At its most basic level, music stirs the emotion that lives inside all of us.
Even kids, like the ones at White Bear Lake Montessori, seem to understand that as they dance wildly to a guitar and bongo drums. Their teacher, renowned guitarist Billy McLaughlin, sure does. But it took nearly losing the gift, to remind him of how powerful it is.
"It does feel like a miracle, it does. It feels like a miracle to be playing music," he sighed.
McLaughlin's not overstating things. His six-string journey has been a long one, filled with tremendous highs and, recently, lows that made him think he'd never play again.
It all began in south Minneapolis, where Billy played in rock bands while attending Washburn High School. His unique finger-style sound began taking shape at the University of Southern California.
"I found that if I let go of strumming and singing with my voice, I could actually get the melody to happen with one hand, while I was filling out chords with the other, and for a long time that became my signature, with both hands playing up on the neck," McLaughlin explained.
A handful of self-produced albums, and non-stop touring, earned him an army of fans, numerous awards and industry notice as a new age guitar phenom.
Billy was hitting all the right notes until 1999, when his left hand, the most important one to a right-handed guitar player, began failing.
"I unexplainably started having a few rough nights and thought wow, this is peculiar. It just didn't seem to get any better, in fact, it seemed to get worse. I started to notice tightness in my wrist, and I thought, well, take some time off, maybe carpal tunnel, that's something everyone's heard of, that's probably what I have."
In truth, it was something much worse. A little-known neurological condition called Dystonia was slowly stealing his ability to play.
"Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that causes irregular postures and contortions of the body," Janet Heishetter, Executive Director of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation explained. "Essentially, what it is, is a syndrome that robs people of the opportunity to move their bodies freely."
"Basically, you've got this muscle spasming that's unpredictable, uncontrollable, there's no way to know when it's going to move," adds McLaughlin, "and that's why it's easy to think you're going crazy, because it's such a bizarre condition."
Frustration grew, as Billy's physical skills faded to the point where even basic chords were a struggle. Eventually, the only place he was up for playing was the Montessori school, because the kids didn't judge him.
By 2003, he faced the prospect of putting down his guitar, losing his career, and his love of music. But Billy decided to grasp at one last straw.
Imagine a right-handed baseball pitcher starting over with his left hand. That's the equivalent of what Billy McLaughlin did, flipping his guitar around, and re-mastering a lifetime of intricate songs and techniques, note by note.
Three years after pulling back from the spotlight, and the audience that loved his music, the guitar virtuoso is moving to reclaim his career as a left-handed player.
In April, Mr. McLaughlin staged an ambitious comeback show in Maplewood. He played solo, did a set with his longtime touring band, then realized a dream by performing his songs with a full orchestra. Nineteen video cameras rolled, capturing the entire night for a live DVD that will be released soon.
His ongoing battle with Dystonia is also the basis for a coming documentary.
"I knew a little bit about Billy McLaughlin and his music. I knew he went away, and I didn't know why," filmmaker Suzanne Jurva said. "Then I found out why, and it was one of those things as a filmmaker, you say, 'this is a great story, and I have to do it.'"
Billy's story is a work in progress. Doctors warn that Dystonia could eventually attack his good hand, so Billy is working on a number of projects, and playing as much as possible.
If it turns out his future is jamming in the basement with his sons and their buddies instead of selling records, he's okay with that. Through the process of essentially losing a hand, he uncovered what drew him to music in the first place.
"I found every bit of what I loved about music, and about playing music was still there."
(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)