In 2015 I gave a musician friend of mine the nickname ‘Django Mike’ after a table saw accident in which he lost three of the fingers on his picking/strumming hand. My gesture was inspired by legendary Manouche-Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt developed his much-lauded unique style of playing using two fingers for solos and two severely injured fingers for chords because of a horrific fire accident. As it turned out, Django Mike also admired Reinhardt and, unknown to me, took the nickname as a sign he shouldn’t give up.
Few people would have blamed award-winning Cherokee Folk Singer-Songwriter Michael Bucher if he gave up performing after the life-changing accident in 2015 that made him fear he would never play his guitar again.
It would be many months before he attempted it.
A defining moment about his newly-acquired disability occurred two months into the musician’s recovery when the bandages and stitches were finally removed from his injured right hand. “I felt liberated and free of the weight. I went grocery shopping. A simple joy I used to like to do. At the checkout I handed the person a $10 bill. When she was ready to give me my change, without thinking, I put up my right hand to accept the change. I’ve been right-handed my entire life and did what I’ve always done as an auto response, put out my right hand,” he recounted via email.
“When she looked at my hand she pulled back the change in her hand, with a simultaneous moan/gasp and look of absolute disgust. I was embarrassed, felt my face flush to a heat never felt before, apologized while putting my right hand in my pocket and extended my left hand. She dropped the change in my left hand, holding her hand several inches above mine, which allowed the coins to drop on the counter and floor. I left the coins there and exited, completely sick to my stomach. I’d like to add that there is a customary greeting among most males here, where upon greeting another, there’s a right handed hand shake. Another dilemma for folks like me.”
As painful as experiences like that have been for him, Bucher isn’t one to be too resentful if he can help it. “It took me a long time to figure out and realize that most people aren’t doing it on purpose, it’s just human nature, and they’re usually just as embarrassed as I am,” he says. “I can, and usually do, hide my hand in my pocket just to save everyone the confusion/embarrassment. Many other disabled people don’t have that luxury.”
In the three years since becoming disabled, Michael Bucher readily admits to his struggles which in the past included compiling a ‘never again’ list of all the things he had seemingly lost. He had worked as a carpenter in the construction business for 20 years and built log houses for 30 years before becoming a musician. He had continued with construction work despite the success of his music career. Bucher lost both his ability to play guitar and the ability to be a carpenter because of the table saw accident, thus losing two very important sources of income. He never expected that he would be able to remove one of the items on the ‘never again’ list. The impact of actually being able to re-teach himself to play guitar and with the same quality as before the accident was quite profound and uplifting emotionally.
“My amputations are NOTHING compared to other folks and I still, more days than I’d like to admit, find it difficult to process in my head,” Bucher says. “What surprised me the most after the accident was how the doctors are trained to address the actual wounds and pain, physical therapists address teaching the disabled how to use whatever is left after the injury, but no one addressed the mental stress, grief, anger, moments of rage, depression, self doubt, loss of income, etc. Or how to process the looks of horror people give you from the first time you’re out in public and every time after. They don’t tell you how to numb yourself from the staring, the pullback, the embarrassment, and like I said, mine is nothing compared to so many others.”
Bucher says support from his family and friends has been uplifting and life-saving.
“From my dearest friends who are just like family and I call my family, who were my backbone when I felt I had none. My granddaughter who sent me care packages with my favorite candy for a treat. Another friend, who inspired me musically more than she knows, gave me a name, Django Mike, after the great jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who had his left hand partially paralyzed and went on to play as well as he did before his accident. My wife and I have supported and loved each other for over four decades. On all these fronts I was and am supported and loved, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.”
Least expected was the overwhelming silence from the music business and unfathomable cruelty from some he considered friends. His accident was not taken seriously and was labelled a “publicity stunt”. A fellow musician posted crude pictures of a mangled hand on social media with the caption, “This is why you shouldn’t play with saws”.
“People I thought were my friends were throwing me over board like an anchor”, says Bucher. “I’ll never figure out why, but I do know, they don’t control my future. I do.”
Despite this, he began to have a change of heart about his ‘never again’ list and his musical career in particular. He picked up his guitar and began to teach himself how to play again.
‘Django Mike’ acknowledges that he had a good excuse to give up on being a musician. “I have no feeling in my middle finger,” he says. “There is a second-sense you get when strumming the guitar or hitting chords, so this was definitely a new process for me.”
A significant motivation was his great-uncle, Frank DuMey, who was the last speaker of Tsalagi (Cherokee language) in Bucher’s family. DuMey was a mentor and friend. He and his great-nephew phoned each other weekly for several years to discuss current events in Indian Country, Bucher’s language lessons, and importance of their culture. DuMey also played the guitar which was another close connection.
“By the end of those years of talking my uncle had become very sick with no recovery likely. Two days before he died in 2006, he called me to say ‘Until we meet again’, how much he appreciated our conversations, and to use my voice and music to help educate people of other cultures about Indian Country, the indifferences, cultural appropriations, desecration of sacred sites and all of the things we had in our weekly conversations,” Dango Mike explained. “I released my first cd, “7”, in 2007 in honor of my uncle Frank DuMey. The importance and significance of my great uncle was the genesis of my music. When three of my fingers were amputated, I initially thought my guitar playing was over and it made me sick to think I couldn’t continue to honor my uncle and Indian Country through my music.”
After months of rehabilitation riddled by frustration and self-doubt and spending hundreds of dollars on guitar picks, he started to find musical sweet spot again thanks to a tacky adhesive that makes it possible for him to hold his guitar pick between his remaining thumb and middle finger. Practicing his old songs sowed seeds of optimism. Though concerned about audience reactions to his injured hand, he was keen to work on his next album and get back on stage.
In May 2016, no one was more surprised than ‘Django Mike’ with what he’d accomplished. He was able to play the most technically difficult song he had written to date, “Dark Horse”. He achieved another seemingly impossible post-disabled dream on October 1st 2017: he released his third album, ‘this.’ It includes songs on the difficulties of living a “normal” life, addiction, and cultural appropriation.
Recording the 12-track masterpiece that is ‘this.’ had its challenges from the outset – namely the guitar performance Bucher considers to be one of the most difficult pieces he’s ever attempted, ‘One Finger, One Thumb, One Take’.
“This was the first studio recording he feared could make or break him if he attempted it in one take”, the promotional video states. “It didn’t break him.’
“It was so much more than just recording in a studio where you can say, hold on, let’s redo that again, but if you play live in front of an audience, you don’t have that luxury. It may have been just a moment in the studio to someone, but to me everything was riding on this one take.” he explained in a press release. “I decided either I do this in one take, or I hang it up. But it worked. The rest is history. And now I have an entire album I have recorded. It is a testament that if we really focus our energies on accomplishing what we want to accomplish, we can achieve anything.”
Bucher couldn’t help but be reflective as he looked forward to his first disability-related event: he was invited to do a speaking and concert engagement for the 30th Anniversary of the Wisconsin Council on Physical Disability.
“I don’t think I’ll ever pick up my guitar again without the thought of gratitude,” he says.
You can listen to Michael Bucher’s flawless “One Finger, One Thumb, One Take” all-or-nothing performance on YouTube.