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Bullington has taken the opportunity to leap fully into his second career, as a traveling singer-songwriter.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Ben Bullington plays guitar during rehearsal with his brother, Andy Bullington (off camera). The brothers perform in concert Sunday night at Mill Mountain Theatre.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Ben Bullington (left) plays acoustic guitar beside his brother, Andy Bullington. “Around Roanoke, he was one of the best guitar slingers in town before he left,” Ben says of his brother.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Ben Bullington, who grew up in Roanoke, moved out west where he became a small town doctor and a folk singer/songwriter of note. He recently received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He doesn’t know when he will die, but he’s making the most of it by retiring from doctoring and taking his music on the road.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Ben Bullington had spent much of his adulthood in Montana, living the life of a small town doctor who picked guitar, sang, wrote and recorded folk and country songs.
Life was good for Bullington, 57, who grew up in Roanoke and graduated from North Cross School, but he found he liked living best in the wide open spaces out west. And with a family to raise, he had no interest in chucking it all for a life on the road, even though he was a respected performer and songwriter.
Then just before last Thanksgiving, he got some hard medical news. Bullington was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“A death sentence,” he called it in a phone interview this past week. “ Right now, I’m doing OK. I don’t know if I’ve got six months, or a year, or two or three. Nobody can tell you that.”
What he did know was that he had disability insurance. So he retired from his practice to make the leap into more live performing.
“It’s funny to talk about, but it is the silver lining,” he said, laughing, from a stop on the road near Baltimore. He had flown there and rented a car for a musical road trip. “The other one is, I tell people that at least I don’t have to worry about getting cancer any more.”
On Sunday, Bullington will team up with his guitar-playing brother, Andy Bullington, for a concert at Mill Mountain Theatre. The pair will play songs from Ben Bullington’s albums.
Andy Bullington, 62, who now lives in Nantucket, Mass., had in his younger days been part of a band called The Nightcrawlers, which included such players as Roanoke’s Tim Shepherd and Danny Counts. They reunited Friday for a show at Fork in the Alley.
“He’s a lifelong musician, a great player,” Ben Bullington said of his brother . “Around Roanoke, he was one of the best guitar slingers in town before he left.”
Ben is looking forward to returning to the town where he grew up. He was born in Annapolis, Md., but came here with his family by the time he was 2, he said. He still has plenty of friends and acquaintances in town, but rarely gets a chance to visit.
“I haven’t been getting to Roanoke as much as I would like to over the years, but I still love Roanoke,” he said. “Great town.”
At the Sunday show, Ben will have copies of his new album, his fifth. It is a self-titled work co-produced by Bullington and Nashville, Tenn., musical heavyweights Will Kimbrough and George Bradfute. Both of them had previously worked with Bullington on his 2010 album, “Satisfaction Garage.”
In an email, Kimbrough — who has worked with the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris, and who is scheduled to play Kirk Avenue Music Hall on Sept. 27 — wrote about recording with Bullington.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘My God, these songs are magnificent. Listen to those turns of phrase. Listen to this language,’” Kimbrough said. “Ben’s focus on the sound of the record was absolute.”
Bullington was grateful for Kimbrough’s help on both records.
“I call him the Americana visionary. I really do think he is. His playing is completely fresh. He’s capable of flash, but he doesn’t pull it out that much. He’s just one of those people that finds this completely original stuff in the ether. It’s really a lot of fun making a record with him.”
The new disc is the third that Bullington has recorded in Nashville. Every time he has traveled to Nashville to record or have his recordings mixed or mastered, he has stayed with country and Americana great Rodney Crowell.
“It’s the only place I know to stay in Nashville,” Bullington said, laughing.
They share a manager, Joanne Gardner, who moved to Livingston, Mont., from Nashville to get away from the music business. She had kept Crowell as a client, and remembers being a little irritated when she first met Bullington and heard him play. She remembered thinking, “Oh no, here I go again,” getting sucked back into the music business.
“I was drawn to Ben’s authenticity,” Gardner wrote in an email. “I felt the power of what he was singing about. I could see those people.”
Crowell, a multiple Grammy winner and Songwriting Hall of Famer, came to be an admirer, too. It was Crowell who suggested that Bullington work with Kimbrough, who has been a Crowell sideman and associate.
“After an intense conversation on the subject of songs, poetry and vintage guitars — Ben is a far more learned collector of guitars than I’ll ever be — I started to pay close attention to his work and soon discovered that this is one fine songwriter we’re talking about,” Crowell wrote in an email sent through Gardner. “Since then Ben has become a regular around my house and has proven himself to be as gifted a late-night conversationalist as he is an early-morning observationist. Which, by the way, is to my way of thinking the hallmark of the timeless songwriter.”
Songs may still come
With his new record having just been released, Bullington hasn’t devoted much time to songwriting.
He feels that two of his already released songs are like premonitions.
“I’ve Got To Leave You Now,” from the new record, is a 2-year-old number written to his sons, as if he already had his diagnosis. And “Two Headlights,” from “Satisfaction Garage,” is about a man receiving a cancer diagnosis, then having to drive a long distance home after seeing his oncologist — similar to what wound up happening to Bullington.
“I’ll just have to see if it starts coming on me,” he said of future songwriting. “ I’ll just have to see what happens.”
But he has already written a song called “Some Were Good,” which he said is about two people who “can say goodbye any time here — we’re good,” without any final unsaid words between them.
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