Community rallies around beloved local musician after life-altering stroke

Jonathan Hughes was working on song for a BitterHearts video — the band he and his wife, Stephanie, lead together — when he suffered a stroke in late August.
Jonathan Hughes was working on song for a BitterHearts video — the band he and his wife, Stephanie, lead together — when he suffered a stroke in late August.

On the Thursday before Halloween, Lincolnton-based musician and former Milestone Club manager Jonathan Hughes would normally be gearing up for the venue’s Annual Halloween Fiasco, where local bands dress up and cover famous acts like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.

Hughes and his wife, Stephanie, often spearhead the club’s theme nights. His former punk band 25 Minutes To Go’s Ninja Parties were infamous and the annual Beach Formal falls close to Hughes’ July birthday.

This year, instead of prepping costumes or rehearsing with their band BitterHearts, the couple was celebrating their own milestone – Jonathan’s discharge from Carolinas Rehabilitation after over a month of physical and occupational therapy following an August stroke that left much of his left side immobile.

Two months ago, as she sat by her 36-year-old husband’s bedside in ICU, moving his left arm back and forth as doctors instructed, Stephanie thought this day might never come.

The day of the stroke

In late August, after a Tuesday of movie-going with their 10-year-old daughter Nora, Jonathan fought off a bad headache while working in their home studio, the Beat Lab. As he tapped a pattern on his keyboard repeatedly — tweaking a part for the final cut of a song for a BitterHearts’ video — he grew dizzy. He steadied himself against his guitar amp to keep from falling before crossing the hall into the bedroom for his blood pressure medication. His wife watched as he stumbled toward the bathroom to splash water on his face.

“Steph said I looked like I was walking on the side of my left foot. I couldn’t get my bearings,” remembers Hughes, sitting in a wheelchair a month later at Carolinas Rehabilitation in Belmont shortly after his afternoon therapy session.

Jonathan Hughes gave up being a pastor for a branch of the Revolution Church after his daughter, Nora, was born to focus on parenthood and rock n’ roll with his wife, Stephanie. Stephanie Hughes

On his knees in the living room with his arms resting on the couch, he dialed his mom. “Mom, I don’t feel good. I need you to come get Nora,’” he recalled. It was then he overheard Stephanie on the phone with 911: “I think he’s having a stroke.”

His mind bounced to the stroke commercial they heard on the car radio earlier that day and his doctor’s warning last fall that he needed to get his blood pressure and overall health in control.

“Somebody’s coming. They’re on their way,” he heard his wife say as his daughter stepped outside to hail the ambulance. His thoughts jumped again: “I was thinking, I hope they bring some big dudes because it’s going to take a few to get me up.”

When the medics arrived, he flashed back to watching professional wrestlers being carried out of the ring on the same stretchers after a bloody match.

“Should I give thumbs up to the crowd?” he thought as the paramedics carried him outside.

“I love you,” Nora called as they put him in the ambulance.

“I love you, too,” his voice quavered.

Brain surgery

From Lincolnton, he was flown to Atrium Health Main, where a specialist performed an emergency craniotomy to relieve the pressure in his brain.

“Apparently it was easy to get to. It went deep into the brain, but it was almost surface level,” Stephanie explained, seated beside her husband at the foot of his hospital bed.

From the moment Hughes’ sister-in-law posted the news on social media and started a GoFundMe campaign to offset medical expenses and help support the family, donations poured in. Local venues quickly organized benefit concerts. By mid-October, close to 500 people had donated over $35,000 — a testament to how beloved Hughes is in the community.

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‘Either I just ended one of my best friendships, or …’

He’s played in bands since he was a teenager. That’s how he befriended Stephanie. One night after she drove him home from a show in Winston-Salem, he decided to make his move.

“I ducked my head inside her car and laid one on her,” Hughes beams almost 20 years later. “It was a full hail Mary. Either I just ended one of my best friendships or started something really awesome. Neither one was I prepared for. When I stood back up, she said, ‘No, come back.’ That was the best three words I’ve ever heard.”

Jonathan Hughes and his wife, Stephanie, found each other as teenagers who shared a passion for music. Dane Abernathy

Milestone Club

His long tenure at Charlotte’s oldest venue —the Milestone Club on Tuckaseegee Road (which turned 50 in 2019) — began in 2006. At 22 and 23, he and Stephanie married and started a branch of Jay Bakker’s progressive Revolution Church at the club.

The couple spent the summer of 2005 in Atlanta, where Stephanie interned with Revolution. Jonathan proposed to her on the roof of Bakker’s condominium building across from Fox Theater in downtown, and they were ordained by the church while on their honeymoon that next July.

