How music made her whole again after a terrible accident in Louisiana, and connected her to the L.A. songwriting community forever
Michelle Williams is a dear friend to many here in the Los Angeles songwriting community. Though she lives far away in the small town of DeRidder, Lousiana, she befriended many artists here, and became much closer than many who live in the same city. Back in 1981 she almost died in a terrible car crash in which both her father and grandfather died, and she suffered massive head injuries requiring brain surgery and a long recuperation. Never did she feel whole again, she said, until connecting with the music and musicians of Los Angeles. We asked her if she would write her story for us, and she said yes, working on it and revising it many times till she felt it was right. We’re grateful to her for sharing this, as it’s more proof of the power of song in people’s lives – and the real impact of a loving heart. Here in her own words, is the story of how Michelle built a musical bridge all the way from Louisiana to Los Angeles.
By MICHELLE WILLIAMS
Music has always been a big part of my life. When I was a small child, growing up in the 1970s in rural Louisiana, music was everywhere. Everything from our southern gospel roots, to country and western – even pop and disco – were being played on car radios and stereos and radios in every home. Some had fancy 8-track players, which featured flashing disco lights.
When there were family dinners and holiday celebrations at the home of my paternal grandparents, there was always a band of cousins playing guitars and singing. The black dirt yard was full of food, family and fun.
Sometimes, professional gospel singers would hold outdoor concerts on the front porch. These were the original house concerts.
At the Weldon reunions, my grandmother’s side of the family had a Bluegrass Gospel band. There were guitars, banjos, upright bass, and a mandolin. It was a huge farm about the size of two football fields and filled with so many people, it looked like a music festival. I came by my love for music, honest.
It was the songs that peaked my imagination. I would hear Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler and my little girl daydreams would be fixed on clandestine meetings on distant dark trains. When Dolly Parton sang, Jolene, I would feel bad for her and wish this Jolene would just leave her alone. The songs inspired deep emotion and curiosity.
My childhood love of music grew and expanded quickly. By third grade, I was staying up late to watch The Midnight Special on my aunt’s color television set in the darkened family room while everyone was sleeping. My cousin, Hope, who shared my great love of music, was my partner in crime for these, “past our bedtime” musical adventures.
My dad kept country music on the radio in his shop constantly. Daddy was a preacher, and he also fixed and painted cars and I went to work with him all the time. There were three or four open bays to park the cars in to be repaired and one sectioned off by thick plastic to protect the other vehicles from the paint machine. Daddy had speakers hanging in every bay to keep the music going while he worked. I answered the phone and cleaned up a little.
Sometimes I even sanded the dry Bondo with sandpaper to smooth it out to be painted. Bondo was a smelly orange clay-like compound used to fill cracks and scratches on the cars waiting to be painted. I made three dollars a week in the summer. I was proud of that.
When I hear Merle Haggard, I can almost smell the Bondo from those long ago summer days with my dad. Bondo is a compound used to fill in holes and cracks in the cars being prepared for painting.
On Sunday, July 5, 1981, during a heavy rainstorm, we were in a tragic car accident. It was the summer between fifth and sixth grade.
I was with my father and his father, my grandpa. We were on our way home from church on curvy, hilly US 10 when a drunk driver passed a car on a hill and hit us head on.
My daddy and his daddy both died on impact. I was thrown to the floor with such force that my head became lodged under a seat. The emergency workers had to remove the seat to get me out of the car. The right side of my face and head was crushed.
I was air-lifted to a hospital with a brain surgeon. I had a blood clot on my brain. First the doctor had to drill a hole in my skull to relieve the pressure of the blood accumulating on my brain. He also had to remove a piece of my brain to get the clot out.
I remember floating somewhere near the lights in the operating room, looking down on the tops of the surgical team’s heads. I saw my brain. I guess I was lingering somewhere between life and death.
I was in a coma for six days. Then I woke up to find out that my daddy and my grandpa had died in the wreck. I started to cry but my mother stopped me. She said if I cried, I might have a seizure and die. She was terrified.
A few days later, I had surgery to rebuild my face and head. The wreck left me partially paralyzed on my left side.
During physical therapy, I wore an ankle weight on my left leg and dragged it to build up muscle tone so I could walk again. I would sing my favorite songs to keep myself going. My favorite band at eleven years old was Alabama. Their music always brought joy into my sad situation. I was so completely devastated losing my sweet daddy and my awesome story-telling grandpa, and being handicapped, it seemed nothing would help. It was like walking through quicksand.
Music transported my mind to better things. It soothed the hurt. My older cousin James came to see me in the hospital. He brought his guitar and we sang the hymns my daddy and I loved from our church songbook. James would sometimes play guitar at our church. He was my daddy’s nephew but also one of his best friends. I was in the hospital for three weeks.
The Eighties were lonely and depressing. But I found my place through music. I became lost in the melodies and mesmerized by the lyrics and fell in love with the singers.
I saw Alabama in concert three times and the band always took time to visit with me. They knew their songs helped me though the lowest part of my life and that touched them. The first time I met them, lead singer Randy Owen had tears in his dark brown eyes in the photo of us together.
