Neither cancer nor paralysis will keep Gooch from making music

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Gooch has earned the right to sing the blues.

Ryan “Gooch” Nelson started playing guitar at 12 years old, fashioning himself in a Dave Matthews or John Mayer jam-band style. He was winning talent shows and gearing up for a career in music.

In 2004, at 19 years old, he was in a car accident that crushed his spine. He emerged a C7 quadriplegic.

“I’m paralyzed in all four limbs,” said Nelson. “The bottoms of my arms, my fingers, my stomach muscles, and everything below my chest doesn’t work. I don’t have control over it.

“I take a bottleneck slide and put it on my [left] thumb, put a thumb pick on my [right] thumb, and play it like this,” said Nelson, demonstrating his slide guitar technique through a distorted amplifier.

In 2008 Nelson formed a band, 61 North, with childhood friend Brian LaPann. The band released two records and shared a stage with the Allman Brothers and the Zac Brown Band.

But tragedy struck again, when Nelson was diagnosed with cancer.

“Five or six years after my accident, I got really sick, really skinny, started to bruise all over my body,” said Nelson. “I was still playing shows with 61 North, but it got tougher and tougher. Finally found I have CML leukemia.”

His leukemia is in remission, but the daily chemotherapy drugs cause fatigue, making more challenging the already difficult musician’s life of travel, recording, and publicity.

Nevertheless, Nelson found the energy to form a new band, Gooch and the Motion. A few weeks ago, it released its first record, “Comin’ Home,” produced by Grammy-winning Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, of the Butcher Brothers duo (Urge Overkill, Luscious Jackson).

“He took Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Boots are Made for Walking’ — the bass line — and we play on top of that, then we use Tom Waits lyrics. It has a really unique sound,” said Nelson of his band’s version of “Diamonds On My Windshield.” “A little more of a produced hip-hop sound, with the roots sound we do.”

Just before Gooch and the Motion released “Comin’ Home,” sadness struck yet again. Nelson’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in January.

“I would go play music for him in his hospital bed when he was on hospice. I saw what it did for him for us to play for him and put a smile on his face when he could barely speak,” said Nelson.

Nelson, 30,  has just formed a nonprofit organization, Music in Motion, to bring music into hospitals, prisons, and other residential institutions. He cannot forget the long stay at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia when he was learning to live within his new physical restrictions. Music played a part in his recovery.

“To take your mind off the institutionalization and therapy. It’s 90% mental, 10% physical,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like that, because you’re learning a new physical thing. But like anything else, it’s mental.”

Twelve years ago, when Nelson was a Magee resident, the hospital had a music program. It no longer does. Music in Motion is meant to raise money for visiting music programs, to help people ride out their down time.

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