Imagine being one of the finest musicians in the country, at the peak of your career and abilities, then waking up one day unable to play your own music. That’s what happened to fingerstyle guitarist Billy McLaughlin in 2000, when a neurological disorder called focal dystonia rendered his left hand—the one called upon to execute the intricate fretwork of McLaughlin’s fiendishly difficult compositions—unusable.
Doctors told McLaughlin his music career was over and advised him to find another line of work. But after many dark nights of the soul, McLaughlin persevered and re-taught himself how to play his own compositions left-handed. He began performing in public again a couple of years ago, and did a show at the Guthrie Monday night to a crowd of appreciative fans, many of whom (like me) had come to see how much of his former glory McLaughlin has been able to recapture. (McLaughlin has also become a popular speaker on the motivational speaking circuit, since he embodies the never-say-die fortitude that most companies wish their salespeople had. According to McLaughlin lore, he’s taped a fortune cookie message to the dashboard of his car that reads: “Many people fail because they quit too soon.”)
At the Guthrie last night, as McLaughlin stared out at the crowd in the theater’s Proscenium stage, he seemed almost unable to believe that he was there himself. By his own reckoning, the last time he played the Guthrie was twelve years ago, in the old building, and he never thought he’d have the opportunity again. But there he was, guitar in hand, making music in his new way, which looks weird but sounds beautiful. McLaughlin now plays with the neck of his guitar pointing toward the ceiling, more like a cello player, and creates sound using hammer-ons and pull-offs with various taps and slides. His left index finger taps out the bass notes, while his right hand does the heavy lifting. No strings are plucked and he does not use a pick—it’s a unique style, his own invention, created out of desperation and necessity. He’s simplified the arrangements somewhat, but the essential character of the music is there, and there’s an added layer of amazement if you know what the guy has had to overcome just to get back in the game.
But the truly remarkable thing about McLaughlin’s musical comeback isn’t just that he re-wired his brain to play the guitar in a different way. He’s also composing new music and exploring the possibilities of the guitar combined with a string quartet. Last night, McLaughlin played with what he’s calling his Eclectric Quartet—two violins, viola, and cello—playing tunes he recorded last year with a full orchestra on a limited release live CD called Into the Light.
The result is a kind of acoustic-guitar-based chamber music that typically begins with McLaughlin establishing a theme or mood that the string ensemble surrounds with a warm bath of tones, expanding the breadth of the music and periodically picking up the theme or providing counterpoint to whatever McLaughlin is doing on the guitar. It’s a very classical approach with interesting results. And a tune like "Church Bells," which was written after McLaughlin learned how to play left-handed, suggests there are plenty of dimensions to this guitar/chamber hybrid that McLaughlin has yet to explore. Check it out here: For those of us who were fans back when McLaughlin was in his prime, there’s not much left to say except welcome back, Billy—and don’t ever quit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that local guitar guru Dean Magraw was also on the bill playing solo acoustic, and he was followed by an up-and-coming phenom from Topeka, Kansas, Andy McKee. McKee is one of those guitarists who uses all the tricks in the fingerstyle playbook—tapping, slapping, odd tunings, partial capo—and has added a few of his own. McKee’s claim to fame is that he's one of the most popular musicians on YouTube. Rather than describe what he does, though, I’ll just let his guitar speak for itself. The following link is to a tune called "Drifting," which he played last night. It's been seen by more than 15 million people.