GUITARIST JAMES NORTON USES MUSIC TO BATTLE BULLIES, NAYSAYERS, AND STAGE IV CANCER
by ELLEN ORR | photos by MOLLY MINTER
“Growing up as a kid,” James recalls, “I was short, I was fat, I had a terrible haircut. Just one of those nerdy kids. I got bullied and picked on a lot, and when I was about 8 years old, I thought, ‘Well, maybe [playing music] will make me cool.’”
That whim—maybe music will protect me from bullies—spurred James to ask his parents for an electric guitar, which he received for his eighth birthday, despite his parents’ reservations; they, according to James, were worried about the electric guitar music he was listening to, falling prey to the stigma surrounding the heavy metal genre. He convinced them to let him listen to instrumental heavy metal; he became obsessed with the guitar performances of Joe Satriani, practically wearing out the CD.
At age 10, having convinced his parents of his passion, they enrolled him in guitar lessons with local teacher Joe Schafer, under whose guidance James began writing his own music. Unfortunately, picking up an instrument was not the key to social acceptance that he thought it would be, but learning to write music did prove a way for James to deal with being bullied. “Music for me was the first way I learned to ‘hit back,’” he says; he wrote and played songs that allowed him to vent his pain, frustration, and anger.
As a preteen, he played in the church band, but he didn’t stay long. “I wasn’t into the music,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to play lead guitar. I wanted to shred.”
Enter local teacher Mark Kerr, who started mentoring James when he was 13. “Taking lessons with him solidified what I wanted to do, [play the guitar professionally],” James says. “He’s phenomenal. He was a tough teacher, and I was fortunate to have him.”
Mark’s influence on James is clear; James says that, even now, as a seriously-trained musician and adult, he’s “still scared of Mark Kerr,” referencing his healthy respect and fear for him. But merely participating in lessons is not what propelled a teenage James into excellence; even as a kid, James’ devotion to the guitar transcended the rehearsal room.
“I wasn’t very popular ever,” he says. “I didn’t have many friends to hang out with. So while everybody else was doing typical teenager stuff, I was sitting at home, playing guitar until I fell asleep. That was pretty much middle school through high school.” He remembers taking his notes from guitar lessons, pouring over them at home, and even studying them at school, hiding his guitar book behind his textbooks.
This memory prompts a nugget of wisdom that foreshadows James’ future career: “You can have the best teachers in the world,” he says, “but it’s only about as valuable as what you want to put into it.” James would go on to have, quite literally, the best teachers in the world, at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the nation’s largest independent college of contemporary music and the home of guitar legends.
But it wasn’t a straight-shot. After high school, James attended a small Arkansas university, in order to stay near his girlfriend and satisfy the cultural pressure he felt to pursue a more “sensible” career; he declared chemistry as his major and tried to fit in. He quickly learned, however, that he had no passion for science, and he switched his major to music, but he felt largely unchallenged and unsupported by the music faculty. He remembers various verbal put- downs from within the department, the most notable being, “You’re just not that creative; you should probably do something else.”
Despite finding the courses underwhelming, James’ grades suffered. One graded performance in particular was especially traumatizing to him. “I had one really, really bad performance playing classical guitar,” he says. “It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Afterward, I walked to the bathroom and threw up. For about five years, that experience haunted me.”
One day near the end of his third year of university, James received a call from his father, who informed him that he had an audition scheduled at Berklee in four days. “I told him, ‘You’re aware that people spend a year or two years practicing just to audition there, right?’” James remembers. He says they even got into a bit of an argument, no doubt fueled by nerves.
Nevertheless, he spent the next four days engaged in nonstop practice, fueled by “lots of Red Bull.” They flew to Boston for the audition, and he was accepted—provisionally. Due to his poor grades, he would be held to higher-than-normal standards upon enrolling at Berklee: during his first semester, he would have to maintain a 3.6 GPA, obtain letters of recommendations from all of his professors, and prove himself worthy of being retained. Up to the challenge, he maintained a 3.98 GPA, impressed all of his instructors, and was in the handful of provisional students allowed to stay.
Of course James wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip through his fingers; this was everything he had wanted for years. Berklee had been his dream since he was 14, when a friend at school illicitly introduced him to the work of Joe Stump, a guitarist and both alumnus of and professor at Berklee. Stump became his idol—and then his teacher and friend. “If you had told me back then that I’d be really good friends with Joe Stump now, I would’ve called you crazy,” James laughs. “It’s weird how stuff works out. One day you’re breaking the rules at school, and the next you’re up in Boston taking lessons with Joe Stump.”
Over the next eight semesters (consecutively squished into two and a half years), James managed to take lessons consistently with Stump, a feat requiring much persistence, since everybody wants a spot in his classes. He also took lessons from renowned jazz drummer Kenwood Dennard, whose notable credits include playing with Miles Davis.
“I ended up bonding with Kenwood because he said my inner pulse was weak, so I went to every one of his office hours and would spend hours just working with him,” James said. “That’s advice I would give to anyone—any musician or [anyone else]: You’ve been playing guitar your whole life? Take lessons with a drummer or a keyboard player or violinist. Take lessons with people outside of your own [discipline], because they have tips and tricks that you may not have thought of. It can only help you.”
