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An urgent vision

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published April 28, 2007


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GULFPORT - Dennis "J.D." Burrows was sweating out the chorus of his latest tune.

He closed his eyes as he crooned into the microphone, "friendship in the morning, friendship in the early afternoon, " then cut himself off. "Was I a little flat?" he asked his producer.

In Gulfport, there really is only one guy musicians like Burrows trust to answer that sort of question.

Woody Matthews answered: "Well, now that you mention it ..." Backup singers might help, he suggested.

Tampa has Skipper's Smokehouse. St. Petersburg has Jannus Landing. For the past two years, Gulfport has had Matthews and his Blind Dog Productions studio.

There, musicians who never would be able to afford the fees most studios charge get their chance at making it, or at the very least, making a CD.

In this small, little known city, Matthews is plotting.

He wants to turn Gulfport into a live music mecca akin to Austin, Texas. But the clock is ticking. Matthews, 51, is going blind.

* * *

Retinitis pigmentosa is a general name for a group of genetic disorders that damage the inner back light-sensitive layer of the eye where images are processed. It generally causes sensitivity to light and gradual loss of vision. Some say it's like seeing the world through a straw.

Matthews was diagnosed 10 years ago. He was backing out of a friend's driveway when he realized he was about to run over a little girl in a bright pink hat and a bicycle. He hadn't seen her.

The affliction brought his life to a "screeching halt, " he said.

He gave up driving for good. His job in computers in Orlando went down the tube. His wife, the mother of his son, left him, saying his disability was too much for her.

His friends in Gulfport soon urged him to move. He gave in.

He slowly picked up the pieces. He started hanging out at Gulfport on the Rocks, the Peninsula Inn, and the Art Village Courtyard, three Gulfport locales known for attracting creative types.

He met a German woman who told him they should open a beer garden one day. Last year they were married.

A musician eventually asked Matthews if he could use his computer skills to help him record a demo tape. Other requests followed. Funk, punk, rock, folk, metal. The genre didn't matter.

"They were kind of like roaches. You met one of them, and hundreds came out, " he recalled playfully.

He set up a makeshift studio in two connecting rooms in the back of his house.

There, he charges $25 an hour for studio time, but most musicians barter with him. One guy set up a MySpace.com page for Blind Dog Productions in lieu of payment.

The music was the relief he had been seeking.

"What I am doing here is giving people a little chance, like others gave me, " he said. "This is the only skill I have anymore."

* * *

On a recent Friday night, dozens of neighbors swarmed past Matthews' house on Beach Boulevard. He sat in front of a mixing board facing his front porch, where a few local musicians took turns playing to the audience.

Every first Friday and third Saturday of the month, Gulfport holds a sidewalk arts festival. On those days, Matthews is always there, putting on free concerts in front of his home.

He tries to appease elderly neighbors who complain that the music floating out of his house is too loud. He walks the line for city officials, who often turn to him when they need to book performers for street festivals.

He has helped several local musicians get gigs in Largo and St. Petersburg. If more bars in Gulfport follow suit, he thinks the little city could actually give birth to a nightlife scene.

His supporters say it's already happening.

"We tend to get stuck with '70s rock, " Lori Russo, president of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce, said of the local music scene. "Woody is bringing in something different, but it is also appropriate. It is not profane, it isn't hard-core, but a little edgier."

On his best days, Matthews can see fine. Life is good.

Other days, he walks sideways. He often trips.

But always, he keeps moving forward.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 27, 2007, 22:42:28]


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