Five-time Grammy nominated singer/musician LynnMarie Rink never felt that she had much choice in what style of music she liked or even in what instrument she would play.”My father was an accordion player who played polkas,” Rink recalls. “I just grew up thinking there was never any other kind of music.”
Rink promises plenty of music and joy in her solo play, Wrap our Heart Around It, helmed by Michael Kearns and opening in its first full theatrical run this Saturday at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. But, she forewarns, “This is also my story of growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, fumbling my way forward as a musician, giving birth at age 42 to a special-needs child and struggling to find the spiritual and emotional stability to actually have a life.”
One week before the debut of her newly theatricalized play, relaxing in one of the Falcon’s dressing rooms while Kearns and crew work out some technical difficulties, Rink launches in on her instrument of choice: “The accordion gets a bad rap but it has a great texture,” she says. “I picked up the accordion when I was 11, because I wanted to be like my dad. He also played the piano and was the ultimate entertainer.
“Basically, I consider myself 25 percent musician, 75 percent entertainer,” Rink observes. “I do not read music. I play everything by ear. And with the button accordion that I play, you can’t read music or learn from an instruction book. You have to learn by watching someone play. So I did that for three years, every week for a lesson. After that, you just have to use your ear and follow where the music is going.”
Growing up the youngest of six children in an ethnic community outside Cleveland, Ohio, Rink didn’t believe that she should take music too seriously. What she did was great for polka festivals and ethnic bars, she thought, but it was not a way of life. “I didn’t think the words accordion and career belonged in the same sentence.”
Exuding a sense of wonder that she is actually going to be performing in a play that she wrote, in a theater owned by acclaimed writer/director/producer Garry Marshall, Rink confesses that her first love was live theater. “I did plays in high school and I actually planned to audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York,” she says. She lost her chance when the Academy’s acceptance letter to audition arrived the week that her mother died of cancer. Rink was 17.
“My dad saw the acceptance letter and told me there was a high school actress from every school in the country trying to do this. What made me think I could do it? I didn’t have the voice at that time to go against him. I later realized that I was all he had left. He didn’t know how to say, ‘Please don’t go. I need you here.’ As usual, he didn’t handle it the best way.”
Interviewing Rink is an exercise in keeping up with rapid thematic transitions, but the bubbly and striking blonde performer never veers too far from her troubled relationship with her father. “My father was a highly functioning alcoholic,” she says. “He never laid a hand on us but, emotionally, he withdrew. You could never please him. He made me feel like I did everything wrong all the time. In my mind, I was constantly trying to gain his approval. I tried to do that my entire life and it was never good enough.
“This is the man I called after I appeared on the Tonight Show and he said, ‘Yeah, you think something good might finally happen to your career now.’ I loved him dearly. Because of who he was, I learned to understand who I am,” says Rink, aware, however, that not everyone will understand that, “unless you have lived your life with an alcoholic. It’s the constant yin and yang of daily life that wears you out. You love and hate them in the same second.”
Nevertheless, Rink’s father was “very supportive of me being a musician,” she says. “No one wanted to see me win the Grammys more…. As soon as they called out someone else’s name, he would cry louder than I did. He told me he was staying alive until he got see me win. Unfortunately, he didn’t–and I have never won.”
To appease her father, Rink went to the local college near her home, majoring in television and film, relegating the accordion to the informal status of avocation. At college, she met and married her husband of 27 years, Jim Rink. The couple moved to Nashville to follow careers in television. (Jim Rink now produces both the CMA Music Festival for ABC and the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.) When they first arrived in Nashville, LynnMarie played music, but her day job was with Dick Clark Productions, producing a nightly variety show called Prime Time Country on TNN. And that’s when her musical career took a decidedly upward turn.
“Since it was a nightly show, we had guest musicians who would play with our house band,” Rink recalls. “A guy named Pat Ferguson sat in one night. They had a guest singer that night who really wanted an accordion player. The music director came up to me and asked if I would play. I just blurted out, ‘I don’t do sessions and I don’t play with other people.’ The music director pleaded with me that it would be in the key of C, one of the keys I could play,” Rink says. “So, I did it.”