James spent every waking moment learning. He knew that, even with the help he was receiving from his parents, he could only afford to stay at Berklee for two and a half years, but he was determined to get four years’ worth of education out of the experience anyway. He woke at 4 a.m. every day to study; he practiced seven hours a day outside of class and other official obligations. He took private lessons on the weekends. “It was like a dream come true,” he says. “I never thought I would get to do anything like that. I was surrounded by a lot of people who didn’t think I was a weirdo. I did well in my classes. I worked really, really hard. Berklee was a great place for me.”
He graduated in December 2015 with a bachelor of music degree. He moved back to Texas, stopping over in Texarkana for a few months but ultimately moving to the Dallas area, where he worked to break into the DFW metal scene. He was initially crashing on friends’ couches, but once he gained employment as a guitar instructor, he was able to obtain his own apartment. Every day, he would work his eight-to-five at Dallas’ School of Rock music institute, and then hit the music scene, playing open mic nights until as late as 4 a.m.
He didn’t give himself many breaks. “I forced myself to play every night to get over my stage anxiety,” he recalls, referencing the stage fright brought on by the trauma he experienced from that one bombed performance years previous. “The only way I’ve found to get over something you’re afraid of is to do a lot of it,” he reflects, so that’s what he did. “I just recently got to the point where I can play by myself in front of an audience without being afraid.”
It was a year of nightly “open jams” until he landed his first gig, thanks to a Berklee friend who was touring through Dallas and needed an opener. He finally had his foot in the door; his career was beginning. Unbeknownst to James, however, another life journey was just beginning as well.
“Right when I started getting gigs in Dallas is when I got diagnosed with cancer,” he says. This was the summer of 2017. “That kind of messed with me a bit,” he says. “You do all this work . . .”
What started as a persistent mouth ulcer developed into stage IV oral cancer, which required the surgical removal of the lymph nodes in the right side of his neck and one fifth of his tongue, as well as weekly chemotherapy and five-days-a-week radiation. His mom and girlfriend moved to Dallas while he endured treatments at UT Southwestern. His dad drove in every Monday, “Chemo Day,” and his sister, who was in college at Rhodes in Memphis, flew in on the weekends. This team kept him taken care of, for which he is immensely grateful, often reflecting on his good fortune concerning his family.
He tried to keep up his guitar practice throughout treatment, but that became physically impossible. What was once a seven-hour daily practice dwindled to three hours or less, inconsistently. But when he couldn’t play, he composed, and he spent many hours listening to others’ work.
“Sitting in radiation or chemo gives you a lot of time to meditate,” he says. “One thing that gave me comfort during radiation was listening to all of my guitar heroes and favorite musicians. I ended up sending a couple of those guys messages, thanking them for helping me get through it. I heard back from [renowned guitarist and composer] Jason Becker [who is living with ALS], and that was really cool.”
His last day of treatment was October 24, but “what they don’t tell you is that you’re going to feel worse after treatment than you did during treatment, because you’re not on the steroids anymore, the pain medications,” he said. Radiation burns in his mouth caused such excruciating pain that he was hospitalized almost immediately upon finishing treatment. “The nurse told me, ‘You can’t overdose with this, so I would advise just pressing the button until you pass out,’” he remembers. “It was brutal.”
Even after leaving the hospital, James was in agony, coming off of high doses of opioids and dealing with the resulting pain, severe nausea, and muscle spasms. For months, he experienced starvation and dehydration due to the inability to keep anything down. Days on end were spent in bed, and when he did get up, he often collapsed. “When you don’t walk for almost a month, stuff just doesn’t work,” he says. “It was actually kind of surprising. I thought I’d be fine. The last thing I expected was getting to the bathroom and my legs giving out.”
It wasn’t until the second week of January that James was “talking and coherent again.” Since then, James has continued to see improvements in his health. He is beginning to feel better and is working to build his daily practice back to five hours.
Living with his parents and focusing primarily on recovery, James has had a lot of time this year to reflect — on his struggles and triumphs, his weaknesses and strengths. One seeming double-edged sword in James’ life is his Asperger syndrome, which he was diagnosed with as a child but only informed of when he was 17.
“For a while I was kind of embarrassed of it,” he admits, “but I did a lot of research, and once I figured out how to use it to my advantage, it was like, ‘I love having Aspergers.’ Aspergers is probably the reason I can sit down with the guitar for five to seven hours and not get bored.
“Anybody who thinks [people with Aspergers] are really just at a disadvantage—well, maybe somewhat, but a lot of the things we are capable of doing far exceed the things that ‘normal people’ can do.”
Looking ahead, James does intend to reignite his guitar career, likely moving back to Dallas, but for now, he is regaining strength, enjoying his family, and practicing gratitude. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I still have things to learn, but I’ve done damn near just about everything I’ve wanted to do in my life. I’ve met my heroes. I went to the school I always wanted to go to. It didn’t all go the way I would’ve chosen, but that’s the story, and I guess it’s mine.”