Slide guitarist Wendy Jean Garrison gives voice to his acoustic guitar by moving his hand up and down the frets, his little finger covered with a steel socket wrench.
While her Mississippi blues sound is easy, for Wendy speaking is more difficult. Having first noticed a change around 15 years ago, she was eventually diagnosed with a rare neurological vocal disorder, spasmodic dysphonia.
Involuntary muscle spasms impact the vocal cords, resulting in sometimes strained and strangled speech. During COVID-19, Garrison and Memphis Grace askew, an award-winning songwriter and performer, has come together to co-write “I have a voice” a sincere song on SD.
The song was born out of a request from Mary Bifaro, longtime board member and volunteer director of the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association Support Leadership Network.
For Bifaro, “It’s a dream come true for me to unite our community through a song.”
The NSDA is dedicated to improving the lives of people with DS and associated voice disorders through research, education, awareness and support. Through the organization, Garrison found soul mates. She is an active member, regional contact manager, support group manager and has attended many national meetings, even having performed at one in Nashville.
The song is part of Garrison’s musical journey. Raised in Maryland, several years after college, she moved to Mississippi in 1987 with her husband.
“I was interested in the environment and Mississippi was a place where we could afford to buy land,” said Garrison.
They took root on 80 acres. Garrison continued his education and earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Mississippi. She had a long and satisfying career there as a biology teacher.
Along the way, music played a central role in Garrison life. Meeting blues scholar and harmonica player Walter Liniger at the University of Mississippi was a turning point. Liniger shared his gift with Garrison, who continued to study with blues guitarists James “Son” Thomas and Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry, and to emulate the music of Skip James, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson.
Garrison said, “When I think about it, the slide looks a lot like a voice. Since I don’t sing, playing the slide is a way for me to communicate. It’s very attractive to me.
Since 1996, Garrison has been a regular on local bands including “High Water Mark” and more recently “Maybelle’s Lovers”. His custom soundtracks have been shown at the Tennessee Williams Festival 2020 and on the Hill County TV Network in New Albany, Mississippi, among others.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace became Garrison’s songwriting trainer.
“I had never heard of SD or NSDA, so when Wendy brought this project to my attention it was intriguing that we could write a song that could affect an entire community.” Askew said. “When we started to write the song, the lyrics started to resonate with me. Even though I don’t have this condition, when I was a kid I didn’t feel heard, so I started to see myself in the song. When you write something, you don’t know how it will affect people from all walks of life, even if it was written for a specific audience.
Garrison added, “When I brought up the idea of writing a song on SD, Grace immediately agreed. She asked me to explain what it was like to have a voice disorder. I tried to give an overview of what it is on a daily basis.
The song reflects both the isolation caused by SD and the strong bonds that can be formed through its national association.
“I Have a Voice” will be featured in the next NSDA fundraiser, Walk to talk, from October 7 to 11. This annual event brings together the organization community as well as their family and friends to raise awareness of SD and associated voice disorders and raise funds to support research to find better treatments and possibly a cure.