You might say that Tony Memmel owes his music career to Gorilla Tape. Born without a left hand, it was a challenge to be able to play guitar. Tony was a teenager when he experimented with different materials to try to engineer a device he could attach to his arm to hold a guitar pick. He discovered that he could build a cast with the extra thick adhesive Gorilla Tape.
It all started when Tony’s childhood friend, Max, impressed him with his guitar prowess. “Max could hear any song on the radio and play it on guitar without looking at a single note of music.” They started a band together, with Tony as the lead singer. But Tony also wanted to play guitar. “I started going to the library and looking up books about guitar to see what might be a possibility for me. I learned that they made left-handed guitars, which meant I could strum with my left arm and construct chords with my right fingers.”
Tony’s parents agreed to pay for half the cost of a guitar, and Tony started working odd jobs babysitting for neighbors and refereeing soccer games. Once he bought the guitar, he still had to devise a way to play it. And that’s where the Gorilla Tape comes in….
“With the guitar, I don’t even know if it entered my mind that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I know it was really hard, and there were days when it would have been easier to put it away than to keep playing and have my fingers build up those callouses and have my guitar tape fall off in the middle of a show or whatever. Those frustrating times do build you into a stronger person.”
After high school, Tony attended the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he studied classical music. He met a nursing student named Lesleigh in one of his choir classes. They started singing together on the open mic circuit in college, which lead to touring together after graduation… and a marriage proposal! They made frequent trips to Nashville for performance and business opportunities, and eventually moved to the Nashville area five years ago.
Music has become a full-time occupation for Tony and Lesleigh, although Lesleigh continues to work a couple shifts each month as an on-call nurse in the neurological intensive care unit at a local hospital. Together, they travel the world (including visiting nine countries in the past two years) performing their original singer-songwriter/folk/Americana music, mostly for school kids and hospital patients.
One of the organizations they work with is the non-profit group American Music Abroad, which works in cooperation with the US Dept of State. Tony and Lesleigh spent four weeks in South America in 2016 and six weeks in Southeast Asia a year ago -- performing concerts, attending Meet & Greets and press events, and also visiting children’s hospitals and schools with kids who have limb differences. “We have conversations and I demonstrate how I build my guitar cast and play some music, and find that’s a really neat inroad to deeper conversations to try to build cultural bridges through music.”
Tony also works with Lucky Fin Project, a support group for kids born with physical differences similar to his. “I just call it a ‘hand difference.’ There are all kinds of different medical terminologies, and many types of differences. Some of my guitar students have similar arms as me; some have a full arm to their wrist but then have differences in their fingers. Some have no arms at all.”
Social media has connected families of children with limb differences in a way that didn’t exist when Tony was growing up. “I get the opportunity to be a presence in families’ lives from the time their kids are newborns. I just saw yesterday that somebody dressed up as me for Halloween!”
Bullying is a topic that often comes up when Tony visits schools. “My parents always encouraged me to stand up for myself and also to have a good sense of humor.” Growing up, he wore a lot of hand-me-downs and clothes from yard sales. He remembers going to school one day and kids making fun of him because his shorts were too short. “Going back to the sense of humor thing, I just pulled them up even higher, which made the kids laugh.”
Tony shares some of the lessons he has learned with the young people he encounters on his tours. “I try to encourage other people who might be going through similar types of teasing to not let everything other people say determine who you feel you are as a person, your own self worth; you have unique purpose and ability.”
It is evident looking at Tony's website that he believes in music as a service to others, and that belief stems from his Christian faith. “I feel a certain calling… I feel we are born into a certain time and place for a reason and that we each have an opportunity every day to share from our experiences. I think there’s a lot of noise right now and I try to be a voice of truth and calmness and reason.”
Tony is currently working with Madison Youth Choirs in Wisconsin, where he mentors students as an artist in residence. As he teaches choral arrangements, he leads conversations around the themes of resilience and overcoming adversity. The program will culminate in a student concert, with Tony accompanying them on acoustic guitar, tambourine, and shaker.
"Learning to play the guitar has been a dream come true. I get to travel around the entire world with my wife Lesleigh, and make a life doing something that I really love to do and know that there are opportunities for impact every single time I have a chance to speak and play.”
In preparation for future tour dates, Tony and Lesleigh have recently added a new piece of equipment -- a car seat for their baby! They will be welcoming a new member to their family any day now, and we’re just waiting to find out if it is a boy or a girl!
FUN FACTS AND TRIVIA
Early musical influences: Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Green Day, Blink 182
Other musical influences: Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Avett Brothers
Favorite author: Ernest Hemingway
Favorite podcast: Dave Ramsey (financial advice from a biblical perspective)
Favorite Nashville restaurant: Husk*
*Lesleigh rates it as one of the best restaurants in the world!
Best concert: Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons at Lake Michigan in 2008
Favorite movie: Apollo 13
Photographer credit: Alison Weakley
For more information, booking, or to follow Tony on social media, go to www.TonyMemmel.com