For Billy T. Midnight, Music Is Medicine

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STILL STANDING: Troy Mezzanotte’s dream of a career in country music was derailed, but today in spite of his disability, he’s finding happiness again. (Supplied Photo)

Billy T. Midnight is a memorable name for a man born Troy Mezzanotte, who has fought his way out of the darkness and into the light of redemption to forge his musical legacy.

Mezzanotte moved to Barnegat from Parsippany at age 12, by which time he had already taught himself to play guitar.

“I saw John Denver on TV in 1969, and that was the end of it,” he said.

As he grew up, music was always his primary focus. He was a singing waiter in Andorra, Pa., a music major at County College of Morris, and a frequent entrant in songwriting contests, he said. When he moved back to his hometown of Barnegat in 1985, he started gigging regularly in Seaside Heights and before he knew it, at age 24, he was really going for it. He packed up his station wagon and hauled a camper to Nashville, Tenn., where he lived out of his rig at a campground and played open mic nights for the practice and exposure.

He soon found out “In Nashville there really wasn’t room for a Troy Mezzanotte from New Jersey.” There was a guy like him on every corner, he said, but the name Billy T. Midnight stood out. “Whether it’s hokey or silly or whatever, that was the point of it.” Mezzanotte means midnight, and his middle name is William.

He doesn’t necessarily wear the stage name like a persona, but he embodies his love for the country and classic rock genres and the way playing music makes him feel.

“I was just always Mr. Happy,” he said.

He put in two years down south before coming home. “With the talent that was down there, I felt I wasn’t ready,” he said. So, he returned to New Jersey and started performing nine shows a week, honing his craft.

“I was doing great,” he recalled. “I was making good money, but I still wanted that Nashville success.”

When country went mainstream in the ’90s, Mezzanotte felt called back to Nashville to be a part of it, he said. He followed opportunities where they led him, getting to train with Billy Joel’s vocal coach and other notable industry professionals, making connections and “sticking with it,” he said.

John Guess, producer for Reba McEntire and the Chicks, heard Billy T. Midnight in Nashville and wanted him to record a five-song demo with such A-listers as Brent Mason and Paul Franklin. But just as he started to gain national traction, signing autographs at Fan Fair at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a management deal soured, and he found himself adrift.

Not to be defeated, Mezzanotte spent the next year and a half commuting across many states weekly: four nights at the shore and three in Nashville. When he was young and single and gas was inexpensive, he could afford to do it.

In a fateful turn of events, to supplement his music career he took a job as a bus mechanic, but he got hurt at work and sustained nerve damage to his leg – reflex sympathetic dystrophy or RSD, also called complex regional pain syndrome – which he described as a condition where “instead of sending sympathy to the injury, it sends chronic burning pain.” No clear-cut treatment has been effective.

In a blink, his dreams derailed.

His workers compensation benefits prohibit him from earning any additional income of any kind. He’s not allowed to play for pay or even to sell an original song. Devastated, he gave up music and entered a 22-year-long downward spiral. His “rock bottom” was a heart attack last July that landed him in Southern Ocean Medical Center for a month with congestive heart failure and fluid-filled lungs.

While in the hospital, he made a decision: “Enough.”

“I did it their way for 22 years, throwing medication at me. So, I took myself off everything,” he said. “I did it their way, and now I’m going to do it my way: no medication at all. I’m stronger than I was 22 years ago. I’m thinking clearly; I’m writing again; I’m doing open mics again.”

To accommodate his chronic pain, he has cut the left leg of his pants to the knee, so no fabric touches his skin. (“Took me 16 years to get a sandal on,” he said.) During his personal transformation, he has lost over 60 pounds and has been “amazed by how the body responds” to getting off medication, he said.

“I’m happy beyond words,” he said.

Now he has a YouTube channel where he records his music for posterity. With his newfound freedom he has rediscovered his passion for music and the sense of fulfillment it brought him before the accident.

“It’s time,” he said. “None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.”

At 60 years old, Mezzanotte is no longer chasing a record deal; instead, he greets each new day as a gift. He is at peace with his journey – “100%,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing, and I would do it all again.”

The way he sees it, he had to evolve through many iterations and stumble along the path to figuring himself out, his life’s purpose.

“I can carry that (experience) with me,” he said. “You need that soul. You need to know sadness to sing a sad song. You have to live a song.”

Another way he’s relishing his creative rebirth is by attending Chris Rockwell’s Last Stand Open Mic at the Union Market in Tuckerton on the last Tuesday of every month from 6 to 8 p.m. There, he has a supportive community in which to grow as an artist.

“It’s the best open mic ever,” Mezzanotte said, describing a deeply affirming vibe of mutual admiration and encouragement. With no signup sheet, Rockwell sees who is in attendance and curates a lineup in his head. He staggers the acts so it’s poetry, comedy, music, etc. Newcomers always get a rousing welcome.

At last Sunday’s Artisans Festivus Market in West Creek, where Mezzanotte alternated sets with singer-guitarists Dave Jones and Chuck Paul, a fan from the Last Stand squealed with delight when she saw him, and the two embraced like old friends.

“We’re crazy about each other’s work,” Jeanne Sutton said. Herself a poet and writer, she described him as “a troubadour, in the troubadour tradition.” She agreed with his assessment of the open mic. “And the caliber of the work!” Sutton said. “It’s free entertainment of a very high order,” with minimum purchase of just $5.

For Billy T. Midnight, sharing his talent – whether with fellow artists at an open mic, or with friends, as he did at last weekend’s backyard party/shopping event, or with an internet audience – is its own reward.

“I don’t have any children, so what I leave behind is my music,” he said.

— Victoria Ford

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