Luke Putney gets a hand from his mother, Nancy Hoddinott, in the Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, on Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by Sam Simpkins/Belmont University

Luke Putney testifies to the healing power of music, helping others

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Luke Putney’s prayers are simple these days. He prays for healing in his left hand so he can play guitar and bass again. He asks God to strengthen his body so he can be a blessing to other people.

And he gives thanks for being able to use the bathroom.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” said Putney, while getting up to take a break from an interview in the living room of the East Nashville home he shares with his mom and his dog, Jacob.

Life’s been a challenge for Putney, a 25-year-old aspiring musician and the founder of Instrumental Horizons, a Nashville-based nonprofit that raises funds to provide music therapy and musical instruments to children in hospitals and in underserved communities.

Luke Putney, right, delivers donated instruments during a trip to Colombia with the nonprofit he started, Instrumental Horizons, in June 2017. Photo by Nancy Hoddinott

In 2017, Putney graduated from Belmont University, then took his first international trip for Instrumental Horizons, delivering donated violins, cellos, trumpets, timbales and other instruments to a school in Colombia.

When he returned to Nashville, Putney had what he thought was a bad headache. A trip to the hospital revealed he had brain cancer.

“It was a brain tumor, the size of the surgeon’s fist, inside of my head,” said Putney.

This was not the first time Putney had faced such news. About a decade earlier, he had undergone brain surgery for a previous tumor. The surgery had gone well, but the cancer had cost the teenage Putney his sight.

Going blind didn't slow Putney down. He went on to become a successful high school wrestler, a star student, a nonprofit volunteer and a member of Skittle Biscuit, a band he started with friends in his home state of Georgia. He and Jacob, Putney's guide dog, had then headed off to Belmont, even taking time to study abroad together in Spain.

After finding out about the second tumor, Putney remained hopeful he could once again overcome a dire diagnosis.

The first surgery for the new tumor went well. But not long afterward, Putney suffered a stroke that left him in a coma for five and a half days. When he woke up, he could not feel his arms or legs or do even the simplest tasks — like go to the bathroom. On top of that, he had lost his sense of balance.

Luke Putney, seen here at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, spent more than 100 days in the hospital in 2017, undergoing nine surgeries. Photo by Nancy Hoddinott

“It’s a kind of a cruel thing to do to a blind person,” he said, with Jacob keeping watch over him from the foot of his recliner. 

Putney would eventually have nine surgeries and spend 100 days in the hospital. His love of music and his faith — and the support of his mom — sustained him. Though he lost the ability to play guitar and bass, Putney could still sing.

So he sang when he could not walk. He sang despite the constant pain wracking his body. And he even sang on the way to surgery, said Nancy Hoddinott, Putney’s mom.

She recalled walking alongside Putney while he was being wheeled into surgery and hearing him break into one of his original songs. Hoddinott recalled hospital staff stopping to listen as the gurney rolled down the hallway of the hospital.

Since Putney could not see what was going on, she described the scene to him.

“Mom,” he told her, “if I can’t be a light in my darkest hour, I don’t know s--- about life.”

Putney said that even during the hardest times, he tries to see what God is teaching him. He’s also been reflecting on the words of the New Testament, especially the letter to the Philippians.

“I like the part that says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’” he said. “But I really like the part which precedes that, which is to be content no matter what my circumstances. That speaks to me.”

Luke Putney, center, works in the studio with Victor Wooten, left, and other musicians recording Putney’s original song “Cape Town (I Miss Africa)” at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, on Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by Sam Simpkins/Belmont University

He pointed out that the Apostle Paul wrote those words while he was suffering in prison — something Putney felt he could relate to.

“When I was in the hospital for over a hundred days, I was questioning: 'God, why is this happening to me? Why do I keep having to go back for more surgery?' I was in so much pain,” he said. “Then I remembered Paul in the prison and thought, 'Oh yeah, oh yeah, I’ve got to be content, no matter my circumstances.' And I thought about his words and they brought joy to me.”

