Amazing man--Billy McLaughlin

August 25, 2018

From the brink of the abyss he rose like a phoenix from the ashes of his despair

Billy McLaughlin faced the darkness and he lived to tell his tale.


The monster that crept into Billy’s life and stole his ability to play his beloved guitar was Focal Dystonia (FD); a musician’s nightmare. It is a nasty, crippling ailment that attacks the forearm, hands, and fingers, rendering them useless to play the instrument. To most it is a nail in the coffin of what used to be a livelihood and a love affair with a guitar. In one fail swoop FD takes away your career and your passion. It can bring a strong person to their knees.


Unlike all others, Billy would not be daunted. He worked for 18 months to somehow find a way to play just one song and still could not play it well. His drive and determination were waning as he saw no real results of his hard labor to recover with some ability to play. 


Who would have ever thought something as small as a fortune from a small cookie could turn his life and his future around. There he was feeling utterly defeated, there it was laying before him, not yet read but waiting to tell him what he needed to hear…..

”Many people fail because they quit too soon!”


The message that saved him. These eight words would keep him climbing the mountain to a fabulous, successful return to what was his true purpose in life, entertaining from a big stage. That mountain, plus many more was climbed by this wonderful man. Today he stands proudly at the peak looking at this world he has created for himself.


He sometimes thinks of that message from some higher power (wrapped up in a fortune cookie) and is very thankful. In my view, the message was only a tool for him, he was the power behind that tool that lead him from his darkness to a very bright light of musical ability.


I watched closely as he made that guitar sound as good as I have ever heard a guitar sound. He plays while holding his guitar straight up-right and only using the fret board (only the neck of the guitar). It is amazing to watch and even more amazing to hear!


Billy has a great story to tell and he tells it so well. He can make light of his life but I know he is a proud man. I loved it when he quoted his mother, “Billy, your biggest problem is between your ears!” He said she was right. I believe all of us are, at times, stymied by that space between our ears…not just Billy McLaughlin.


When he played his song “Hold On Forever”, it was beautiful, as is all of his music. He laughingly said “The teenagers change the title of that song to “Hold On To Whoever”.


As he sang these lyrics in ode to his music, he said….“You know I dreamed of my music, I couldn’t live without it even a day, I had to find a way. You know I always dreamed about you.” …..for Billy, as is for all professional music makers; music is not their JOB, music is not just their CAREER; music is all-consuming…it is the AIR they breathe, it is LIFE to them.


Unfortunately, I am not real familiar with all of Billy’s songs but the audience certainly was. They would sing along in unison as Billy began their favorites. It was such a beautiful sound to hear and his smile was a beautiful sight to see.


At one point he said, “This is the coolest room in Mobile!” as he soaked up the love that was being sent to him special delivery from everyone in the room….Someone shouted out “We Love you and We respect you!” All he could do was nod.


Billy has played all over the world, much farther and much higher than he ever did before this illness.  He actually came back stronger. He is not well, he is not cured of FD, but he has found a way to work around it, “at least for now”, he says.


Billy is from Minnesota, he was pleased to be away from the bitter cold that dominates his homeland. He jokingly said, I hope to be back in Mobile next February (its pretty rough that time of year in Minnesota). He moved south in 1993 but Minnesota will always be home for him. He loves Mobile. You may have seen him when he played his songs with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra a while back.


It is wise to listen to a man such as Billy McLaughlin who has stared the devil in the face and stepped right over him to continue his life. People like him are special as they have  something extra that many do not possess. 


Through his performance he gave little nuggets of advice, one that I remembered well was this:

“Use what you got, don’t worry about what you don’t got!” I would say that is sage advice to all of us.


The show last night at The Listening Room was fabulous. There was standing room only and folks were standing in it. 

Bad news if you were not there, you missed a jewel. 

Good news, you get another chance. Billy plays at The Listening Room again on Sunday. Show starts an hour earlier on Sundays…(7PM)


Again I find myself thanking Jim Pennington for providing The Listening Room of Mobile for us.

I thank Billy McLaughlin for such a wonderful, heartwarming show.

I thank that wonderful audience that was respectful, attentive and interactive with him when the time was right.

Juanita Smith

Music Mom 



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