Local musician on road to recovery with local support

Andy Tolins plays the guitar during Tussey Mountain’s Bluegrass BBQ in 2009.
Andy Tolins plays the guitar during Tussey Mountain’s Bluegrass BBQ in 2009. CDT file photo

For some, playing music is a hobby, but for Andy Tolins, lead guitarist and founder of The Triple A Blues Band, music is much more than that.

“I mean, to me, it is kind of like a religion,” he said.

Tolins was holding the band’s 1999 CD, “Highwater,” its first album and winner of Billboard/Musician Magazine’s Best Unsigned Band Competition for best songwriting and musicianship.

Tolins, 57, plays in a number of bands in central Pennsylvania, including the Screaming Ducks, Haystack Lightnin’, and Natascha and The Spy Boys. However, most people know him as the lead singer and guitarist of The Triple A Blues Band, which has played at Zeno’s Pub in downtown State College every Friday night for the past 24 years. Over that time, Tolins and band have formed a close bond with fans who come to see them every week.

That is why when Tolins suffered a stroke on Aug. 1, the community was there to support him every step of the way.

Tolins was with his girlfriend, Ellen Braun, on a Saturday afternoon when a blood clot in the base of his neck suddenly stopped the flow of blood to his brain.

“I looked at my girlfriend and said, ‘I’m having a stroke,’ ” Tolins recounted, running his fingers through his snow-white beard.

Braun called an ambulance and EMTs were quickly able to administer a “clot buster,” a medication that breaks up the blood clots in stroke or cardiac patients, and fly Tolins to Hershey Medical Center. Thanks to speedy emergency procedures, Tolins received the treatment he needed and, because of that, is set to make almost a full recovery.

“I’m lucky,” said Tolins. “Sometimes you don’t get to the doctors as quick and you’re stuck with long-lasting effects.”

Tolins spent a week in Hershey Medical Center, then started therapy and strength training in the hope of getting back his motor and speech functions.

“The first week I was off-balance and my arm was very limp and my speech was slurred, but it slowly started to come back,” he said.

But what was remarkable about Tolins’ recovery was how his bandmates, Zeno’s and the community responded to the news of his stroke.

“It was amazing. I was overwhelmed,” said Tolins, shaking his head in disbelief.

“It was really a shock to all of us when it happened,” said John Thompson, Tolins’ longtime friend and a member of The Triple A Blues Band since 2003. “Andy is an important part of our musical community in State College. It was really tough to see that happen to him.”

Thompson said the band was scheduled to play at Zeno’s on the Tuesday after Tolins had the stroke. After they heard the news, they decided to turn that show into a benefit concert called Aid Andy, with all of the proceeds going to help Tolins pay his medical expenses. Tolins was not able to attend but heard all about it from his friends.

“The turnout was great. I have a bunch of pictures and recordings of the event. I wrote some tunes for it, and my son Marshall came and read a letter,” he said.

Tolins said he thinks his insurance will cover most of his expenses, but thanks to the generosity of his fans he doesn’t need to worry. His expenses, he said, “are pretty covered. They took away all the anxiety.”

The roots of the Triple A Blues Band date back 25 years when Tolins and some friends spontaneously decided to play together at a friend’s wedding. Now, after 24 years of playing at Zeno’s, the band and the bar’s regulars have formed their own kind of family, based on a love for live music.

Tolins said he should make nearly a full recovery and already has been able to play some low-key shows. He said there are too many people to thank for everything that has happened to him, and he is grateful for everyone who cared.

“I can’t be cynical anymore about people because I’ve seen so much goodness,” he said. “It really is a beautiful thing. It made me a better person in the long run.”