When he finally was released from the hospital, Putney moved to his mom's house and began the long, slow journey to recovery. Once he began walking again, with assistance to keep his balance, Putney decided it was time to get back to work on his nonprofit.

“I wanted to use every step of my recovery to make the world a better place,” he said.

He decided to walk a marathon to raise funds for Instrumental Horizons. Since he could only walk a little bit at a time, he broke it into small pieces – one mile a day for about a month, with a few days off for hospital visits.

Putney asked everyone he met to chip in a dollar for every mile he finished. By the time he finished the last mile, he’d collected more than $17,000 — all of which he said will go to fund a music therapy program in Cape Town, South Africa.

Luke Putney, right, walks with Belmont University President Bob Fisher at the university in Nashville, Tennessee, after finishing Putney’s mile-a-day fundraising marathon, or Walk-A-Thon, on Nov. 6, 2019. Through the effort, Putney raised more than $17,000 for Music Works, a music therapy program in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Sam Simpkins/Belmont University

He hopes to collect at least another $5,000 by the end of the year. In March, he and his mom will travel to Cape Town — on donated plane tickets from Delta — to present a check to Music Works, a nonprofit music program in that city.

Some of the first people to support Putney’s latest fundraiser were members of Eastwood Christian Church in East Nashville, where he’s attended services the last eight months.

This fall, during a time of sharing joys and concerns, Luke talked with the congregation about his recovery. He told about his history – the tumors and stroke – and then mentioned the fundraising marathon.

As Putney spoke, a church member called out, saying he’d give a dollar for every mile Putney walked.

“All of a sudden all of the people starting calling out that they’d give too,” said the Rev. Christy Jo Harber, the associate pastor at Eastwood Christian Church.

Harber said that when Putney first starting attending services, he was in a power wheelchair. Over the past few months, the church has watched and supported his recovery. She wishes that she could capture the feeling in the church on the day Putney talked about his marathon.

“There were tears and smiles and huge cheers,” she said. “So much of that is because of Luke’s vulnerability and his willingness to share his whole self.”

While he still can’t play bass or guitar, Putney is slowly getting back into music. He’s been playing piano with one hand and returned to the recording studio this fall to finish an original song called “Cape Town (I Miss Africa).”

Luke Putney, center, works in the studio with Victor Wooten and other artists recording his latest song at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, on Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by Sam Simpkins/Belmont University

He had laid down the guitar and vocal tracks before his stroke and wanted to finish the song as a thank-you for anyone who donated to the marathon. His friend and mentor Bob Fisher, the president of Belmont, arranged studio time at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios. Another friend and mentor, Victor Wooten, a Grammy-winning bassist, produced the record. Bakithi Kumalo, best known for playing on "Graceland" with Paul Simon, played bass, and other world-class players joined in the session as well. (Putney had met Kumalo during a family trip to Cape Town years earlier.)

“Luke is one of those people who gives you hope,” said Pat McMakin, director of operations at Ocean Way, which is owned by Belmont.

McMakin, who engineered the recording of “Cape Town,” said he’s watched Putney’s recovery and been amazed by the work done by his mother, Nancy.

“She is 110 percent behind Luke,” he said. “Luke stays focused on his goals and Nancy stays focused on helping him.”

Luke Putney plays the bass guitar in 2016. Photo by Nancy Hoddinott

Putney, who described himself as a “hopeful, comedy-centric, Christ-following jumble of musical knowledge and smiles,” hopes to someday get back to playing music on his own.   

Till then, he’ll stay focused on helping others through his charity, highlighting the healing power of music.

Putney said he’s felt that power in the past. He said the gift of a bass guitar right after his first brain surgery at age 12 changed his life. At the time, Putney said, he felt powerless and broken. But with that bass guitar in his hands, he felt ready to take on the world.

“It made me feel like I stand on top of a mountain and play bass to thousands of people and shatter glaciers with it,” he said.