Two years ago for Thanksgiving, rising country star Jay Allen invited his parents to visit him in Nashville. It was the first time his mom — Sherry Rich, 54, who has early onset Alzheimer’s — looked at him and didn’t know who he was.
“She looked right through me and it literally crushed me,” Allen, 32, tells PEOPLE.
For Allen, who is the oldest child and only son in his family, it was one of the first moments in his life where he felt completely “helpless.”
“I’ve always been a fixer,” Allen says. “If there’s a problem in the family, with my friends, whatever, I find a way to fix it. I’ve always been the solution-finder. But it was the first time when I was like, ‘I can’t fix this.’”
In an attempt to get his mind off of the overwhelming reality — Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and cannot be stopped, slowed or cured — Allen proposed that he and his parents hit the town in Nashville, so his dad got his mom “all dolled up” and the three of them went out to Sutler, a saloon known for its craft cocktails and live music.
“She heard the music and right away she started smiling and tapping her foot,” Allen says. “It was like the music woke her up.”
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So Allen took advantage of it and asked his mom to dance.
“We started dancing, the music’s blaring and she grabbed me and held me real tight. Right in the middle of us dancing and she took a deep breath,” Allen says. “She pulled me real close, she whispered in my ear, she said, ‘Oh Jay. I missed you. I love you so much. I miss you son.’ She was like my momma. She was back for a second and I about lost it.”
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At the time, Allen was trying to catch his break in the country music industry. The Iowa native was used to writing songs that made people dance and smile and have a good time, but for weeks after his mom’s visit, he wasn’t able to shake that moment from his memory. One morning while drinking a cup of coffee he couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that even though his mom looked at him with a blank stare — and even though he knew her memory was fading — she was still in there and still loved him.
“My faith is everything and I was just like, ‘Man. God is talking to me,’” Allen tells PEOPLE. “I just felt like he was saying, “Buddy, I gave you a voice. I gave you the talent to write songs, so write a song for your momma.’ It kept hitting me wave after wave like, ‘Write a song that’ll fight against Alzheimer’s.’”
“I was a newer songwriter and I was just like, ‘Really? You’re putting this on me?’” Allen adds. “But I couldn’t shake it. I just remember walking around my house by myself just talking to God and crying about it. Finally I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this thing.’”
Allen visited his friend Jason Nix, with whom he co-wrote the song, and played him a voicemail his mom had left him on his birthday. The same voicemail that opens the song “Blank Stares.”
“I said, “That’s my mom. She has Alzheimer’s,” Allen says. “I wanna write a song for her, but the deal is I wanna get this out somehow, push it out so everyone hears it. If that happens, I wanna give it all away to help fight against Alzheimer’s.”
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The pair wrote the song in about three sessions, and Nix produced the song out of his bedroom. “It’s a really raw demo track,” Allen says, “but I love the vulnerability of it — how simple it is and emotional.”
“It’s crazy how you come and go so fast/Oh how do I get you back,” Allen sings in the first verse of the track before moving through the chorus.
“I swear I still see you/Between the blank stares,” he continues.
A few days after he turned the demo into his publishing company, Allen received a phone call from the president of Sony Records, whose dad died from Alzheimer’s. Allen and the record owner decided they would promote the song and give all the proceeds away to Abe’s Garden, an Alzheimer’s and Memory Care Center in Nashville.
Since the song’s inception and release in 2017, Allen has played Alzheimer’s Association events all around the country. He’s already helped raised over $20 million for the organization this summer alone, and every time he plays a show in Iowa, he invites his parents to come watch. Allen always brings his mom up on stage to sing “Blank Stares,” to her, even though she’s in the final stages of the disease.
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“I told my dad and my band, no matter where we’re at, no matter what show we play, even if it’s in a dive bar, we’re gonna sing this song,” Allen says. “This is my purpose — why God put me on the Earth.”
During a recent performance at the Dubuque County Fair in Iowa, Allen brought his mom on stage again and his fan took a video and posted it to Facebook. Within a few days, the video had been seen over one million times, and people were reaching out to Allen to share their personal connections to dementia.
It even caught the eye of another Iowa native Ashton Kutcher, who wrote on Facebook, “You can take the boy out of Iowa but you can’t take Iowa out of the boy.”
“I don’t ever expect like a reaction,” Allen says. “I wanna share the story. I know bringing her up there creates a moment and when people see it with their eyes, it’s a reality for them. I’m talking to myself the whole time in my head so I don’t cry. But I feel like it’s my job. I always told myself, ‘If I’m gonna be an artist and do this thing, I don’t wanna do it to be famous. I wanna have a purpose behind what I do.’”
And for Allen, that purpose is only getting started. Although he’s opening shows for Chris Lane and writing new music, the rising country star still finds time to message people back who reach out to him on social media. Why? It’s his goal is to build a community so people don’t feel like they’re going through this disease alone.
“It’s a song of hope,” Allen tells PEOPLE. “Let’s find a cure for this thing. Yeah, it’s really sad, but once you have hope, you have inspiration. With inspiration, you have action. So hopefully this song inspires the researchers, the doctors to work harder. I pray it starts with me and this song. I honestly do.”
Despite a full career ahead of him, Allen says he will always donate the proceeds from the song to Alzheimer’s facilities and that he will never stop performing it.
“When people think of Jay Allen, I want them to think of ‘Blank Stares,’” Allen says. “Forever.”