A Birthday Tribute To The Legend

How should you remember a birthday of someone who is gone?

Should it be a day to celebrate, or a day to mourn? Should we cry, or should we laugh? The odds are we will do a little bit of both. Justin’s birthday is never easy for me, but I made a vow three years ago to suck it up and honor him on this day.  

Everyone has their own personal memories of Justin, and it’s time to hear some stories. For what should have been Justin’s 37th birthday, I have reached out to his nearest and dearest loved ones. We have taken a page out of the Justin Ayers playbook.

Brace yourselves, it’s story time!


Me: girlfriend, wife, music partner, soul mate, best friend, and band mate 

Justin taught me how to play the guitar. He made me laugh on a daily basis. He helped me believe in others. He never let me give up on myself, and he understood my deepest fears. A man of integrity, talent, character, and strength. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for my hero!!


His Family

Vicki McMichael: mother

Justin and Vicki

I remember spending the night with Justin & Jessica when they brought baby Jax home from the hospital. Justin and I stayed up all night talking about Jax. He was thrilled to be a father. We changed Jax’s diaper and he was telling me how to do it. He was now the expert. Lol…

Lori Ellis: aunt

Justin, Shelby, and Lori

Justin gave a eulogy at his uncleTerry’s funeral. By the end of the service, everyone was cracking up. Justin had the whole family repeating classic Terry lines out loud……Justin left everyone smiling with great memories.


Shelby Ellis: cousin

Shelby and Justin

When I was 15 when I got my first video camera. As usual, I took a lot of video at Ruby Nell’s Thanksgiving(our grandmother) that year. Six years later I went back watched the video. There was five minutes of Justin, talking about his first Wii. He was animatedly showing us how to sling the remote in order to get “Crash Bandicoot” to throw someone over Crashs’s head in the game. 

Katie Cheyenne Hoffman: cousin

Katie and Justin

His story telling!! I loved hearing stories about Terry or the people from the guitar shop. He took care of his uncle Terry, and even “Jim The Bike Man.” I sometimes see Bike Man when he comes into the place I work. I also remember seeing him at Justin’s funeral. Justin took good care of him. To some people he (bike man) may seem weird, and people do stare, but he holds a special place in my heart b/c Justin knew him.

Tiffany Ayers: sister

Tiffany and Justin

Anytime I had a first date with a guy, I always made sure to go where Justin & Jessica were playing. So they could meet and see what “vibe” Justin picked up on. Justin was the life of the party. He taught me how to take my first shot of whiskey. But most of all, he loved me as his sister.

Wendi Lewis: sister
Wendi and Justin

When we were young we had petty, brother/sister fights over the Nintendo. We argued during the countless trips to the lake while water skiing, knee boarding, and playing cards. We never really had a lot in common…….I skip ahead to adulthood and we’d hit a point of common ground with being married, buying houses, and having babies. I finally felt connected to my big brother and sister-in-law! Seemed as everything had come together and was great until that night. I sit here typing this, knowing I’m not the person that says much about these things. But I wanted Jess to know that he’s always in my heart and miss him deeply!

Band Members, Co-Workers, and Friends

Brian Woodall: childhood friend, band mate, and best man

Brian and Justin

He literally made me laugh every time I communicated with him. No matter if it was in person, via text, a Facebook message, or phone call.

Little Brian and Justin

He bought me the Aerosmith “Get A Grip” album after finding out my mom had made me return it to the store years earlier. My favorite memory of him is from June 2013, the last time we went to Shell Island. We walked to the gulf side, sat and talked about for life for a while. Many great memories but that’s a good one.

Gary Marschka: friend, co-worker, student, and bandmate

Gary And Justin

I took lessons from Justin for about 5 years. I will admit that after 3 years I could play fine. I continued the lessons because Justin was so much fun to hang out with. Our first day of lessons, he asked me, “what kind of music do you listen to?” I said, “Queen,” and he seemed so excited. That felt like I’d impressed him. Years later he asked me to play guitar in his band. This was so meaningful to me. For so many years, I looked up to him as a musician and a friend. I was able to use everything he taught me while playing on stage with him. Miss you, Ayers

Steven Riley: Justin’s high school friend

Steve and Justin

There’s a VHS tape out there somewhere of what I think was the first time I really hung out with Justin. It was our first jam session… and it was horrendous. It came complete with me on a distorted acoustic, Brian on drums, and a pre-adolescent Jason on vocals. At the time I’m pretty sure we thought we were killin’ it. I still can’t hear Aerosmith’s Cryin’ without hearing it in Jason’s voice. 

Josh Scalf, Trombonist for Jake Owen, high school friend

Everyone knew Justin was a brilliant guitarist, and I’m sure they knew he was funny, but many don’t know just how funny he was. He was doing bits that could have landed him a gig with The Tonight Show or similar shows.

