With his tilted fedora, blue flannel, wire-frame glasses and Ken Nordine-esque vocal patterns, Ryan “Gooch” Nelson appeared onstage at Boyd Recital Hall, the picture of the average coffee shop-frequenting millennial hipster, complete with slide guitar resting in his lap.
Channeling the musical stylings of Zac Brown Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers (all of whom he’s opened for), Gooch’s musical talent is undeniable – and it’s difficult to imagine that his life as a quadriplegic almost made performing impossible for him.
Nelson’s performance was part of Rowan University’s Access and Inclusion Week, for the first annual Music in Motion concert. All proceeds go to the Music in Motion Foundation, which seeks to make music therapy programs more accessible in hospitals and schools.
Describing some of the work that Music in Motion has done so far, Nelson rattled off some accomplishments: “We’ve been able to buy a sound system for McGee hospital,” he said.
But the goals of the foundation quickly turned intersectional.
“We raised some money for flood victims just a few weeks ago. Our main goal is music therapy, but any way music can help or do something to help a situation, that’s the goal,” he said.
According to Nelson, he had been on NPR early one morning, when the Director of Rowan University’s Academic Success Center and Disability Resources John Woodruff, happened to be shaving and listening to the radio. Woodruff had thought it would be a great connection for Access and Inclusion Week and invited Nelson to come to the university. To Nelson, this program is a long-term commitment.
“Now we’re gonna make it an annual thing and do it every year,” he said.
This is the first year that the foundation has been raising money and awareness, and the third such benefit concert which has been held. Nelson is looking to bring to others the same benefits that he had gained from music therapy after becoming wheelchair-bound.
“Ryan was in a car accident back in 2004,” said his mother, Eileen. “He broke his C6 vertebra, and he has been in a wheelchair ever since. He’s been playing music for about ten years now, and when he was in the hospital, they had a musical therapy program. It helped him get back into music, so when he decided to start a foundation, he decided to start it to raise money for musical therapy programs.”
Music has always been an integral part of Nelson’s life. Relearning how to play, and the process involved, has made him want to share the benefits of music therapy with others.
“When I was about twelve years old, I started to play the acoustic guitar,” Nelson said. “I really developed into a good guitarist until I suffered my spinal cord injury, because I couldn’t play anymore, with my hands being paralyzed. So I had to develop a new way.”
That “new way” was by playing the slide guitar – similar to an average electrical guitar, except that it lays horizontally in Nelson’s lap and is played with a handheld bar. The instrument lends itself well to blues music, one of Nelson’s preferred genres.
Before each song, he opened with a few words about what has inspired each one. One, called “New Orleans,” came to him in a “real funky dream.” Another, “I Wanna Get Down,” reflects his frustration that people would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go out. And a third, “Devil Don’t,” was written about his life and his feeling that “the devil is always on [his] tail.”
Despite the challenging circumstances of his life, Nelson hopes to inspire others to help their communities and overcome personal adversity. By hosting the first annual Music in Motion concert, Rowan University hopes to continue to this positive change and promote accessibility and inclusion on its campus, Woodruff said.
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