Folk musician Patty Larkin, 72, tripped and fell in a dark room during a family vacation last June, suffering a spinal cord injury that could have left her a quadriplegic. On July 13, Larkin will make her Outer Cape comeback at the Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro with veteran singer-songwriters Cliff Eberhardt, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky in a group show titled “On a Summer’s Night.”
The accident occurred right before a summer of bookings. Larkin had also committed to a show, “On a Winter’s Night,” which was to go on tour in January 2023, with Eberhardt, Gorka, and Kaplansky. When she came out of surgery the day after the injury, Larkin says, the doctor told her she could be paralyzed indefinitely.
She was determined to recover. Over the course of the summer, she would spend five weeks at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Sandwich before transferring to the Spaulding in Brighton, where she’d spend another few weeks.
“The goal for me was to be able to do ‘On a Winter’s Night,’ ” Larkin says. “I was really looking forward to performing with these players and singers. They’re good friends.”
Larkin’s recording career began in 1985. She’s put out albums continuously since then, the most recent, Bird in a Cage, her 14th, released in 2020. “Using modest means, Ms. Larkin gets profound results,” wrote Jon Pareles in a 2008 New York Times review of Watch the Sky.
After her surgery, Larkin wore a neck brace for six weeks. She was confined to a wheelchair for two months. Her arm mobility was severely limited. Playing the guitar and singing were, in the beginning, physically impossible.
While in Sandwich, Larkin’s occupational therapist introduced her to a music therapist. “We went to the piano, and my fingers just didn’t work,” Larkin says. “It was depressing.”
But she and Bette Warner, her partner of over 30 years, talked about a mind-body-music connection. “We decided that this is a pathway that I have,” Larkin says. Since she had had the experience of learning music as a child, she felt she would be able to do it again. Using music, she would re-teach her brain and nerves to respond to each other.
She decided to start by relearning the guitar, which proved to be technically easier than the piano. Warner got her a child-size guitar.
“First, I just looked at it,” Larkin says. “Then I was able to pick it up and do this slamming, strumming thing.” Little by little, mobility came back to Larkin’s arms and hands.
“The therapist had this guitar pick that was about the size of your hand, so you could hold on to it,” she says. “It was really challenging. I was used to making music spontaneously.” Now it took hard, careful work.
“We would try a scale or just separate fingers,” she says. “We’d do a thumb, or a middle finger, or a pinky finger.”
Between playing the guitar (moving up to a standard size), piano, xylophone, and hand-held drums, Larkin began to recover her technical skills. As her treatment progressed, she moved from basic exercises to more complicated guitar parts and piano pieces. She also had to work on her voice.
“My range was diminished,” she says. “That was super frustrating for me.” She would try to sing her own songs and make it most of the way through until she reached a note that she couldn’t sing. She and her music therapist found work-arounds, changing the vowels in the lyrics and the shape of her mouth going into the notes she couldn’t reach. By breaking down the act of singing into small, discrete steps, she gradually rebuilt her vocal range.
“There’s something about music that opens up your spirit,” Larkin says. “Music has kept me going. Now, I play guitar and sing every day. Exercising the muscle. I didn’t used to do that.”
In late August, after more than two months at the recovery centers, Larkin was walking independently with a walker. She returned to her home in Wellfleet, where she promptly “parked it” and began to walk on her own. Her family and friends were there to support her.
While her partner and two daughters helped her at home, “friends from Wellfleet and beyond brought dinner every night” and drove her to medical appointments around the Cape, Larkin says.
She found comfort in nature, too. At the Spaulding, being able to “hear the birds and smell the grass and sit under the shade trees” made a big difference in her sense of well-being. Back in Wellfleet, she returned to her old loves: kayaking and swimming.
Larkin grew up in Wisconsin, attended the University of Oregon, and then came to Boston, where she studied at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. In 1989, attracted by “the awesome beauty of the Cape,” she moved to Wellfleet.
Larkin says she finds the environment here both musically and existentially inspiring. “Just go to the water and look,” she says. “It amazes me. This 360-degree view is sacred.”
She also loves the people who live here. “It’s a group who are committed to making creative lives,” she says, “and making a difference with their lives. This community really holds you tight. They encircled me. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
After her almost miraculous recovery, Larkin was able to perform and tour in “On a Winter’s Night.” And at the Payomet tent on Thursday, she’ll debut “On a Summer’s Night.”
“It’s slightly daunting,” she says, “but exciting.”
In the show, each of the four artists will perform a mini-set. In the second half, they will sing together. “That’s the really fun part for me,” she says. “It’s like riding with friends in a classic car.”
Larkin is still deciding what to sing in her mini-set. “My signature start song is ‘Who Holds Your Hand,’ ” she says. “Which is even more meaningful for me to sing now.” She laughs softly. “Because it’s ‘Who holds your hand when you’re alone?’ ”
With a long career behind her, Larkin still has more to sing. “I’m expanding my repertoire,” she says. “I’m branching out to see what kinds of guitar techniques I can do now. I just finished a song last week.” What she is currently working on “will probably be an album.”
Larkin’s injury and recovery have not hindered her artistic motivation. “I just kind of got up one day,” Larkin says. “I thought, well, okay, this is what happened. And this is where I’m going. I’m a songwriter. So, let’s go, you know?”
On a Summer’s Night
The event: Patty Larkin, Cliff Eberhardt, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky in concert
The time: Thursday, July 13, 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
The cost: $35 to $55 at payomet.org