Angels Among Us:
Matthew Bowlin, The Healing Power of Music, and Hard Won Resilience
By Cyrena Wages
If you know me, you know I’m attracted to artists. People who are willing to leverage all else to live in the space of the senses: emotion, sound, color, the subjective, the non-linear. Beloved Memphian Matthew Bowlin recently shared his story with me and it’s one that renewed my own perspective on the purity of art.
Matthew grew up in Fulton, Kentucky. He entered his first singing competition in the 5th grade by walking up to an outside fair and singing the country tune “Just a Swingin.” His prize for winning? A catfish dinner for his family. A self-taught pianist and vocalist, he went to church early and stayed late to pick around on the piano. He had a natural ear. “I couldn’t tell you how I was doing it, I just played. Some see music in notes, some in color, I see it in fabrics.”
As Matthew tells the story, the years following are painted in conflict and struggle. He was outed to his parents as gay at age 18, resulting in his parents disownment. He then had his first child at 18, an attempt at rewriting the narrative against those who’d bullied and outcasted him for his truth. A single dad right out of high school, he won a vocal scholarship to UT Martin. At this time, he still could not read music and was failing out of his classes. Given the responsibility of being a new father, he hung up his artistic pursuits. “I changed my major to PE. I mean I had always wanted to be a cheerleader, too!” he says emphatically, breaking into laughter. However, his musical leave would only be temporary.
Matthew’s baby nephew Jonathan was hit by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury resulting in a coma (a similar tragedy had taken Matthew’s own little brother many years prior). Jonathan’s father (Johnny Sr.) would play tapes of Matthew’s singing for his hospitalized son constantly, old recordings that Sr. had captured of Matthew’s various gospel performances over the years. The tape laid playing in Jonathan’s hospital bed. Matthew was asked to come to the hospital one Saturday as the family considered taking Jonathan off life support. “I remember it clearly. I sat there in the rocking chair, the baby laid in my arms and all you could see was his eye area as he was all bandaged up.” Matthew begins singing to me, “There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come” - this unbelievably beautiful tone comes across my cell phone. “I sang to him. The nurses said ‘don’t stop doing what you’re doing, he’s responding.’” Baby Jonathan’s eyes fluttered. The nurses took him away and Matthew left in fear, assuming the end had come. “The next day my older brother called and said you have to come see this. I went in and the baby was standing in his crib with a helmet on.”
Sure, when reading this excerpt, skepticism is a choice. Or, what about the other choice? What about the possibility of magic and wonder? The unexplainable? “The next week I went back to the school and said can y’all find me a tutor, I want to change my major back to music. I have to teach children.”
Matthew graduated from UT Martin with a BMME, Bachelors of Music Music Education. After moving to Memphis, he joined several choirs eventually founding his own, originally called the Adams Avenue Camerata. Matthew is in his 3rd year teaching music at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary K-5 in Frayser, with May 2023 marking the end of his 22nd year as a music educator.
“The Preschool kids I had today didn’t understand what the notes were, but they could associate the sound with higher dots and lower dots. When singing these pitches their faces just glow. Then I tell them ‘kiss your brain, that was fantastic.’ They want so hard to please you. They want to be chosen, ya know.”
As for the adult community choir he leads, now called Memphis Camerata, it encompasses Memphians of all walks of life. “We have two music teachers, a banker, a corporate VP. Some can’t read music. I want to break every barrier or tradition that has previously been held for a community choir. People get insecure about their talents. I reassure them that I will help them find their voice. You can take a choir that sings perfectly from start to end and if it doesn’t spark an emotion in the people listening, that music was done in vain. My purpose is to move one person to tears or to happiness.”
Memphis Camerata has been on hiatus since covid, and their June 6th concert, titled “The Awakening” at St. Patrick's Catholic Church will be the first in many years. “The Awakening” is about what would happen if there were no more hosannahs, alleluias, only silence, and then everything wakes up. “How can I keep from singing, Let Music Fill the Air, I Have Had Singing. Stories of men singing in the fields as they worked, children singing in the village as they played, the women at church singing. That's what I pleasure the most, because I have had singing. It’s a blessing.”
As in every honest story, there is redemption. Sometimes redemption happens in the same life, and sometimes in a later one. Matthew’s father passed away eight years ago during Christmas. He was brought to Memphis to be rehabilitated and spend his last 18 days with Matthew. “I was with him everyday.” They achieved forgiveness and understanding. The last time his father saw him was when Matthew’s men's choir came to the hospital to sing his father’s three favorite Christmas carols in harmony. “My dad did not know I was doing these things in Memphis. All that had been shared with him was the negative.” As mentioned above, Matthew was disowned at 18. “My dad called me the next day and said, “I love you, son. Don’t forget me.’ That’s the last time we spoke.”
Just one year ago Matthew graduated with his Masters in ORFF Music from the University of Memphis.
In my last question, I asked him what ignited such tenacity and resilience? Not everyone given the circumstances and trauma would have been able to take this type of agency over their story. “How did you?” I asked. “My sons,” he replied.
Life is complicated. Pasts are complicated. You don’t know someone until you do. There are angels among us and within us, angelic souls and angelic voices, and we are all much more alike than we may initially realize.
I hope you’ll consider attending the June 6 Memphis Camerata performance at St. Patricks Catholic Church at 7PM.
You are needed, you are welcomed, you are wantedMatthew Bowlin
Share Angels Among Us