I’m Still Gonna Use My Hands
How my dad, his disability, and his 50-year-old guitar inspired me to write new music.
My name is Eric Hutchinson and if you don’t know me, I’m a singer, a songwriter and a guitar player, based in New York City. I’ve just made my most personal album ever, called Modern Happiness. Each song on the record deals with depression and the aim of happiness in today’s modern times. The most personal song from Modern Happiness is a song called “hands” which I wrote as a tribute to my dad, Royal, who is living with myotonic muscular dystrophy, or DM. DM is a disease that has affected my dad and my family for over 35 years, but was never something we really talked about. “hands” is a song about being seen and heard as a disabled person.
The story of “hands” begins in 1965, when Royal (yes my dad’s name is Royal — the sooner you get used to that, the easier this story is to tell) was just 20 years old and bought himself a new Martin D-28 guitar. This was a beautiful instrument, made of a Brazilian rosewood that no longer exists today. It had a spotted pick guard, made from tortoise shell (which would be unthinkable now). It had a thick, strong neck, and a warm, rich tone. My dad’s last guitar had been stolen by a buddy, so to make sure nobody took this new Martin guitar, Royal carved his driver’s license number into the top of headstock, and his name “R D Hutchinson” down the back of the headstock. (This usually sends a shiver down the spine of any guitar collecting enthusiast.)
Royal Hutchinson was born in 1945 in California. By high school, he was living outside of Washington DC, where he still lives today. He is a quiet, thoughtful, enigmatic man, with an odd, dry sense of humor. Over the course of his life, my dad has been many things: a boy scout, a Catholic, a Jew, a student at Oxford University, an Oxford drop-out, a hippie, a cross-country bicyclist, a woodworker, a computer nerd, a cook, a graduate student and a guitar-playing singer-songwriter. He loves music and raised me on a steady diet of The Beatles, Ry Cooder, Steely Dan and Bob Dylan. Royal brought his guitar everywhere with him when he was younger. He played it in bands, he took it to the beach, until one day he couldn’t play it anymore.
When my dad was 35, he started noticing the muscles in his hands were seizing up. After some testing, he was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy. Suddenly, he began losing his fine motor skills, and with it, his ability to do everyday stuff I take for granted — like being able to write with a pencil or open a car door. This also meant that his fingers were no longer strong enough to play the guitar and soon my dad had to give up playing all together.
Eventually, DM started affecting Royal’s balance and today he can no longer walk or stand. DM deteriorated the muscles in his mouth, making it extremely difficult for him to speak clearly or chew and swallow. Throughout all of this, my dad continued to work into his late 60’s. He never used his disease as an excuse for anything (even when I think maybe he could have). My brother and sisters and I grew up watching him continue to push and persevere, even as he became weaker and weaker. Today, Royal is almost completely house-bound and requires 24/7 care from my mom. Still, he enjoys watching Turner Classic Movies, rooting for the Washington Nationals, studying the Torah, and on some occasions, going to the opera at the Kennedy Center. Oh, and he loves NPR. It’s pretty much his soundtrack.
I have no memories of seeing my dad play the guitar, but as far back as I can remember, I knew about my dad’s Martin D-28. This guitar loomed large in our home when I was growing up. My parents referred to it simply as “The Martin”, with the high esteem other families might refer to The Bible, or The President. But while my dad’s old songs and guitar were mentioned fondly often, The Martin sat unused in our house and was rarely seen, a symbol of the things my dad could no longer do.
My family is an emotional, sensitive bunch, but we were untrained in how to talk about my dad and his disease. There was little information available back then. We didn’t know anybody else who looked or lived like my dad and there was no cure, so my parents just didn’t talk about it and we kids followed their lead.
In 1994, I was a freshman in high school and found an old cheapo guitar in my grandma’s basement. I started teaching myself how to play but I avoided playing guitar in front of my dad. DM had long since stripped away my dad’s ability to play music and I was afraid of hurting his feelings or seeming like I was showing off a skill that he no longer possessed. Even as I was taking guitar more seriously, there was an unspoken understanding that The Martin was off limits to me in the same way a classic Ferrari might be off limits to a driver’s ed student.
I was a still a reckless teenager however, so every now and then, when my dad wasn’t around, I would sneak and open up The Martin’s old creaky wooden case. I’d strum The Martin and marvel at its big, thick neck that made it hard to make barred chords and the vintage smell of its wood, like old paperbacks in a used book store. This was a man’s guitar — it didn’t fit me, a 16-year-old boy. It was big, I was small. It was old, I was young. And so, I decided I didn’t like The Martin and resolved to forget about it. I traded in my cheapo guitar and I bought a new, better cheapo guitar, and I learned to love it.
