Dean Magraw thought he had it pretty good.
The St. Paul guitarist had performed with elite musicians like Peter Ostroushko and Greg Brown. His first solo album, 1994's "Broken Silence," won an Indie Award for Best Acoustic Instrumental Album. His follow-up, 1997's "Seventh One," was also nominated.
But late in 2001, soon after America Changed Forever, Magraw's life changed forever when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"There I am on chemo, feeling rotten, frightened I'm gonna die," Magraw, 50, said in a phone interview Monday. "As my friend Steve Tibbetts said, I took a turn around the dance floor with the reaper. All (cancer) meant to me was suffering and death."
But the love of Magraw's life -- music -- brought him through it (along with his girlfriend and two children). Today, his cancer is in remission, his third album -- 2003's "Heavy Meadow" -- is out and he's touring again. He'll perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Nisswa Community Center as part of the Grassroots Concert Series.
"It took me awhile before I figured out, 'I'm gonna fight this and win,'" Magraw said. "I picked up (my guitar) and 10 to 15 minutes into it I feel just great. At that time, I didn't have the strength to do everything, but just to play a few simple chords brought me healing. I felt so lucky to have a job like that ... That's when death started to lose its grip."
As a boy growing up in St. Paul, there was little doubt Magraw would be a musician. His life has been a perpetual School of Rock (and just about every other genre).
"My sister performed showtunes, so we'd dance to big band music," Magraw said. "My parents consistently took us to big concerts. My brother studied the vina and other instruments in India, so that was a big influence. He came back from the Peace Corps with all these ideas."
The young Magraw started out as a bugle player, but that didn't last long.
"One day when I was 13, a friend with a guitar was playing the opening riff from '19th Nervous Breakdown' by the Stones. I said, 'I gotta try this.' It felt so right. It felt like I had come home."
Who: Dean Magraw
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27
Where: Nisswa Community Center
Admission: $10 (adults), $5 (children)
Magraw studied classical guitar at the University of Minnesota and Berklee College of Music in Boston. But the lessons didn't end there.
"I feel like music is such a gigantic universe and I feel like the more I study it, I find it's absolutely limitless," Magraw said. "I have had lessons with teachers, but every musician I've ever played with, I've learned from them."
Magraw's recording career began when he teamed up with Ostroushko for 1991's "Duo." "Broken Silence" and "Seventh One," distributed by Twin Cities-based Red House Records, showcased Magraw's writing skills and featured contributions from guest musicians.
"Heavy Meadow" was recorded in the Twin Cities but Red House opted not to distribute it (Acoustic Music Records in Osnabruck, Germany, is the only distributor, but Magraw sells the album at his live shows as well). It's Magraw's first completely solo effort.
Although there are no lyrics on the album, Magraw believes there is meaning behind the songs, and he provides thoughts on each track in the liner notes. Some are personal, such as "River Song," about growing up near the Mississippi River; others spring from his interest in history, such as "Jeanne d'Arc," inspired by Joan of Arc.
Magraw measures the quality of a track by how many times he can stand listening to it. Eleven tracks passed muster and made the cut on "Heavy Meadow."
"As a musician, you play your stuff back a lot and analyze it," Magraw said. "And then I do overdubs, then mix it, then master it. That's part of how I do my editing. If, after a few times, I can't take listening to it anymore, then off it goes. That's happened in a few cases."
Even so, Magraw has several albums worth of unreleased material in the can, including an electric guitar album. His dream is to release two albums a year -- one solo, one collaboration. Without an American distributor, that's a nearly impossible goal.
Magraw isn't intimidated. He's been through worse.
For more information, consult www.grassrootsconcerts.org or www.deanmagraw.com.
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