Kimberly Gambol: my childhood friend

Kimmy on her wedding day

When I walked down the aisle at my wedding, the only music was Justin playing his acoustic guitar. Whatever he played was perfect. I would come over to hang with Justin and Jessica and we’d sit and watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Tim and Eric together. We’d CRACK UP while Jessica would roll her eyes and go upstairs. We would just stay downstairs laughing!

Justin Pepin: our friend

I always enjoyed going to the store on Fridays after work to hang with Ayers. I would start getting excited around lunchtime, counting down the minutes until I could bolt out of work. 

Pep, me, and Justin

It was my Friday ritual, and no matter what stresses had occurred, it brightened my week. As soon as I walked into the store, I knew Justin would greet me with an adult beverage and a top notch story. We would all hang out and listen to the play-by-play of his week’s events……..told in Justin fashion of course. Jessica would routinely remind us that they had made plans for the evening. And that we would not be extending Friday festivities into the wee hours of the night. But Justin always found a way to finagle her and she always seemed to give in. But just when he thought he’d won, she’d use her “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade us to eat Mexican food. It was like this dance that we all did and we all knew our parts. Always good times with a great group of people.


Sara Thompson: my friend

Me and Sara

He always cracked me up with his stories about the people that came into the music store. I also loved how he just accepted me and befriended me no questions asked. Sure think about him a lot. Such a personable and likable guy with such a passion for music and love for life.

Melissa Johnson, my friend

Melissa, Justin, and Nicole

I love how Justin always made me feel welcome at his house! He even gave me a nick name, Melissa Etheridge. I could come by any time. He would make you laugh until your belly hurt! We miss you, Biebs!


Casey Dowgul, my friend

Justin could talk to anyone and make anyone feel like they had known him forever.

Casey, Me, and Kristi

Anyone who met him knew that that quickly.  When I go through my memories and think about Justin, pictures from past youth trips come into my mind.  On the way back from a youth trip I ended up with Justin, Samantha, and Buck Henry (there’s an eclectic group) at a table at Steak n Shake. That dinner produced pictures of Justin on a camel, that he will later reproduce at Shuckums (obsession with climbing on things maybe) and another picture wearing Steak n Shake hats while holding knives ready to go after the other person…mature I must say.  But Justin was never a dull moment and always produced a good story which became a long term memory.  


John and Kristi Claunch: our friends

John: My best memories of Justin are pretty simple. Playing Texas Hold ‘Em until the wee hours, then busting out some Mario Kart and doing impromptu jam sessions even though he was the only one that could really play. 

Kristi, Me, Justin, and John

Kristi: My first memory of Justin was being a third wheel at Jimmy’s Diner with him and Jessica. He was ALWAYS so inclusive and funny and made you feel like you mattered. His heart was HUGE!!



David John Hirth, lead guitarist in The Panhandlers: guitar student and friend


The first time I ever played live music in front of anyone was with Justin. I was so nervous! We played a couple Buckcherry songs that he taught me in class at Bay High….haha. I’ll never forget when Ayers nodded for me to solo; how cool it felt. Then he soloed and embarrassed me.

Garrett Brown, lead vocalist of Jam Therapy: band mate 

Justin, Chase, Me, and Garrett

A lot of the time Justin and I spent together was behind his work bench at B&H. One time in particular, he was trying to customize a guitar of mine but the new parts didn’t fit in the body. He knew I had a gig that night so he rushed to have it finished, but broke his routing tool in the process. So being the forward thinking gentleman that he was, he proceeded to take a hammer and chisel to the inside of my Telecaster until he made the part fit. It still looks all chipped up under the hood and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chase Morgan, bass player in Jam Therapy: band mate

Heath, Justin, Me, Chase, and Garrett

 Justin was such a fun guy, and so influential to me. Some of the best memories, among many, were out-of- town gigs while relentlessly quoting “Beavis And Butthead” until Jessica couldn’t stand it any longer. Gigs with him in general were as fun as it gets. To play with someone that insanely good who let me be free to go about it as I pleased was the best. Talented and hilarious every time.


Justin and Chad

Chad Thompson: band mate

I will never forget the first day I met Justin. We were in rehearsals for our new band Raidiodaze . I was fresh off a break up from my fiancé, and just gotten off an 800 mile flight from Kansas. I was emotionally and physically spent and I asked my new band members: Todd, Scott, Justin and Robin, why they thought I would “be a good drummer for this band?” Justin looked at me and said, “Man, just be yourself, the rest of it will fall in place.” One of the best guitarist I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing the stage with and I miss him so much!