In a heartbeat, I had gone from an energetic, country girl, wild child, climbing trees and barns, running outside all day, to being a handicapped child with no daddy. There were no more fishing trips, no more front porch concerts and no more climbing. I sat in the house trying not to fall down.
When I returned to school as a crippled child, the bullying began. By seventh grade, it was almost unbearable. They called me retarded cripple, paralyzed b&*%, ugly, stupid and donkey teeth. My escape was music. When I came home from school just defeated and deflated, I would turn on the radio and listen to KBIU or Bayou 104. I would call the DJs and they would talk to me and play my requests. They saved my life.
Probably the first big belly laugh I had after the wreck was from a Weird Al song. Music touched every aspect of my life. The glitter pop and guitar rock anthems of the eighties were my favorites. I also loved Michael Jackson and wrote him many fan letters. I fell madly in love with Paul McCartney and soon discovered The Beatles. After high school, someone gave me a Beatles cassette and I became completely engrossed in their music. I could walk a long way with a Beatles tape in my headphone cassette player. This is how I managed to walk around my college campus.
After college around 2001, I was living back in my hometown of DeRidder, Louisiana. DeRidder is famous for our one-hundred-year-old, gothic jail, which is rumored to be haunted, and our Guinness world record for most churches for a town our size. We are close-knit community where everyone knows everyone. I’m related to probably seventy percent of the population. It’s small town USA. After we moved back, I started working as a writer for a free publication. Then I discovered the internet and Myspace.
I was befriended by several songwriters. The first to show he truly cared about me was Barry Keenan. I had burned my hand and posted that I wouldn’t be posting much because I could barely type. He was the only person who replied that he hoped it would get better. I wrote an article about him and reviewed his music in my paper.
Barry is a singer-songwriter, engineer and producer. His music sounded British and since I love The Beatles, I fell instantly in love with his music. He taught me a lot about the elements of music production. Barry is a tremendous talent and plays at least eleven instruments. He is also a wonderful friend and admired greatly.
He sent me a CD and I didn’t listen to anything else for months. This friendship led to many other friendships in the music community of North Hollywood and others in Los Angeles. I started writing reviews and articles for many songwriters. I started to really feel valued and appreciated by this community of talent. This is a feeling I never had. I never felt like I was taken seriously before. It was a great feeling.
I became friends with one songwriter who is also an author. He encouraged my dream of becoming a writer probably more than anyone else on the planet. I became lost in his music. I would play his CD constantly and sing along. I still do. Because of him, I started watching the live webcasts of Kulak’s Woodshed and emailing the performers to say hello from Louisiana and encourage them.
They started to expect my emails and read them live on the webcast. It was thrilling. I was alone for weeks at a time because my husband worked on an offshore oil rig and the songwriters kept me company.
That’s when I met Mandi Martin. She was a brilliant lady who was a record producer. Sometimes, Mandi would call me after each new thing was added to a song which I had heard with just a guitar. When she added the horns or strings, she would call and share her progress. It was fascinating.
Mandi was a brilliant and extremely talented producer and songwriter. She had a wonderfully vivacious and hilarious personality. She was warm and loving but had no problem letting people know exactly how she felt. Sadly, she is no longer with us. She was loved and is remembered by multitudes of songwriters of all levels.
The reviews I wrote meant so much to the songwriters and their wanting me to write about them meant so much to me. I had been overlooked, pushed aside and underestimated for most of my life.
To have talented people value my contribution to their world was awesome.
My friend, the author would send me new songs to hear before anyone else. This truly meant the world to me.
I was invited to come to North Hollywood to visit and meet all my music friends there. The first thing I did was panic. I had never flown on an airplane before and I was petrified. My author friend told me it was no big deal because he flies all the time. Another friend helped me book my flight. I decided to have faith that God would take care of me and got on the plane.
I had to drive three hours to the airport because DeRidder isn’t big enough for a major airport. It was my fortieth birthday and my friend had a concert planned for me with most of my songwriters. Going from everyone saying “Hey, How are you and how’s your mama and them?” in DeRidder to Los Angeles was a culture shock to say the least. But it was wonderful to be met at the airport with happy smiles and big hugs to begin my west coast adventure.
I was treated like a big star. I went from feeling like a nobody-from being nothing special to feeling, valued, appreciated and validated.
The concert was like a dream. I kept pinching myself. It was the birthday of my dreams. I made gumbo for everyone and it went fast. They had a birthday cake I was not expecting. For once in my life, I felt part of the gang. It was music that brought us together to celebrate life.
I was able to return the following year for a second concert. This time I got to see some of the things I missed on my first adventure. Most of these friendships forged through music have stood the test of time. Some are closer than family. Song brought us together from thousands of miles apart. Music is what binds us in the places of the heart.
Music can bring relaxation. It can inspire. A song can bring us to tears. Music is heard on an entirely different level than any other sound on earth. It can be romantic, celestial, glorious – even fun. A sad song or a happy song could affect one’s attitude and mood for a day.
Music is used to get a certain mindset. Music is a gift. A song can break your heart. Another one can bring healing and peace. Music can bring people together. I have been completely blown away by songs that are not even produced yet. It can make us jump up and dance because we cannot contain ourselves when we hear it.
Our reaction to music is intensely personal and deeply emotional. Dreams are born from song. Writing about music is a dream come true.