Acoustic renditions of classic tunes by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and Bill Withers charmed audiences at Freewheel Brewing Co.’s Redwood City location on Friday, Aug. 11. Few listeners were likely be able to guess that the performer of those songs, local singer and guitarist Tom Jackman, was playing one of his first solo shows after a career-threatening injury.
Jackman, an avid guitarist and singer known to perform frequently at local bars, restaurants and other Bay Area venues, has made a name for himself as a talented musician and engaging performer. When Jackman suffered an accident that cost him three of his fingers, he said he believed any hopes of keeping his performing career alive seemed lost.
“I thought I'd never play again,” Jackman said. “Even after I went through surgery to reattach my fingers, I had no mobility. I really thought it was all over.”
Spoiler alert: It was indeed not all over. Jackman said after some time away from music, he eventually joined forces with friend and fellow musician Greg Costanzo, forming the group 17 Fingers, a reference to Jackman’s incomplete set of digits.
“He (Costanzo) reached out to me and he said, ‘Hey, I've been thinking about playing more acoustic guitar,’” Jackman said. “He was like, ‘I know you like to perform. How about we get together and I play guitar for you and sing backup vocals while you sing?’ That was a great way for me to get back out there and get music back into my life.”
Jackman said that while he was playing with Costanzo, he tried many different ways to return to guitar playing, including playing left-handed, switching to using a slide guitar and engineering specialized guitar parts that might make playing easier. However, according to Jackman, none of these workarounds felt right. It was a chance inspection of a legendary country musician’s guitar technique that, according to Jackman, gave him the inspiration to return to the guitar.
“When you learn classical guitar, you're always taught to press straight down so your fingers are perpendicular to the strings, and I really couldn't do that very well,” Jackman said. “By chance I saw Dolly Parton on TV. I saw a close up of her hands, and she has very long fingernails. She can't play with … proper technique because her long fingernails prevent her from doing that, so she plays with her fingers at an angle. And I thought, ‘By golly, Dolly can do it. What's stopping me?’”
And Parton’s technique proved to be instrumental in Jackman’s return to music.
“I started actively pursuing that technique, and I just started progressing very rapidly,” Jackman said. “I'm playing most of the old songs that I used to do before, now. It has been fabulous. … I know Dolly Parton is aware that she inspires thousands and thousands of people, but I’m sure she could never guess how she inspired me.”
While he has rehabilitated his own playing rapidly, Jackman said rebuilding the connections with local venues that he lost in his year of injury has proven to be a challenge.
“I'm trying to establish myself again by going to the old places I used to play at and look for new places to play,” Jackman said. “Even in the best of times, trying to maintain a relationship with these booking agents is difficult. After a year of absence, it has been even harder. But I am trying to rebuild these relationships and build new ones so I can get back to where I was - playing three shows a week, most weeks.”
Though certainly filled with challenges, this experience of re-learning his guitar playing has given him a more positive outlook on life, Jackman said
“I said to my wife on the way to hospital after the accident that my life was over,” Jackman said. “Luckily, I got past that ugly mindset fairly quickly and was able to just start saying, ‘Okay, you're not a victim. You can figure out a way to do the thing that you love.’ I believe in my positivity a little bit more now.”
As Jackman returns to music, he said he hopes he is able to cultivate the same sense of communal joy that he was able to at his live shows before his injury.
“Playing music just makes me happy,” Jackman said. “That's why I do it. And if I can share it and get some feedback, that's just a beautiful feeling when you're getting positive energy back from your audience. It's just fun to play. And I love getting to do that and share my joy with real live audiences. That’s why I do what I do.”