering, but being in an actual band with him — man, I don’t think it would be easy to find another person around here locally who had the musical genius that Jason had,” Smith said. “He heard stuff in his head and could put it together like I’ve never seen. It killed him if we had to miss one practice, and he handled all of the business with the label, who we ordered our merchandise from, booking shows ... even when he was sick in the hospital, he was trying to put together a video clip, because he was still driven to do what he could for the band.”
Jason never quit, his bandmates agree: Not when life tossed one unexpected curveball after another, whether it was financial hardship endured by his family or a health battle like the cancer he faced a few years back. His faith reassured him that no matter the darkness, change is inevitable, and on the other of whatever long night seemed to settle over his life, the sun would always rise.
A perfect example: After his cancer was declared in remission in 2018, he became an ordained minister. Even then, however, he was the same old Jason — intent on demonstrating his faith through deed and quiet resolve. To him, his beliefs weren’t meant to be the brightly colored peacock plumage worn by so many of his fellow Christians, and in that manner, they were so much more admirable, even though admiration was never one of his goals, either.
“Anybody who knew him knew that he was humble and that he cared about people. He had an ability to connect and talk with anyone, whether he knew them or they were strangers off the street,” Absent From the Body guitarist Steve-O Murphy said. “That just goes back to him not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. He didn’t just speak it; he lived it and walked it, and he had a way of making you believe in yourself.
“He would push you, but not in an egotistical kind of way. He knew that you were better than you thought you were. He always had a positive attitude toward everything, whether it was our daily walk with Christ or the music, and whatever was going on, he wouldn’t let us fail. He’s just irreplaceable, and everyone tells us we need to carry on as a band — and his family wants us to carry on — that’s just so hard to think about right now.
“He was such a presence on stage and in life, and we’re never going to be able to replace that,” Murphy added. “We just have to find a way to carry on, if we can.”
Jason’s death is still too raw, too visceral, to process beyond the immediate grief of so many who loved him. The receiving friends and family and the funeral will be held at Atchley Funeral Home, 122 Peacock Court, Seymour, on Monday, April 5. Receiving hours are 5-7 p.m. with the funeral at 7 p.m. A graveside service has yet to be determined.
There’s also talk of a benefit concert on May 8 by a veritable army of local bands and musicians to raise funds for his family. Look to this section and this newspaper for further information on both as that information becomes available.
For now, the members of Absent From the Body are certain of only two things. One: The band’s new album, mostly complete, ultimately will serve as a memorial to a man whose passion for God, family and music was bigger than he was (and if you ever met him, you know what a bold statement that is).
And two: “He’s looking down on all of us from a much better place,” Young said.
“He taught me a lot of lessons of faith, and I’m just going to try my best to keep Jason’s memory alive,” Tallent said. “His legacy is always going to be in his children, and it’s going to be hard for all of us to go on, knowing he’s not around, but after all the years he talked about Christ, he’s where he wanted to be: at the right hand of God. I’ll always love him like a brother, but he isn’t suffering anymore.”