Usually, a song like Johnny Orr Band’s “We’ll Get By (The Autism Song)” begins with an artist’s personal connection to someone who has the condition.
But Orr’s song is an exception.
At the time he wrote and recorded “We’ll Get By,” the 48-year-old Wake Forest resident didn’t really know anyone with autism, a range of conditions related to difficulties in communicating and relating to people.
But that didn't matter. The song, released in April 2014 for Autism Awareness Month, has resonated with families, those who know people on the autism spectrum and people who are autistic themselves.
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The video has almost 884,000 views on YouTube, and Orr has played it at gatherings of all sizes and on national television. At times, Orr and the audience will find themselves in tears at the end.
And around this time every year, “We’ll Get By” finds new listeners who connect with the song in a deeply personal way.
“I’ve since met hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the world with autism, all different sides and spectrums,” Orr said. “A lot of people with autism don’t like to be touched or hugged, but several have embraced me because of the song. It’s amazing to me, the things kids and adults have to deal with because of this.”
Orr did the song for hire, commissioned by TV/radio personality Candi Spitz and her husband Dan Spitz, the former guitarist in the metal band Anthrax.
“She had wanted to use it for her show,” Orr recalled. “But they called me crying after hearing it: ‘There’s more than just us who needs to hear this.’”
Candi and Dan, who no longer are married, were raising twin sons who are autistic and non-verbal.
“Their sons were non-verbal, just motions and movements and blinks,” Orr said. “So they’d never been able to tell their mom, ‘I love you.’"
Based on conversations and emails from the parents, Orr wrote "We'll Get By" from the perspective of an autistic child:
If you'll wait patiently
Well then eventually
I will understand the words that you're saying to me
Is like a prison
That I'm in…
"I wrote it from the first-person standpoint of a child being able to say things to mom and letting her know, ‘I see what you go through,'" he said.
Orr describes himself as “a current country artist with some rock ’n’ roll roots.” Commissioned songs are a sideline, and he’s written a lot of them in celebration of weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and other happy occasions.
He’s also been commissioned to write somber issue-oriented songs about subjects including homelessness, domestic violence and terminal illness. Another of his better-known commissioned songs is “Superman,” which started out as a request to write a song about cancer.
“I made it more of a blanket song about someone who is terminal or elderly on their way to passing to glory, with the family making last gestures and reconnections,” Orr said. “I had started but not finished it when I had a friend pass due to a car accident. She was in the hospital in a coma and I’d visit, and I wrote the song about how I wished I was Superman and could fly her all over the world to see friends and things one last time.
“That’s probably the other most important song to me,” he said. “I get a lot of requests for it. I sang ‘Superman’ and a Vince Gill song at a funeral the other day, right there at graveside.”
As for what Orr charges to write a song like this for hire, the price varies from project to project. It’s generally anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to a thousand or more.
And sometimes it's determined by how much the topic moves him.
“The price depends on how much they ask me to do, but also if I’m inspired,” he said. “If someone told me their budget was $200 and it was important enough and I felt strongly about it, I’d probably do it if I was inspired. If I feel a connection or a weird pull to do it, we’ll work it out.”