On his new EP, Where Eagles Fly, JD Weaver sounds rugged and brooding. Between raw, yearning vocals and finger-picked melodies, he combines the grit of a mountain man with the wistfulness of a traveling folk artist. At once rambling and dynamic, the three tracks—Native Man, Eagle Song, and Tiger Tiger—conjure up the image of a dream-dazed wanderer, the kind of restless twenty-something more comfortable spending nights on a Greyhound bus than in his own bed.
In person, Jason Daniel Weaver is round and ruddy-faced, a mop of blond hair masking his forehead. He speaks quickly and earnestly with a thick North English accent as we Skype from his bedroom in Cheshire, England. Despite the folksy wanderlust in his music, in reality Weaver rarely leaves his home. “This is it—these four walls and my laptop and my guitars are all I pretty much do at the moment,” he told me.
At age 9, Weaver was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or DMD, a debilitating genetic disorder that causes the progressive shrinking of muscle tissue throughout the body. Over the past ten years the disease has eaten its way through his lower half, rendering his legs useless and forcing him into an electric wheelchair. In several years, he will lose mobility in his arms, as well. Eventually, the condition will reach his heart. “I try not to think about it,” he said. The average life expectancy for individuals with DMD is 27 years.
Ever since he was a child, Weaver dreamed of being a musician. Since he first picked up a guitar at age six, he says, he envisioned himself playing professionally. Yet it was not until his health began to decline that he started actively working to turn his passion into a career. “Over the last four or five years, I’ve been really aware that I don’t have a lot of time physically to achieve what I want to achieve if I’m a bit laid back about it,” he explained. He began composing fervently, feverishly, determined to beat his body’s ticking clock. By the end of 2013, he had written 300 songs. “I work tirelessly,” he told me. “If I’m not thinking about music, I’m playing my guitar, if I’m not playing my guitar, I’m writing something.”
Weaver strives to marry his two favorite genres, rock and folk music. He attributes his passion for rock ‘n’ roll to his father, a hard rock fanatic, who “brainwashed me on Def Leppard and AC/DC.” Folk, on the other hand, inspires him in its tenderness and capacity for storytelling. “I think folk music is one of the neat sounds everyone can associate with,” he said. “It’s one of the most accommodating styles there is, because it’s a powerful song in a quiet presentation.”
After recording a handful of lo-fi demo tapes in his bedroom, Weaver decided to approach labels with his work. Yet their response disappointed him. “They just saw a disabled musician and said, ‘how are we going to sell this to an audience?’” he explained . Weaver says he was told his disability made him unmarketable to mainstream listeners—an idea that infuriated him. “I thought, if you’re just worried about making money off of someone with a disability, then I think you might want to remind yourself what you actually want to achieve in music. Because for me, music is about being meaningful,” he said.
Indeed, the music industry is not friendly to musicians with disabilities. Though Weaver estimates that, statistically speaking there are between 50,000 and 100,000 disabled musicians in the UK, he knows of only one signed artist who is not able-bodied—a singer with a prosthetic leg who he feels he is not representative of the broader community. “I don’t want to offend people, but it’s a lot easier gigging when you’ve got a prosthetic leg than when you’re in a wheelchair, and you’ve got all this equipment,” he said.
Gigging—or playing live shows—is particularly challenging for Weaver. The last time he performed—over a year ago—he was told the venue was accessible, only to find he had to descend a series of steps to get onstage. Just before his set began, five men physically told hold of his chair and lifted him onto the stage. The experience was jarring. “I felt like I was being violated in a weird way,” he said. “It felt like I wasn’t in control.”
Disillusioned with labels, Weaver finally received support from Round Table UK, a charitable organization that funds community and social service opportunities for young men. He used the 2000 pounds he received from the group to record Where Eagles Fly. The process was highly emotional. “I remember being in the studio, and I just said to myself, if you really want people to take you seriously, don’t hold back,” he said. “It sounds really grim, but I just pictured in the back of my head where I’m going to be health-wise in three years time, and how annoyed that made me feel. And that allowed me to play like it was the last ever chance I got for anyone to hear me.”
On the EP, this desperation comes across as passion, lending the tracks an up-tempo intensity that sets Weaver apart from mellower, more traditional singer songwriters. Over alt-country hooks, he sings about ambition and empathy and alienation, attacking the sources of his frustration—his body, a closed-minded society—with frantic strumming and earnest lyrics.
Since the EP’s release, Weaver has earned local radio play and a small but loyal following on Soundcloud. He maintains that he is not out for fame, and that the limited scope of his success thus far doesn’t bother him. “I don’t think I’m ever really going to get big,” he told me. “If one person listens to my music, I feel like I’ve sold a gold disk.” Even so, he is deeply frustrated by the industry’s dismissal of his talent. “It’s not fair that I have twice the amount of work as someone my age who doesn’t have a disability, yet because of my disability, labels and managers won’t give me a chance,” he said.
At times, he said, he feels like an outsider begging for acceptance in his own country. “I feel left out, I do,” he admitted. “Because of a reason I can’t control, I’ve been sort of thrown to the side. And no one can say that’s not the case, because they haven’t lived that existence.”