Ben Bullington: taking stock of what matters

Ben Bullington, the Big Timber doctor who has lovingly crafted three albums (“Two Lane Highway,” “White Sulphur Springs” and “Satisfaction Garage”) had dreamed of Music City, but had never played Nashville. Legendary songwriter Rodney Crowell decided it was time. And so, in early December, Bullington joined Crowell, Grammy-nominated songwriter Darrell Scott and rocker/writer/guitar slinger Will Kimbrough at the storied Station Inn for song swapping and vivid story telling. Along the way, Bullington moved from heavy irony to tender details. Crowell describes Bullington’s work as drawing life-breath from the earth, rivers, sky and people of Montana. “In the same way Guy Clark’s jeweler’s vision captures the eloquent essence of Texas culture without being regional, Ben frames the stillness of Montana winters, the strength of her women and the spiritual bankruptcy of no-account politicians with disarming ease.”

In 2011 Bullington performed solo and with Crowell at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs. He has opened for Greg Brown, and has co-written with legendary Little Feat pianist Bill Payne. Bullington’s recordings have received extensive radio play throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and New Zealand, and accolades from songwriters and performers Greg Brown, Storyhill, J.D. Souther and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

The RollingZone’s Cynthia Logan chatted with Bullington shortly after that creatively satisfying first trip to Nashville — and not long after Pioneer Medical Center’s Chief of Staff had received a cancer diagnosis.

RZ: Tell us about your trip to the Music City.

BB: It was a great week in Nashville. I’d had that scheduled for some time — to go down there and work on a record, and so when this all came down a few weeks ago I stayed with it. It went wonderfully. I spent time with Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Darrell Scott, among others.

RZ: You’re slated to perform in California in early January... will you be going? 

BB: I’m planning on it. I had a longer run in California, but cut out one of the legs.

RZ: It must be particularly difficult for a doctor to hear such a diagnosis.

BB: It was wrenching. I had a premonition in my gut about the whole thing that there was a significant chance the news wasn’t going to be good.

RZ: As a doctor, what role do you see music playing in the healing process?

BB: I don’t know that being a doctor helps any, but it’s certainly what I want to do [play music]. I’ve done more than one doctor’s career worth of house calls! Two of us covered White Sulphur for ten years. If there’s any silver lining to this, it’s nice to just be able to do music.

RZ: What do you think about the studies on ‘music therapy’?

BB: I don’t know; Oliver Sacks has written about that. [One of Sacks’ books, “Musicophilia” presents a ‘rational view’ of how musical therapy helps patients]. I haven’t read any of his books. I think something that makes your heart sing is good for you. Even if it doesn’t give you more time, it gives you more good time.

RZ: Where did you grow up?

BB: I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.

RZ: At what age did you begin playing guitar?

BB: At fifteen. I bought a $20 Kent guitar over the lunch table at school. I didn’t know anything about it, but I took it home and looked at the chords to ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ I put my fingers onto the guitar and sort of fell into it. I was a kid jock up until then. My older brother was the guitar player, and is now a great, accomplished guitar player.

RZ: Did you have formal training in music? 

BB: No formal education. I took some lessons as a kid. People showed me how to play what I was hearing. I figured out how to figure it out for myself. Though great swaths of guitar-playing still mystify me... I should take lessons to play lead guitar... [it amazes me] the way people know the finger board. With a guitar you have six strings and 15 frets; the various combinations are infinite. A sax can make 26 notes, whereas with the guitar there are so many thousands of possibilities.

RZ: The choices can be overwhelming?

BB: Music isn’t about difficulty, music is about music. I think that difference comes in making the sounds you want to make and what you can imagine in your head — how to make that happen. There are a lot of technically accomplished players who aren’t very good at playing music, and those who are good figure out what the important notes to play are. It’s about making something sound great. Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) is phenomenal at doing that.

RZ: Who are some of your other influences?

BB: John Hurt, Doc Watson — and Dylan, always Dylan. I liked The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but I couldn’t handle Grand Funk Railroad. Woodie Guthrie. I’ve still got a lot of his stuff on vinyl, some Library of Congress recordings. A few choice ones have been plucked off throughout the years. Or maybe I loaned them out.

