After suffering not one but two life-changing events -- a massive stroke in 2010 and end-stage heart failure in 2011 -- guitarist Pete Huttlinger has a newfound appreciation of what most of us take for granted:
"I live each day and try to get the most of each day. I wake up in the morning and I'm excited to see what it has to offer to me."
Although not a household name -- even to most guitarists -- Huttlinger is one of those unsung heroes of the music industry: the capable, easygoing sideman who brings more to the table than what's needed and elevates the game of everyone around him. He's proved this both in studio and on stage (including Carnegie Hall), supporting artists like John Denver, John Oates and Leann Rimes and will do so again Sunday night in concert in Bakersfield. The veteran has been booked for Guitar Masters at Studio A, an ongoing series at ASR studios.
Huttlinger's command of his instrument is even more impressive today, considering the help he needs to play it. A battery-powered Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) -- which he affectionately calls Donna and the Twins -- helps his heart pump blood 24/7.
"I was so sick that the idea of work never even entered my mind, at least not in a serious way, until I got home. I was down to 110 pounds and my body shut down -- work and guitar were the last things on my mind.
"Then I started to play a little bit. Eventually I could play a tune. Anything I could do on guitar at that point was a gift."
Starting from square one, driven by the limitations of his failed health, he was motivated to get better. He completed walking a half marathon a year to the day after his heart failure, finished long-standing musical projects, and found a calling in conducting speaking engagements, whose topic represents a world view encapsulated in a card given to him by his heart surgeon:
"Don't Just Live, Live Well."
His 90-minute show at ASR will not be a motivational speaking event (though he will address a group of students earlier in the day).
Instead, the solo guitar concert will include his interpretations of late 20th century popular music from artists like the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and others, as well as his original compositions.
Huttlinger is currently promoting his latest release, "McGure's Landing." The project started in 1997 as a collaboration between Huttlinger and John Denver but was sidelined by Denver's passing that year. Spurred on by his manager, Huttlinger revisited and finished the project in 2013.
"After getting over a stroke -- that was lucky -- and then having to get over heart failure -- that was really lucky -- how many chances are you gonna get?"
The concept album, accompanied by a 50-page short story, is based on an Irish immigrant's adventures traveling in the late 1800s.
The release is cinematic in scope and the tracks range from quiet contemplation to fiery jigs while maintaining a gradual sonic narrative -- a definite beginning, middle and end. The music stands on its own but also doubles as a soundtrack to the story.
The orchestration is sparse yet lush: violins, banjos, cellos, mandolin and acoustic guitars with the occasional vocals -- some by singer Mollie Weaver, some by Huttlinger himself. The music is a mixture of Celtic and bluegrass that takes its cue -- both sonically and thematically -- from the narrative.
Huttlinger's own solo guitar playing is effortlessly virtuosic, encompassing a mixture of bluegrass finger picking and classical solo technique and employing them to create fluidly expressive melodies and equally clean support.
Affable and relaxed, Huttlinger has a healthy sense of humor about himself and his experiences ("I've been called a Prius because of my battery pack"), but he makes clear that it's his music that usually does the speaking for him. "For me, music never gets old. There are so many styles to listen to and so many things that it offers that I don't get tired of it."