MerleJam keeps raising awareness and money for the organ-donor world

About two weeks before his 45th birthday, Merle Zuel was reborn. On Feb. 23, 2007, Zuel became the recipient of a heart transplant. Six weeks later, he attended the first MerleJam, the fundraiser he’d organized to help fellow transplant recipients.

This weekend, Zuel will celebrate the sixth annual MerleJam at Knuckleheads, where he has been a doorman for almost six years. This year’s event comprises two evenings and 10 bands or performers. All proceeds go to the Kansas City chapter of the Transplant Recipient International Organization (TRIO), which Zuel founded several years ago. The event has raised about $40,000 in five years.

The local TRIO donates the money to the St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation, which distributes it to transplant recipients. Money is distributed by a social worker at the foundation in $250 increments, Zuel said.

“Even if you have good insurance, a lot of times you have a lot of extra expenses,” Zuel said. “Insurance may cover a lot of your medical bills or prescription drugs, but it doesn’t put food on your table or gas in your tank. Recipients come from all over the Midwest, and a lot of time they have to make clinic visits here from Wichita or Fayetteville (Ark.).”

Helping recipients with expenses was the primary reason Zuel started MerleJam. Another was to demonstrate how many recipients are out there and how their transplants have transformed their lives.

“Over the years, I’ve enlisted other recipients to show up (at MerleJam),” he said. “When 20 of 500 people in the room are recipients, it gives people the idea that, hey, that could be my brother or husband or father. Last year, we had a 10-year-old boy from out in Kansas who got a liver transplant when he was 20 months old, which showed a lot of people that it’s not just a bunch of old farts who need a transplant.”

This year’s MerleJam was organized to cater to fans of two types of music. Friday is country night, featuring Chuck Mead, a Lawrence native who was with the successful retro-country band BR549 back in the late 1990s, Outlaw Jim the Whiskey Benders and the Grisly Hand.

Saturday, the music will be blues-y. The Nace Brothers headline. Saturday is also Cinco de Mayo, so Zuel invited the Latin rock band Making Movies and Marla the Mexican, a troupe from Lawrence and Topeka. The first MerleJam was on Cinco de Mayo, Zuel said, which turned out to be a nice coincidence.

“I haven’t met my donor’s family,” he said, “but I did learn that they are Hispanic. So this is kind of a way to honor them and my donor’s heritage.”

Zuel himself has been a living example of how a transplant can transform one life.

“When I showed up at the first (MerleJam), people were surprised to see me and realize that someone could recover so quickly,” he said. “It demonstrated how affective transplants are and how much of a difference they can make. Before mine, I was in bad shape. I was taking life a day at a time. I would wake up and think, ‘OK, I’ve made it to another day.’ ”

During his recovery, Zuel met his future wife, Kim Saunders Zuel, his respiratory therapist.

“Music was our connection,” he said.

He is now finishing the academic prerequisites he will need to start nursing school in the fall. He has also been an activist and ambassador for TRIO and other donor/transplant organizations.

“There’s a saying in the Bible, and I’ll paraphrase it: To whom much is given, much is required,” he said. “That’s how I’ve lived my life since my transplant. I was very fortunate, and it does me good — it does my soul and my spirit good — to pay for it a little like that.”

Also this weekend

It will be a busy two days for the Grisly Hand. Friday, they’ll perform at MerleJam at Knuckleheads. Saturday, they are one of three bands on the bill at Crossroads KC for the second annual Spring Dance. The others: the Hearts of Darkness and the GoodFoot.

In April, at Ink’s Middle of the Map fest, the Grisly Hand said farewell to fiddler Kian Byrne, who is now a full-time member of the Elders. This weekend, the band will welcome its newest member, steel player Mike Stover, a multi-instrumentalist and a member of several other bands (including Dead Voices, Mr. Marco’s V7s and the People’s Liberation Big Band).

“We are thrilled to be joined by Mike,” said Lauren Krum, lead singer for the Grisly Hand. “He is, in addition to being a terrific multi-instrumentalist and extremely nuanced player, a really solid dude. The way in which he influences our sound is already exciting, and we can’t wait to get onstage this weekend.”

Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $13-$15 at