Years went by and I took music more and more seriously, starting to write and record my own songs. In 1998, On my 18th birthday, my dad summoned me into his bedroom and pronounced that The Martin was now mine to have. He waited for me to freak out in gratitude, but I didn’t say anything. My dad didn’t understand that I had learned to despise that guitar over the years. I associated The Martin with all the things my dad would never be able to do again. The Martin represented all the hurt and pain surrounding myotonic dystrophy — this mysterious disease we never talked about in our home despite that fact it was slowly crippling my dad and warping our family. How could I ever want The Martin, a guitar with my dad’s name and old driver’s license number carved into the headstock? That wasn’t my guitar. I had a cheapo guitar that worked just fine. So, when my dad offered me The Martin, without even considering it, I coldly told him “I don’t want it.” My dad was shocked, hurt, confused.
Years went by and with no one to play The Martin, it sat in its case, inside my parents’ house throughout the early 2000’s. Sometimes I’d find it under the guest bed when I was home visiting, and I’d take it out to make sure I still didn’t want it. I never did.
I began a career as a professional musician and I played my cheapo guitar until I made enough money to buy a beautiful expensive acoustic guitar, handmade in Ireland by George Lowden, a master luthier. I proudly played that Lowden guitar, touring with it all over the world. Sometimes when I was home, my dad would ask if I wanted to take The Martin out on tour, and I would brush him off. Why didn’t he get that I didn’t need that old thing now?
Something you should know about me is that while I was growing up and making music, I was dealing with chronic depression and the anxiety of wondering whether I had inherited myotonic dystrophy from my dad. There was a 50% chance I had the disease, and if I did, the symptoms would likely be even more severe for me than they had been for my dad. In the winter of 2015, I made the intense decision to finally take a DNA test to find out if I had inherited DM from my dad. I wrote about the process of getting tested HERE. To make a long story short, I ended up testing negative and despite being convinced my whole life that I had DM, I did not in fact have the disease. However, the test results didn’t breed the kind of relief I’d always fantasized they would. My dad and my family were still affected by DM — I had the emotional scars to prove it.
One of the empowering things to come out of that testing process was the chance to finally talk with my dad and start a conversation with my family about DM and the state of my dad’s health. My dad and I had conversations we’d never been able to have before, and I found a new understanding of him and his life. I was able to ask him basic questions about his relationship to myotonic dystrophy that were once unimaginably hard for me to bring up. We achieved a new level of closeness and a father/son-understanding that was unspeakably important to me.
Among all this soul-searching, I found a new understanding of myself and I discovered a renewed interest within me in my dad’s old guitar. With the cycle of DM broken in my family, I was able to see the guitar as just a family heirloom, and I was able to picture a happier future for the guitar in my life.
In 2016, I came to my dad and asked for his permission to take The Martin back home with me to New York City. My dad is not a particularly emotional or excitable man (partially a symptom of DM), but I could see him well up with pride. He said yes right away and called for my mom, to tell her the good news.
I grabbed The Martin and its case from underneath the spare bed upstairs, threw it in my rental car and took it home with me. But when I got back home to New York and opened the case, I was crushed to discover that The Martin was broken — its bridge had snapped off, strings were everywhere and its body was cracked and dried out from years of neglect. It was unplayable.
I sent The Martin into an authorized Martin repair shop and they put it into guitar intensive care. They kept the guitar in a giant humidifier for several weeks to help the wood regain its shape. They attached a new bridge and tested the strings to make sure they’d hold. After a month, I got the guitar back and in January 2017, I could finally play and enjoy that old 1965 Martin D-28, the one with Royal’s name and old driver’s license number carved into the headstock.
Almost immediately, I began playing Bob Dylan protest songs on The Martin, imagining the music my dad might have been making on this very guitar back in his hippie, radical days. I thought about progress and protest and I thought about the voice of a disabled person who can no longer be heard like he or she once was. I thought about all of this while I played my dad’s guitar and I wrote “hands” with it.
I wrote “hands” as a tribute to my dad, Royal Hutchinson, who has bravely pressed on for so many of his years, when it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to just give up. I wrote “hands” for my mom, Jean Hutchinson, who has been married to my dad for over 40 years and has grown into his full-time caretaker, dressing him everyday, blending his food for every meal, and taking him to endless doctor’s appointments. I wrote “hands” for the millions of people who live with myotonic dystrophy and any disability every single day, but still long to be heard and noticed.
I was so inspired playing The Martin, that I ended up writing an entire album’s worth of songs in just a few weeks. In April 2017, I took my touring band, The Believers into the studio and I brought along The Martin. I played The Martin on every song of Modern Happiness. It mic’d up beautifully — rich thick bass notes, with an easy playability that made it hard for me to believe I ever couldn’t play it.
After some discussion of how to record “hands”, and whether the band should accompany me, I decided that “hands” was a song I should record alone, just me and this guitar with over 50 years of Hutchinson family history. I recorded the song in one take, playing The Martin D-28 with the thick neck and the extinct Brazilian rosewood and my dad’s name carved into the headstock.
You can learn more about myotonic dystrophy and the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation’s remarkable fundraising, research and their mission of care and a cure, at myotonic.org.
In fact, between now and August 10, 2018, the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation is running a special fundraising campaign around the release of “hands” which you can learn more about HERE.