After a health scare, Andy Tolins’ latest album offers gratitude

Andy Tolins, who is the frontman for Haystack Lighnin’ and AAA Blues Band, has released a new album after suffering a stroke last year.
Andy Tolins, who is the frontman for Haystack Lighnin’ and AAA Blues Band, has released a new album after suffering a stroke last year. Photo provided

Local musician Andy Tolins has released his latest album “Haystack Lightnin,’ ” a collection of songs that he has been fine-tuning for 30 years.

The nine-song instrumental album is a blend of bluegrass and folk music with jazz and blues undertones. Tolins said the album is a consistent and coherent collection of his writing, playing and producing.

“These tunes were conceived and recorded over the course of my time living in this town,” Tolins said. “It’s central Pennsylvania through my musical filter.”

The 58-year-old guitarist and singer was born in Flushing, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Tolins’ mother, Selma Tolins-Kaufman, grew up in Flushing where she aspired to be a songwriter and as a teen wrote about the coming atomic age. She co-wrote the musical “Homeroom,” which is a Broadway-style musical about how teenagers can deal with social challenges. Tolins attributes much of his success to his mother.

“Her influence for me is beyond words,” he said.

Tolins started playing piano when he was 8 and moved to guitar when he was 10. The first album he recalls loading onto his turntable was the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” released in 1965, and the first concert he attended was Arlo Guthrie. That’s when Tolins said he began to realize the power of music.

“I discovered the early generations of bluegrass, jazz and old-time and began to delve deeper, studying the way these styles unfolded for those who followed,” Tolins said.

As a late teen, Tolins explored his musical skill set and began to record songs on a four-track machine. Home recording has been a theme throughout his career. Tolins recorded the 2004 song “Quicksilver” in his mother’s walk-in closet and almost all of “Haystack Lightnin’ ” was recorded in the living room of his State College home. Performing songs live in the same room, as opposed to a segmented studio session, helps Tolins connect with each piece of music on a more intimate level.

“Recording, in my ears, is like photography,” Tolins said. “I want to capture the energy of the moment.”

In 1991, Tolins’ quest for a connection with his musical partners led him to Zeno’s Pub in downtown State College, where he has been a fixture since 1991. Tolins leads Haystack Lightnin’ on Wednesday nights and on Friday he is the front-man of AAA Blues Band. The live shows give him an opportunity to work on songs he plans to record.

“Having a working band, no matter what the level, lets you perform and edit until you feel it’s where it needs to be,” Tolins said. “Zeno’s is my lab.”

In August 2015, Tolins was forced to take a break from his lab work. He woke up on what he said seemed like a normal Saturday morning and noticed he was slurring his speech. As he attempted to carry on with his usual morning routine, the left side of his body became numb and he dialed 911.

He suffered from a mild stroke and for two weeks he struggled to walk and talk. When word spread, his playing partners and friends held a benefit show at Zeno’s to raise money for his medical bills. With the financial boost he began rehabilitation, which took almost three months.

Each day he tried to play his guitar and at first, he could barely hold it. As he progressed, he was surrounded by friends and family who showered him with support and love. Tolins said the recovery process forced him to “re-learn, re-write and re-evaluate.”

“The difficult part was realizing all the things I took for granted, might change from that moment on,” Tolins said. “The support and outpouring of caring from family, friends and community changed me for the better, I hope.”

Tolins said the support he received deserves a “thank you” and while the album is meant to offer gratitude, the production of the songs and the process of music creation helped him to heal from the experience.

“When I feel vulnerable or sad, or whatever, it’s about the tension and release in a solo or a chord, progression or a lyric,” Tolins said. “It all reflects something, hopefully the message is positive or at very least cautionary.”

“Haystack Ligthnin’ ” is available on iTunes and Amazon.com.

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi

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