June 2, 2010 / 5:59 PM / 9 years ago

TV film looks at odyssey of guitarist Billy McLaughlin

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.

In college, he began developing his own, aggressive style of playing with his right hand. Similar to plucking a harp, McLaughlin uses both hands on the fretboard of his guitar and taps out each note with his fingers. Through tapping, he sets up repetitive patterns that morph into a flowing melody.


McLaughlin’s unique style led to several releases under his own label and a major recording contract with a unit of Virgin Records. His 1996 album “Fingerdance” peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s music charts. Two more major label releases followed, “Out of Hand” and “Stormseekers.” At his height, he performed more than 200 concerts a year.

But then came the first signs of trouble.

“When I would perform in concerts and try to play, my fingers on my right hand would feel confused and out of balance,” he said. “I couldn’t trust if I was going to play the correct notes in certain repetitive patterns.”

In 2001, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes muscles to contract or twist. In McLaughlin’s case, the fingers on his right hand curled inward, and the tapping that was McLaughlin’s trademark became impossible to do.

He searched for answers from traditional physicians and physical therapists. He changed his diet, started meditating and, being a religious man, prayed a lot.

Stopping the music was not an option, so when his other solutions failed and knowing there is no cure for focal dystonia, he taught himself to play left-handed.

In 2004, a film crew began documenting McLaughlin’s odyssey and his first steps at performing and recording music again.

Three years later, he released “Into the Light” — his first recording as a left-handed guitarist. Now he is touring and speaking publicly about his little known disease.

“My goal is to put together a “Brain Aid” concert with musicians and celebrities to help spread the message, not only about focal dystonia, but about all of the major and lesser known brain diseases.”

In April, the American Association of Neurology awarded McLaughlin the Public Leadership in Neurology Award for his work on raising awareness about focal dystonia.

“To play music again,” he said, “is a miracle.’’

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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