By Wade Tatangelo
Damon Fowler stood on the side of Interstate 75 wrapped in a ragged blanket. Rivulets of blood flowed down his face from a saucer-sized gash in the left side of his head. It was a chilly, rainy Sunday in early December 2005.
"Okay, I can move my hand," the 26-year-old Fowler assured himself, as he tested the fingers used to coerce sweet sounds from guitars since he was a teen. He paid no attention to the crack in his cranium.
The hands were fine.
But a sizable amount of his shoulder had been shredded — along with clumps of his hair.
"I can't lift my arm," Fowler said to himself. "I can't lift my arm."
Severe injuries sidelined the acclaimed singer-songwriter and ace guitarist for almost a year.
Now, Fowler's extraordinary comeback has culminated with the release of his national debut album, Sugar Shack. The disc came out Jan. 27 on the venerable roots and blues label Blind Pig Records (Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters). It has already risen to No. 12 on Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart, as the Feb. 21 issue of the trade magazine notes.
After years of being a local and underground guitar hero, Fowler, now 29, has finally stepped into the national spotlight.
Early brushes with fame
While still too young to legally buy beer, Fowler fronted his namesake blues-rock power trio. The group shared an Ocala stage with Rick Derringer, the artist best known for the classic-rock staple Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. The meeting led to Derringer staying at the Fowler residence to produce the wunderkind's 1999 debut album, Riverview Drive.
In between recording sessions at Audio Lab Studios in Tampa, Derringer slept in Fowler's childhood bedroom for nine nights and ate Hamburger Helper at the dinner table with Fowler and his mom, Connie. "I saw a spark in him that really comes from the heart," Derringer said from his home in Bradenton during a recent phone conversation.
By 2003, Fowler had evolved from playing cliched Stratocaster blues fireworks to more intricate lap steel and slide guitar. An early disc, Live at Skipper's Smokehouse, which has sold about 12,000 copies, captures Fowler at his pre-accident peak. During this period, he was touring clubs nationally and had become a charismatic presence on stage. He had gained a relatively small but devoted following — a fan base of musicians and music lovers who would soon come to his aid.
Changed in an instant
At the end of a Southeast tour in December 2005, Fowler, uncle-manager Bobby Fowler and drummer Don Stahl piled into the van to play a private party in Inverness. Bassist Chuck Riley told his bandmates he'd take his own car and meet them there.
An automobile veered to get off on the State Road 56 exit and then swerved back onto the interstate at the last second, causing the two cars in front of the van to slam on the brakes. Fowler had his vehicle under control. Then a pickup rammed them from behind. The impact caused the van to flip over on its driver side. Fowler's shoulder and head simultaneously skidded on the pavement.
First an ambulance and then a helicopter arrived. The main paramedic on the helicopter told Fowler, "You're extremely lucky you're alive, I'm looking at your head right now."
Fowler lost part of a deltoid on his left arm. He needed skin grafts on his arm and head. The artist now has an eighth of an inch of skull where there should be three. Riley, who has been Fowler's bassist since 2001, visited his close pal in the hospital the day after the accident.
"He had all these tubes in him and he was in and out of consciousness," Riley remembered. "But when he saw me, he did this air guitar gesture. He was all banged up but wanted to let me know everything would be okay."
Unlike most musicians, Fowler had health insurance through his stepdad. But the policy didn't cover bills like the $2,500 helicopter flight and other medical expenses Fowler is making payments on to this day. Enter Fowler's many friends in the local music community and fans. At Club Bourbon Street in New Port Richey, Derringer performed a benefit concert for Fowler with Riley on bass. At Skipper's Smokehouse, a roster of local luminaries raised $8,000 for their wounded buddy. Ed Wright even cajoled Fowler to step on stage, where he played guitar for a few moments on the upper part of the neck, the only section he could reach.
"People came out in droves, and I still get chills remembering seeing him on stage with the sling on his arm, playing music," noted Skipper's Smokehouse co-owner Tom White.
Better on the other side
Amazingly, Fowler emerged from a nearly year hiatus a vastly improved player whose music teemed with soul. The kind that hits you like a red-hot preacher's sermon. Fowler returned to the scene a superior songwriter and greatly improved singer, as well.
Sugar Shack contains songs Fowler mostly wrote on his own: stylistically diverse numbers about good-time girls (Some Fun), lonesome days (I Hope It's Gonna Rain) and a story of a man who spends a lifetime down on his luck (James).
The album brims with urgency, as well. Fowler achieved this by bringing in his tight road band — himself, Riley and drummer Scott Key — and recording live, rather than relying on numerous takes and overdubs.
"(Fowler) has made such a great, honest record," said Blind Pig-appointed producer Scott Cable. "It might not be blues, but it's straight, honest, American music."
Fowler is overjoyed about the CD release — yet worried about how the record will be received. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," he admitted. "I want people to know it's not just a straight blues record. It's the influences I've had in my life. It's the music I feel is closest to my heart."
Wade Tatangelo can be reached at email@example.com