Pat Ferguson, it turned out, was Chet Atkins’ guitar player and after the show, he told Rink that he thought Atkins should hear her play. “Three days later,” Rink says, “there was a voice mail message on my machine: ‘Lynn, this is Chet Atkins. I want to know if you can come sit in with me, downtown, next week.’ ”
Rink’s first performance with Atkins and his country band for a totally urban, non-polka-loving audience made her see that people outside ethnic cultures would like her music. Atkins then invited her to play in concert with him. “Playing with Chet’s country band gave it a new feel, which was awesome,” Rink says. “It lit a fire under me. And I decided, maybe I can do this.”
Rink began working with Nashville guitarist and producer Charlie Kelley. Their innovative collaborations elevated traditional polka into the 21st century. Jay Leno dubbed her “The Dixie Chick of Polka.” To date, she has recorded 13 albums and collaborated and/or performed with such diverse artists as Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum, Dobie Gray, Air Supply, Riders in the Sky, Ricky Skaggs and Willie Nelson.
But what should have been an up-by-her-bootstraps success story came to a crashing halt in 2006. After several miscarriages, Rink’s son James was born with Down syndrome. “Then even the music couldn’t help me any more,” Rink admits. The second half of her play, in fact, “just basically deals with my struggle to accept my son.”
Although Rink still functioned as a performing artist, she was suffering from severe depression. It took her to a place of darkness so black that she thought she would never get out. To the depths of her soul, Rink knew that she didn’t want to raise a son with these challenges. All she wanted to do was fix him.
Rink takes a deep breath and launches forth: “My child has Down syndrome and just recently he was diagnosed with autism. Although this isn’t uncommon, it is definitely something you don’t want to hear. We had been treating him for six years as a Down syndrome child and then we learned we should have been treating him as an autistic child.” Still, she says, “I adjusted better in six days of learning about the autism than I did in six years living with the Down syndrome. He has just turned seven. James is in a special school. He goes 6 am to 5:30 pm everyday. He’s learning. He is my heart and soul.”
Rink says that when she was suffering from severe depression, she didn’t recognize it. When her therapist “put me on Lexapro,” she says, her life changed. And it led her to put pen to paper.
“I felt better enough through therapy and Lexapro that I was inspired to write a journal,” she says. Rink began writing stories about raising her son, stories that combined her childhood “with the way I was feeling about James. I started to see these connections and I started to heal through that. When I was out in public and these crazy things would happen to me, I would write stories about it. One night I was at dinner with friends and I started telling the stories. After dinner, a woman who was with me said, ‘Lynn, this is a one-woman show. You should do it. These stories are amazing.’
“Well, I started writing a show,” Rink says, “and nothing would work. I couldn’t do it. I toyed with it for about a year and a half, not getting anywhere. I finally figured out why: the story wasn’t finished. Then, one day I was sitting in my car in a Sears parking lot and I had a moment. I had the play. I went home and wrote non-stop.”
In its first incarnation, “Wrap Your Heart Around It,” produced by Emmy-winning Paul Miller, with musical direction by Nashville recording artist Paul Carrol Binkley, won Best Production of the 2012 United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City. Working on the show’s first theatrical run at the Falcon with solo play guru Kearns–who co-directs (with Tony Abatemarco) Skylight Theatre Company’s Solo Mojo play development workshops–“has been a blessing,” Rink says.”Even though I wanted to kill him this morning for making me cut a scene.
“He is amazing. All he wants to do is make me a better me. I have enjoyed this process so much. Who could imagine that a 48-year-old accordion player could have a second shot at a career? I am remarkably happy right now and just grateful to be here doing my play in Garry Marshall’s theater.
“At one time I thought having James would be the death of me,” Rink adds. “I thought my career as a musician was over. I thought everything I knew about a life was over. James is actually what saved me. He has given me a new career.”
Wrap Your Heart Around It, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank 91505. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 4 and 7:30pm. Through August 11. Tickets: $35-$38. (818) 955-8101. FalconTheatre.com.
**All Wrap Your Heart Around It production photos courtesy of Paul Miller.