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Saying Goodbye With a Song


As pancreatic cancer takes him away, Ben Bullington marks the time with a guitar, family, and good friends
BY MARYANNE VOLLERS PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM CAMPBELL
song, Two Headlights, is about a man whos learned he has cancer. In plain, matter-of-fact verse, the song takes him through the medical procedures the doctor knows so well: First the x-ray, large lymph node, biopsy, then what it showed Then the songwriter takes over, describing a lonesome drive back home, his headlights cutting a path to midnight, the man taking inventory of his life: I stopped the car Cut the engine Stepped out in the night air sensin Things I didnt sense the day before. Its all I want from life And nothing more. Ben finishes the last refrain and leans on his guitar. That song, I actually wrote three years ago, he says, in a scratchy voice thats never lost the lilt of his native Virginia. Its funny, Ive got these premonition songs, or

ou could pretty much write the story of Livingston, Montana, from a barstool at the Elks Club. The big room in the back is where folks hold their landmark events: wakes and receptions, reunions and fundraisers. So its no surprise that, on a warm August night, twinkly lights and chiffon swags left over from a wedding adorn the stagea festive counterpoint to the ghostly herd of mounted elk heads gazing down from the walls. Ben Bullington, long and lean and craggy-handsome, settles into a chair with his vintage Gibson guitar and grins at the crowd. A couple hundred faces smile back, family and friends, mostly, and a lively contingent of nurses from the hospital in White Sulphur Springs, where Ben practiced family medicine for 12 years. Bens second

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Ben Bullington in his trusty 1969 Chevy pickup on a dirt road near his home in White Sulphur Springs, Montana.

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I didnt go into medicine to make a lot of money, and Ive been very successful in that way. But my boys grew up with a lot of elbow room.

something. He chuckles, shaking his head. Well, its funny to me. Not in an entirely mirthful way, I guess. But some part of me knew what was happening What was happening, and what every member of this audience knows, is that 10 months earlier, at the age of 57, Ben was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Its always fatal, and most patients dont live more than a year. BEN BULLINGTON HAS bEEN ONE OF MY CLOSEST FRIENDS for the better part of a decade. My husband Bill Campbell and I have spent many an evening with Ben and other fine musicianstrading songs and stories in the living room. Ive seen a lot of him since his diagnosis, and watched in awe as hes navigated the tricky terrain of saying goodbye to the people he loves and the life hes known. When hes in pain, he tries not to show it. When the conversation turns to cancer treatments, he changes the subject. Like the man in the song, he wants to drink in every moment of what remains, and to spend as much time as he can with his friends, his family, and most of all his three grown sons, Samuel, