In the late 1990s, Twin Cities acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin signed an international record deal, and his new age album hit the Billboard charts. But then a guitarist's worst nightmare happened: His left hand started to seize up.
His fingers started to curl into the palm of his hand, and his muscles would spasm uncontrollably. "The pinkie and ring finger started to curl unexplainably under the guitar," McLaughlin said.
In 2001, doctors treating him diagnosed a neurological condition known as focal dystonia. "The brain no longer properly communicates with different parts of your body," McLaughlin said, "and you lose control. Trumpet players get it in their lips. Vocalists get it in their vocal chords. It has kind of a diabolical nature to it where it hits where it hurts the most."
When he started to lose his ability to play, things went south fast. His record deal fell apart. He lost his career and his sense of identity. "It was a really brutal time," he said. "I really had to reinvent myself. I thought, 'I just can't live without playing music.' "
"I realized that I couldn't maintain the solo guitar performance," he said. "I had to take on a completely adaptive approach." During that time, he organized a group without the guitar as the main focus. The group, SimpleGifts, performs traditional holiday songs next Sunday at the Lakeville Performing Arts Center.
Over the next few years, he eventually taught himself to play left handed. "It took me a couple of years to get the courage up to get a lefthanded guitar," McLaughlin said. "It just seemed too far-fetched. I didn't even know if it was possible."
With SimpleGifts, he actually plays with both hands. "It will challenge your brain to play both ways," he said.
He said that the group has an "acoustic Celtic direction that's different than anyone else." This year's lineup includes returning members Heather Moen, Billy Oehrlein and Laura MacKenzie and three new musicians — Ashleigh Still, Torie Redpath and Amy Courts. Last year, they expanded their sound to include MacKenzie's bagpipes and Celtic whistle along with the violin, piano and percussion.
"It's come together on a grass-roots level," McLaughlin said. "We've really done it on a concert-by-concert basis over the course of 11 years. Now we're a tradition for a lot of families. We keep packing them out."
They start the show off with the title track of their new album, "WinterGrace." The song is an Appalachian tune by folk singer Jean Ritchie that's "just got this timeless quality," he said.
"We take pride in looking for some of those Christmas carols that have been overlooked over the years," he said.
"What I love about SimpleGifts is the pure nature of the arrangements," said Moen, who plays violin and piano as well as sings. "It always just remains the true form around the song."
She said their version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" remains popular. "[McLaughlin] does the fingertapping style, which is incredible," she said. "The crowd loves it. It's not every day you get to see that."
"For me, the holidays aren't about all the Black Friday specials at Best Buy," McLaughlin said. He said that the holidays have always been about live music and connecting with community. At every concert, he said, they provide coffee and cookies and tell people to wish somebody happy holidays during intermission.
"It's not surprising to me that those intermissions are getting longer and longer," he said. "Vegas is for New Year's. Small-town Christmas is what we like to do."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.