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Addressing Life’s Issues and Severe-to-Profound Hearing Loss Through Music and Painting: Interview with Randy Rutherford

Addressing Life’s Issues and Severe-to-Profound Hearing Loss Through Music and Painting: Interview with Randy Rutherford

November 12, 2010 Interviews

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, speaks with Rutherford, a performing humorist, singer, actor, and, painter, about his profound hearing loss.

Academy:

Hi, Randy. Thanks for your time this morning.

Rutherford:

Hi, Doug. Nice to speak with you again.

Academy:

Randy, I’m trying to think of a good way to give the readers an overview of who you are and what you do on stage, but you defy most of the traditional categories.

I’ve seen you perform, and I’ve seen your artwork, and the best I can come up with is you’re a Renaissance Man. Sort of a cross among Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Woody Guthrie, and Garrison Keillor.

Rutherford:

Thanks, Doug. I haven’t heard that before, but that works.

Academy:

Well….let’s start at the beginning. How did you’re “on stage” performance become the personal, musical, artistic, and insightful event that it is?

Rutherford:

Well, I’m not really sure. It mostly evolved from how I grew up. I’ve always told stories—since I was a little kid. And so as I gained experience and expanded my interests in music, art, theater, writing, and comedy, and as my hearing loss progressed, everything influenced everything else—my life, my perceptions, my outlook, and my performance.

Academy:

Yes, the on-stage event is a bit like a carefully-woven-yet-
seamless patchwork quilt of emotion, music, drama, and comedy. The whole thing is very engaging and it pulls you right in, and then you can’t turn away.

Rutherford:

Thanks, Doug.

Academy:

Randy, when did you first become aware of your hearing loss?

Rutherford:

Great question. Well the thing is, when I was a child I used to say “what?” all the time. People had to repeat themselves for me and I had to pay very careful attention or I would totally miss their words and their meaning.

Of course, back then, many of the other kids and adults just thought I wasn’t paying attention, and frankly I never thought much about it. You know how it is for people with hearing loss—they don’t know what they cannot hear. Each of us assumes everyone hears what we hear, or doesn’t hear what we don’t hear. So there was no way to compare what I was hearing to what the other kids were hearing…so I just said “huh?” and “what?”

I even recall going to the movies with my mom when I was a kid—we both loved the movies. It was thrilling and captivating, but I thought everyone could only hear what I could hear, and I thought we each had to study the visual images and integrate that with the audio to create a total presentation. But now when I look back, seems to me most of the people in the theater probably heard the whole soundtrack!

Academy: Yeah, you’re probably right. When did you get your first hearing test?
Rutherford:

Not until I was entering the Air Force at age 18. When I went for my physical, back in the mid-60s, that was the first time I was in a sound booth. I can’t say whether I passed or didn’t, but they never spoke to me about it. It was so quiet, and I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing the pure tones or tinnitus—so I kept pressing the button. I guess I passed—but I doubt the test was very accurate!

Academy:

Yikes! Well the thing is…without a complete history and a series of accurate and comprehensive hearing tests, it’s hard for me to say anything. People can be born with normal hearing and things can change rapidly after that. In fact, the numbers work like this….2 to 3 children per 1,000 are born with significant hearing loss and by the time children enter school, if we include “minimal” and unilateral hearing loss—each of which significantly impact a child’s speech, language, auditory, psychological, cognitive and other abilities—there are perhaps 70 to 75 children per 1,000 with hearing loss. So there are 25 times more children with hearing loss in grade school than those discovered at birth through newborn screenings—but when you and I were children, newborn hearing screenings hardly existed.

Rutherford:

I had no idea there were that many children with hearing problems.

Academy:

Yeah, it’s pretty astonishing…and when you add in all the noise sources and noise exposure kids are exposed to after they enter grade school and are exposed to through high school like lawnmowers, snow blowers, hair dryers, MP3 players, chain-saws, loud music, leaf blowers, concerts, target shooting, it’s amazing anyone has normal hearing! Okay, but I’ll get off my soapbox now. So, after the military, you wound up in Alaska tending bar and learning to play guitar?

