"The Times You're Not, But You Feel Alone": The Amazing Music of Billy McLaughlin

Note: I originally began writing this post four months ago. Due to an error with the Wordpress app, and the fact I had written most of the post in Wordpress and not saved elsewhere, a good share of what you are about to read was lost. When I write things like this, I am very grounded in the emotions of the moment. For me, this is not some mechanical process that can simply be recreated...it is fluid, organic and emotionally charged.

I was able to salvage some of the writing from a partial copy I had, but decided that I would have to wait for "the right time" to finish the post if I wanted to do justice to the original.

Just now, as I was going through my morning ritual in the bathroom, on this Sunday morning, it happened. Texting with my wife about our upcoming long Valentine's weekend together, and the song that inspired this blog post began playing on my iPod. Instantly tears formed in my eyes and soon they were streaming down my face, my breath coming in gentle gasps as I was consumed by the emotion, the love I had not known could be so deep, so powerful, before I met my wife.

With tears of love and devotion and longing still wet on my face, I knew at once that this was the time to finish telling this story.

I first saw Billy McLaughlin in the fall of 1992 in the Brenton Student Center on the Simpson College campus in Indianola, Iowa...and my life changed forever.

Billy was playing solo acoustic guitar for "Noon Tunes", a brief concert on a small stage in the middle of the student center. His two handed technique on the neck amazed me. I had been playing guitar for a year and a half, and I was inspired!

He did a concert at the theater on campus where he did a set of solo guitar, some instrumental and some with lyrics, and he did a set with a band. Part of the draw for me besides the music was the way Billy would talk about the inspiration for his music. That is a pretty regular thing for singer/songwriters to do, but I realized quickly what a skilled storyteller Billy is. He's really good at describing the inspiration for his music.

I bought the two albums he was selling at the time. His first, Inhale Pink is a solo album and Exhale Blue is a band album.

His signature piece, Helm's Place refers to the name of a street he lived on near the Santa Monica freeway, where he rented a room from a sweet grandmotherly woman. He admits that he should have titled the piece "A Day in the Life of the Santa Monica Freeway." It is a musical interpretation of the traffic waking up on the freeway and working into a frenzy and the natural ebb and flow of the freeway. Brilliant work.

Over the years, I have acquired more of Billy's albums. I talked with him when I could...hell, some of my friends and I even went bowling with Billy and the band after a show once.

Several years ago, Billy developed dystonia, a neurological condition that left him unable to play guitar right handed.

Billy then did the unimaginable, the unthinkable...he relearned how to play left handed.

I saw an interview where Billy and others were talking about the disease and his relearning process. One man said, "It's not simply a matter of turning the guitar the other way. Imagine every word you've ever learned to say in your life, and then learning to say them backwards...that's what it's like."

As amazing as this story is, it's not why I'm writing this post. Billy McLaughlin's music has meant so many things to me at different points in my life, and the story of the music is worth telling.

Over the years, I've studied to Billy's music, I've jammed to it, relaxed to it, made love to it, played it during quiet times when each of my children were newborns, I played Billy's music when my middle child was in the NICU, and I've lulled my children to sleep with his music. His Wintersongs and Traditionals album has been part of my winter since the album's release...every year. I received one of the greatest compliments a warrior musician can receive during one of Billy's shows. I took a girl I was dating to one of his shows at Simpson. I quickly got lost in the music and honestly forgot my date was there until she leaned over and said something in my ear. She said, "Most people just hear the music, but you become the music."

I was so touched by that observation.

If this were the end of the story, it would be enough. Thank you Mr. Billy McLaughlin for your wonderful contributions...

But this story is just getting started.

Several weeks ago, as I was driving alone through southern Colorado, into New Mexico to start the adventure I am now in the middle of, I felt the need to listen to some Billy. Several weeks ago, as I was driving alone through southern Colorado, into New Mexico to start the adventure I am now living, I felt the need to listen to some Billy. I pulled up The Bow and the Arrow, a band album released around the same time as his solo album The Archery of Guitar. It had been years since I listened to this album straight through, so the rediscovery process was an enjoyable, if minor, distraction from all the anxiety, thoughts and emotions I felt on that last leg of my trip, bound for an unfamiliar, solitary life.

As a musician, I am well aware of what Weston Noble describes as "the musical experience." It's that je ne sais quoi moment in music when you get chills, goosebumps... it's more addictive than any drug, and musicians condemn themselves to countless hours alone, perfecting their craft for just one more taste of it.

There is also another experience, and I don't have a name for it. I think most of us have experienced this at least a few times. It happens when a song writer crafts lyrics and music in such a way that they tap into universal life experience and create something that seems like it was written just for us.

"That is my song!"

For those of you nodding your heads, take it one step further.

Sometimes, just sometimes, there is a piece of music or a song that we find that alters our view of life. Once you hear this, you know in the depths of your soul that you life will never be the same again...it has changed forever.

One of those moments came for me on that night in mid August, on a lonely stretch of Colorado highway when I heard Billy's song He Said, She Said.

As a point of reference, here are the lyrics:

“My love,” he said, “You must be convinced, avail yourself to be shown. Though I must leave you here, gonna pick up all my pieces, my love for you, must now be known.

And it won’t wear out and it won’t wear down, and it won’t weigh heavy on your mind. And it will stay up, now it will stay sound to last you through all those times.”

"My love,” she said, “I can wait no longer, and you must hear, what I say.I need someone who’ll be there, ‘cause time is all we have to share. Your dreams will carry you along your way.And they won’t wear out, and they won’t wear down, and they won’t weigh heavy on your mind.And they will stay up, love they will stay sound to last you through all those times.”“My love,” he said, “This is not the way that I wanted it, but time in time, my hands feel tied.But I can’t blame you for needing what I can’t blame myself for not finding how to give, this love will be so hard to get pastBecause it won’t wear out and it won’t wear down and it won’t weigh heavy on your mind.Now it will stay up and it will stay sound, to last you through all those times.”“My love,” she said, “You know I truly love you, but I know not what, the future holds.So find your dreams, oh, make them all that they can be and then, you will find a hand to hold.And it won’t wear out, and it won’t wear down and it won’t weigh heavy on your mind.And it will stay up and it will stay sound to last you through all those times.”Oh, the times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you feel aloneThe times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you feel aloneThe times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you feel aloneThe times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you still feel aloneThe times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you feel aloneThe times you’re not, but you feel aloneOh, the times you’re not, but you feel alone