Keely Raquel Shannahan: guitar student and band mate

Me, Justin, and Keely in a promo pic for our band Sister Luck

I’ll never forget the first conversation I ever had with Justin. I had befriended Jess working at the new Margaritaville in PCB while I was a senior in high school. After I told her that I loved to sing and write songs, she told me that her husband was a guitar teacher. Shortly after this, one morning on my way to school (around 7am) not sure why I chose this time of day, I decided to call him to see ask about taking lessons. Who knows why he answered. He was sound asleep and said something along the lines of “can I call you back when it’s not the crack of dawn.” This makes me laugh thinking about it. That wake up call led me to a new friend and musical mentor that had such an impact on my life. Justin was the first person I ever co-wrote a song with. That one song led to 30+ songs. I would sing my idea, and he could always play what fit. His talent was so inspiring and such a blessing to my musical journey. My journey with him gave me the confidence to move to Nashville, and continue to pursue my passion for music. The tattoo on my arm is for him “never break the chain” lyrics by Fleetwood Mac (He told me they were cool). The chain he started for me and so many others is pure gold; one of a kind.



My family

JoBeth Bird: my aunt, and Charlsie Bird McElroy: my cousin

Charlsie in the blue and JoBeth on the far right

JoBeth-Justin was so kind and loving to my Mom (gammaw). He always included her, spent time with her, and she absolutely loved “that Justin”! She talked of him often and fondly. Charlsie-I guess my fondest memory of Justin was exchanging Christmas presents at the cabin. He was always so animated and made sure everyone was having a good time. Truthfully, that really is what all my memories of him are like. Chilling out, telling stories, and making music and laughter.

Josh Hinson: brother-in-law and band mate

On our way to San Fran

Justin was always quick to make amends. That was something that left a huge impression on me.

Flashback 2009, our trip to Las Vegas. A group of us had just arrived in Vegas and we were all super-excited to get started. Justin and Jessica (especially Justin) made it clear right away that they had zero interest in going clubbing.

I didn’t take a comment Justin made very well, and we exchanged some pretty harsh words. I remember shouting, “Forget you, and have a nice trip,” and I immediately walked away. I did not expect, or want to hear from him, for the rest of our trip. Less than a minute later, I received a call from him.

Enjoying San Fran

I expected him to “let me have it” again. Much to my surprise, he was calling to make up. I couldn’t believe that it had been less than a minute, and he was ready to move on! I certainly wasn’t ready and was still furious. But the heartfelt sincerity I heard in his voice won me over. We squashed it right then and there. That was the moment that I gained a deep respect for Justin. A respect that still remains, and continues to challenge me. I want to be more like that in my own life.

Bill Hinson: father-in-law and sound tech

Dad, me, and Justin in San Fran

My most poignant memory (not the same as favorite) is a flashback to June of 2010. It was our annual weeklong “Hinson Vacation”.

The Hinson clan can be pretty competitive, and let’s just say that: me, poker, and adult beverages, don’t mix. While playing a round of Texas Hold’Em I said a few harsh things over a bad loss. Justin and I exchanged some choice words over my “mouthiness”. Things got so heated that Justin and Jessica decide to pack their stuff and leave.


Our wedding day

While on their way out the door, Jess came upstairs to tell everyone goodbye. By this time, I’d finally calmed down. I immediately went to talk to Justin. At a time when I was crushed and dangling on my own “petard”, Justin allowed me to apologize and he immediately forgave me. I loved him more in that moment and it showed me that my daughter had married a good man. I miss him every day, so much so that I can’t usually talk about it. I’m not proud of this day, but I thought that it was important, regardless of how small and petty I look.

Sandy Hinson: mother-in-law, guitar student, and music teacher

Family trip in NYC.

Justin was so unassuming as to how talented he truly was!!!!
Something he did annually for me was to play at the Fifth Grade Chorus Festival. On this particular year, Justin agreed to drive to Deer Point Lake for a practice. He arrived long after most of them, having been at work all day. While Justin was getting his guitar out and setting up his amp, the other guitar player proceeded to tell him how they were going to “play the songs”!! Justin listened, shook his head in agreement and said, “OK, can you give me an example?” The young gentleman proceeded to play his heart out, the way he felt it should be interpreted. When he finished, Justin turned his amp on, grabbed his guitar, did that top string slide down (his own special style), and played the entire song to utter perfection. The kid watched intensely; his mouth open wide. When Justin finished, the kid took a deep breath and said, “How did you do that?” I cracked up all the way home.

My deepest gratitude to everyone who contributed to this post. I didn’t originally plan to use everyones stories but found them all special and unique in their own way. I couldn’t bring myself to cut a single one. Jax will cherish these memories when he is older.


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One thought on “A Birthday Tribute To The Legend”

  1. Monika and I still talk about what a special love you and Justin had. Hamilton would have probably never picked up a guitar had it not been for Justin. Your young relationship was a topic of conversation in our home often when you were all growing up. Any of us would be blessed to experience the magic you two sharexd. Xoxo The ledkins clan

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