They hosted Sunday services at the Milestone, and Hughes became known as Pastor Jon around the club.

From preacher to bartender

When then-owner Neal Harper offered him a full-time bartending gig in 2007, Hughes left his “cushy” restaurant manager job at Fatz Cafe in Lincolnton. The church held its last service shortly after Nora was born in February 2009.

“I had to make a decision if I could be a pastor and work and be the kind of dad I wanted to be,” he said. “Steph and I just wanted to have our lives and be parents and rock n’ rollers. We thought, we can’t be parents and rock n’ rollers and pastors. I don’t have the energy and emotional strength trying to tow the line.”

Even without the church, Hughes continued to consult with patrons from behind the bar.

“Neal was always my sage advice giver,” he said of Harper. “He said, ‘I think you make a difference in people’s lives with your ideas and the way you talk to people. You do more of that behind that bar than you do when you stand up there and preach. You do that by just being a presence and talking to people every day. That’s just who you are.’”

Hughes took his boss’ words to heart. “I decided to commit fully to being me and being as much of a presence in people’s lives as I can be in the community, in this club and in a band — trying to be an influence and leader.”

‘The driving force behind what we were doing musically’

“He instantly became a brother to me,” said former Milestone sound engineer and bandmate Dane Abernathy. “That’s kind of what happens when you get around him for more than 20 minutes. He took me under his wing. He’s an edifying person. He likes to be the pedestal. He was always the driving force behind what we were doing musically and playing shows. He’s the big brother no one knew they needed.”

When Harper left the club in 2010, he and Stephanie took over.

“We made that decision haphazardly,” he said. “We googled a lot of stuff and just did the best we could.”

Coming home

The Milestone is Charlotte’s answer to CBGB’s, with a floor that bounces with the mosh pit and crudely scrawled graffiti tracing its history along the walls. Over the course of six years, the 100-year-old former general store’s needs eventually became overwhelming. But no one wanted to let it go. In fact, an online fundraiser to help repair the club raised over $44,000 in 2016.

“It was sweet to see everyone come together, and I was humbled by that situation,” said Hughes, who was left with the responsibility of finishing the job once his partners dropped out. “It was supposed to be a team effort. It turned into, ‘You’re doing this because all these people donated this money.’”

In August 2017, when the code enforcement officer signed off on the repairs, Hughes gave the building’s owner, Bill Flowers, his notice. The time away from his family, stress of spearheading the renovations and a long commute took its toll. His blood pressure was already an issue.

‘You’ve given your entire life’

When Hughes said he feels guilty now about not taking better care of himself, the stress the stroke caused his family and the money that’s been donated, BitterHearts drummer Lee Norris was quick to jump in.

“Jon, you’ve given your entire life. You’ve always been the biggest giver in the circle. That’s just true,” Norris interrupted during a visit to the rehab center. “I’ve watched you through life and through music. I feel like there’s not enough people jumping in to help. I feel like I should be doing more. Learning how to accept help is hard.”

Forced to move

While the thought of returning home to his house, his family and the bulldog Frankenstein kept him going during his hospital stay, Hughes learned he wouldn’t be able to return home at all.

Hughes can walk some with a quad cane but will also have to use a wheelchair.

Norris had planned to help renovate Hughes’ home, widening doorways, knocking down walls and upfitting the bathroom, but that plan was derailed. Inspectors found problems in the foundation that made reinforcing the floors to make those changes unaffordable.

“The repairs would have been more than we had to make it accessible for me,” Hughes explained a few days before discharge. “It’s better for us to sell as is and get something that’s updated and upfitted for somebody in my situation.”

“We didn’t see that coming at all. I loved my house. Every room was a statement. I wrote and recorded the last 25 Minutes to Go and both Sext Msg albums and everything we’ve done with BitterHearts there. It’s hard to lose that,” he said. “Next December, we were going to make our last house payment. I didn’t think when I woke up in the hospital that day I would lose my home. I know it’s just a home. It’s a lot to lose when you didn’t have any choice.”

Despite everything, things are looking up. A day after Hughes walked out of Carolinas Rehabilitation on his own, they sold their house.

For now, the family is staying at Stephanie’s mother’s home, where Norris built a ramp the weekend before Hughes’ release.

Determined to play guitar again

Physically, his left arm has full range of motion and although he hasn’t regained much movement in his hand, he’s determined to play guitar again.

“I absolutely have no desire for quit in me. I feel like I’ve got so much more to do, and the reality of it is this is as close to death as you can come without dying,” Hughes said, his voice breaking.

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