Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News
Songwriter Jeremiah Maxey, 25, plays a gig at Gepetto's. His lower right arm was amputated when he was a baby.

It's easy to jump to conclusions about Jeremiah Maxey.

Watch him walk onto a stage and set down a guitar with his one arm and you're sure he's some sort of roadie setting up for the talent.

Then he sits down and starts to play and you realize he IS the talent.

He holds a pick between the third and fourth fingers of his left hand to strum the strings — he has no index finger on his withered left hand — and he uses all that's left of his right arm, a stump cut off at the elbow, to flatten out bar chords down on the frets.

At first, you focus your attention on how he's doing what he's doing.

But after about half a song, you forget all that and just enjoy the music.

The one-armed guitar player isn't just good, he's scary good.

"I wish I could play as well as he can. Most people wish that," says Glenn Maxey, Jeremiah's father and an accomplished guitar player in his own right.

It was Glenn who inspired his son to play in the first place. Fifteen years ago, when Jeremiah and his twin sister, Danelle, were 10, Glenn decided to teach Danelle guitar in her room.

Outside sat Jeremiah, sulking.

"I sat at the door and listened," Jeremiah said. "Just that he was trying to teach my twin something that I didn't know how to do made me insane."

So Glenn, who for the most obvious of reasons hadn't included his son in the instruction, started teaching Jeremiah, too.

He consulted a friend and professional musician regarding how it might be possible for his one-armed son to play an instrument meant for two arms.

The friend told him about open tuning — a way to tune the guitar so the one good arm could take care of the strumming and whatever is left of the other arm could flatten out bar chords.

It was all Jeremiah needed. After that, "Every day I'd come home from school and lock myself in my room for hours, just trying to figure it out."

Such behavior wasn't a surprise. Ever since he was born with a blood condition that threatened not just his arms but his life, Jeremiah had exhibited extraordinary determination and persistence.

"With Jeremiah, it has always been a matter of just figuring out how," says Glenn.

His sister was born first in 1984, a healthy five pounds. A minute later came Jeremiah, just two pounds and struggling. For reasons inexplicable, his blood type was different from that of his sister, mother and father, creating serious clotting problems. At six weeks the doctors amputated the lower half of his right arm. He also lost the index finger and considerable flexibility in his left arm.

But he lived, and more than two dozen surgeries and a dozen years later he practiced so long and so hard on his guitar in his bedroom that it was as if he had two arms — even if the teasing at school reminded him that wasn't the case.

"Kids that age can be pretty brutal," says Jeremiah. "I was pretty self-conscious. But I can remember the moment it all switched."

It was a talent show at Churchill Junior High in Salt Lake. Jeremiah, then 13 and in the eighth grade, entered the contest and was placed last on the program. A procession of marching bands and kids reading poetry, singing pop songs and dancing preceded him.

"Nobody knew I played. I walked out on stage and took off my arm (his prosthetic right arm) and dropped it on the floor next to my guitar. All of a sudden the place went totally silent; they're all like 'OK, what's he going to do now?' I was terrified. I'd planned to play a song of my own, but I was so freaked out I couldn't remember it so I played this Neil Young song, 'Heart of Gold.' Suddenly 1,500 kids were on their feet, going crazy. I won the contest. I was OK after that."

He went home and said to Glenn, "Dad, we've got to book us a gig."

They auditioned at a local bar-restaurant called Gepetto's, were accepted, and the rest is local music history.

"I got the itch," smiles Jeremiah. "I couldn't stop."

They're still at it, Glenn and Jeremiah. They played Gepetto's again this weekend (you can check out their streaming video on our Deseret News Web site). Beyond that, Jeremiah is booked constantly at a variety of venues as both a solo act and with his rock band, Jeremiah and the Bad Habits.

Glenn insists Jeremiah could play "anywhere with anybody," but the 25-year-old has a steady day job in property management at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, where he lives with his wife, Ingrid. He restricts his music gigs to evenings and weekends.

"I'm happy doing what I'm doing," says Jeremiah. "I love doing the music, and it's never been about the money. I'd play for free (but don't tell the clubs).

"If you love it you'll find a way," he says. "You have to learn to adapt. You either let your limitations keep you down or you figure out ways to modify. "I've seen a lot of amputees do a lot of amazing things, and I think it's remarkable what people can overcome. It's all a triumph of the human spirit. Just do it. Just try. Nothing's really impossible."

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].