Rutherford:

That’s right. And as the patrons drank more, they slurred their speech more, and as it got later at night it got noisier, and then it was so loud and noisy that I couldn’t hear anything at all, and so it became increasingly more difficult for me to hear. I finally went to get my hearing tested and they told me I had a hearing loss, and that was in my early 20s. It’s hard to say how much hearing loss I had or when it started, but it’s profound now.

Academy:

So how did you get from behind the bar to the stage?

Rutherford:

Well, when I was tending bar in Anchorage, Alaska, some 40 years ago, I was making about a $1,000 a month, which was the most I had ever earned! I was planning to save my money and go to New York to study acting. But one day, this folk-singer came into the bar and he was performing and it was mesmerizing. I saw his impact on the audience and it stopped me cold in my tracks and very soon after that, I started taking guitar lessons from him. Pretty soon they sold the bar and I became a guitar teacher and I started playing in the coffee houses around Anchorage, pretty much throughout the 1970s.

Academy:

And who were you listening to?

Rutherford: Well I loved Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the whole folk thing. Gordon Lightfoot was an enormous influence for me.
Academy: And as you approached age 30, your hearing continued to deteriorate?
Rutherford:

Yes. And I saw another doctor and he said my hearing loss would progress, so I started to paint, thinking that if I couldn’t present my art musically through sound, I would do it visually through painting. I got into water colors and I loved it. In fact, buy the time I left Anchorage, I was actually teaching water color art and selling my paintings in galleries in Anchorage.

Academy:

Yes, and as an aside, I’ll place your two Web site addresses on the Interview headlines, so the readers can easily find your work.

Rutherford:

Thanks, Doug. But interestingly, because I got into visual art, I stopped playing guitar as seriously, as I was focused on visual arts. And then I moved to San Francisco and earned a master’s degree in painting and while I was there, I got into all sorts of things. I studied comedy, art, music, and theater, got married and divorced and eventually I started to get back into guitar.

Getting back into guitar was great, but the San Francisco clubs were so noisy I really couldn’t perform as a musician. I studied being a theater clown, did some stand-up comedy and then studied solo performance…and then I started taking classes and workshops and so I slowly but surely put together my first show.

Academy:

And so at this time, you have five shows?

Rutherford:

Exactly. It took a few years to put the entire first show together, and it slowly evolved, but it’s a 75-to-90 minute show and I guess I completed the first show about 15 years ago.

Academy:

And so among the many interesting things in your “one man show” is you playing guitar, singing some musical snippets, telling fascinating stories and of course, in your production—there’s no background noise.

Rutherford:

Right. And I wear my hearing aids on stage, so I can hear the guitar and people pay attention, and so I actually perform in relative quiet—and it works out pretty well for all of us.

Academy:

And so your five shows are titled

  • Weaverville Waltz
  • My Brother Sang Like Roy Orbison
  • The Guitar Teacher
  • This May Feel a Little Funny
  • Singing at the Edge of the World
Rutherford:

Exactly. They’re each autobiographical and they contain serious and emotional elements as well as comedy and music. The show you saw, Singing at the Edge of the World, is about my life as a musician and developing profound hearing loss 30 years ago, how my life changed and how it is now. I’m currently working on a new show about how my hearing loss affects my relationships with friends and loved ones, which I hope to have ready to tour next summer.

Academy:

And most of your performances are along the Canadian border?

Rutherford: I tour the North American Fringe Theatre Circuit across Canada and throughout the United States. I recently became more involved with professional groups such as statewide audiology meetings, advocate conferences and self-help groups for people with hearing loss and other disabilities
Academy:

Excellent. Randy, I totally enjoyed your show and I want to encourage the readers to check out your two Web sites:

For groups and associations looking for fun, entertaining, and insightful entertainment, I highly recommend they contact you for an unforgettable event.

Randy Rutherford is a humorist, folk-singer, multifaceted performer, actor, guitarist, actor, writer, and painter.

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified in Audiology, is a the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology.

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