TV film looks at odyssey of guitarist Billy McLaughlin

Wed Jun 2, 2010 1:57pm EDT
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By Shadia Ismail

TORONTO (Reuters) - Billy McLaughlin keeps playing...and praying.

Playing the guitar, that is, with the one good hand that can still tap his instrument's strings, and praying, because that's what helped him keep playing.

McLaughlin, a chart-topping master of acoustic guitar in the 1990s, found his career unravel in early 2001 when he was diagnosed with a crippling muscular disorder called focal dystonia. But after years of retraining, he returned to music, and this month a documentary about his comeback begins airing on many PBS stations.

"My hand was so contorted that I couldn't even play 'Mary had a Little Lamb,'" McLaughlin told Reuters about his darkest days in the mid-2000s. "Two of my fingers are curled up in a ball. I lost my record deal, my agent, my distribution deal, my marriage fell apart and my fan base -- I wouldn't say I lost them entirely -- but I just disappeared from sight."

But his passion for music never disappeared.

The documentary, "Changing Keys: Billy McLaughlin and the Mysteries of Dystonia," chronicles his struggle to cope with focal dystonia and his perseverance to return to his guitar.

McLaughlin is a star in his world of "new age" music, but in a pop culture focused on rap and rock and other types of songs, he is less well-known.

He grew up in Minnesota, and was convinced the guitar was a good fit from the moment he first heard Carlos Santana. Fueled by that inspiration, he played in rock bands and eventually went to the University of Southern California to master music.   Continued...