RZ: Like loaning books. You rarely get them back. Do you enjoy reading?

BB: I take The New Yorker and that takes a lot of time right there. It varies. In recent years I’ve read more non-fiction. I love reading Christopher Hitchens. Short stories I like, some poetry.

RZ: Does reading poetry inspire your songwriting? 

BB: There’s a poetic in songs; it’s not the same thing, but they’re closely related.

RZ: What’s your songwriting process like? 

BB: (Laughs). It’s always the same. What was always the case, I’d hear a line with a melody and maybe a line with a rhyme — and maybe, if I thought it was a keeper, I’d figure out whether it was a hook, an opening line, or just a line in the song. Then I’d try to say something true before and after it. There have been some times in the last few years I’ve done more about finding a musical groove; I’ll get out a legal pad and just start writing. Go to that middle space.

RZ: What do you mean by ‘middle space’? Is it like ‘the Zone’?

BB: It’s that sort of middle, unfocused ground. Similar to William Stafford’s poetry; it’s what you see out of the corner of your eye. If you start to look at something directly, it tends to not be very good.

RZ: How do you relate to your instrument physically?

BB: I love guitars. I’ve spent thousands of hours with one in my hands — to the point of making women jealous. But with that relationship you can be in your living room and go away with it. It’s a great gift to be freed up and just start appreciating the sound, making the sounds that you have in your head. I can’t do it to the extent that someone like Will Kimbrough can, but I have my own thing after forty years of doing it.

RZ: Do you have a guitar collection?

BB: I have eight or nine guitars. A couple I’ve had since I was16, and one I got when I was 23. They’re probably the most valuable. I’m into vintage guitars.

RZ: Your sound is often described as ‘Americana’ — what does that mean, exactly?

BB: Americana is kind of a new term. People ask you what you’re doing, and if it sounds like Townes van Zandt, John Prine, or Lucinda Williams, and if you’re sort of influenced by roots music [your style is labeled Americana]. And I’ve also always wanted to tell real American stories, so it puts you in that place. I came more out of folk, old time string band music and old, early acoustic blues players like Beau Carter, Rev. Gary Davis. They weren’t incredible influences in American music, not like Robert Johnson, who is arguably the most influential person in rock and roll.

RZ: With your passion for music, what pulled you toward medicine?

BB: I went to college in Nashville — and that was no accident. I turned into a bit of a spectator there cuz everybody’s so damn good. I had a geology degree and itchy feet, so I ended up working out west for a number of years in the well field. Then I crewed down the Amazon in my later 20’s. I felt I’d come to the end of the line with managing these seismic crews and thought; what can I do? I’m good with people... so I went back to Virginia to attend medical school. I got married, had a family, and music was off in the distance. When my youngest was about four, the workload eased off and I reconnected with it. I started writing and playing every day, getting up early before anyone else in the house.

RZ: How long have you been in Montana?

BB: Since 1990; initially, I went to work on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Then I spent six months in Alaska, then tried to go back to the mountains in the east, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I did being here. When I learned that Dr. Marc Steinberg in White Sulphur (Springs) was looking for a partner, I moved back, and spent twelve-and-a-half years in White Sulphur. I met Sean Devine on the side of the road while he was working on a stream restoration project in the willows in Meagher county. He came up to the house and we stayed up til midnight playing. I then recorded with him and my music career went on from there; it gathered steam and kept getting affirmed.

RZ: What’s your way of giving back?

BB: I’ve got a few songs that talk about climate change. I think it’s the issue that makes everything else just pale. I’m certainly interested in social justice, but climate change and environmental stuff is the most important stuff. As far as being a crusader for any cause, I vote; I’m politically active. I do political music. Politics is part of art.

RZ: Many musicians try to steer clear, though; they just want to give people a good time, to make them forget their troubles.

BB: Real art has a point of view and has a politic in it. It’s different than something being exactly topical. I value careful thinking and education, which is sometimes characterized as elitism. I believe in science — to allow this many people to live on the planet, we’ve got to get rid of an ideology where we’re unable to face facts. •

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