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No longer a curse: Putney overcomes blindness to learn music

Many call music the universal language, an unstoppable force that can transcend all borders, affirm our humanity and overcome any obstacle.

Few people know this as well as Luke Putney, a freshman commercial bass major who has overcome many obstacles of his own throughout his life—most significantly, his blindness.

Putney was born half-blind; his right eye had perfect vision, whereas his left had none. By the age of 10, his sight began to deteriorate completely, a trend that would continue until he turned 16. At that point, Putney became completely blind.

In an attempt to diagnose his condition, he went to 23 different hospital systems and underwent multiple brain surgeries.

No one could figure out what was wrong.

For some, that might have been the end of the story. But for Putney it was just the beginning.

“Without my blindness,” he said. “I don’t think I would be who I am. It gives me my identity. I stopped looking at it like a curse, and I’ve begun to look at it as a blessing.”

If not for Putney’s blindness, he may not have ever picked up the instrument he now majors in and channels his musical passion into: the bass guitar.

“After my first brain surgery in April of 2006, I was sitting in bed for a good amount of time,” he said. “I needed something to do that involved my brain and involved my hands and involved my creativeness. So, I picked up a bass guitar.”

Even though Putney had played upright bass before and had dabbled in guitar, becoming comfortable with the instrument was somewhat of a challenge at first. But it was a challenge he was more than prepared to tackle.

“Being blind doesn’t hurt a musician,” he said. “One of my mentors, a guy named Erik Weihenmayer, is the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest. I look at him, and I’m like, you know, if he can climb a mountain, I can find a fret.”

It wasn’t until nine months later that what began as a simple hobby became the passion that it is today. And this change can be credited largely to two brothers, Victor and Reggie Wooten, and one fateful concert that would change the course of Putney’s life forever.

Putney was given the opportunity to meet the Wooten brothers—both of whom are renowned jazz musicians—backstage after one of their performances, a chance encounter which culminated in Reggie allowing Putney to play his guitar.

“He just let a 12-year-old kid who didn’t know how to play very well play his very expensive guitar,” he said. “It was Reggie’s trust and generosity that made me want to be a musician. They were already my musical heroes, but then they became my spiritual heroes.”

The Wooten family’s influence would eventually lead Putney to Belmont in the first place. For years, he attended Wooten Woods, a bass nature camp led by Victor Wooten in Middle Tennessee. After one session his freshman year of high school, Putney and his mother were wandering through Nashville and just happened upon Belmont’s campus.

And from that moment on, he knew Belmont was the place for him.

As passionate as Putney may be about music—especially funk and fusion—he truly finds joy at the intersection where music, charity, his faith, and people meet.

“Charity and music and combining the two have been my life’s purpose,” he said. “And Belmont has done nothing but help me with that so far.”

Upon arriving on campus in August, Putney wasted no time in joining such service-minded organizations as the Executive Leadership Program and Enactus.

Through the foundation provided by these groups, he hopes one day to be able to start a music-based ministry which would provide impoverished people with free instruments, along with any profits made from his going on tour and recording.

In the meantime, though, Putney can often be found walking around campus with his Seeing Eye dog and “best buddy” Jaco, bass guitar and beaming smile in tow.

With the help of Jaco, Melissa Smith from the disabilities department, his professors and his friends from the basement of Maddox, navigating the hills and obstacles of Belmont’s campus has been no challenge at all, he said.

“You know, God puts things in our lives so that we can eventually be stronger for him,” he said. “And all of the negative things in my life, I’ve found, have only resulted in positive things later in life. So, blindness has really trained me to be God’s soldier.”

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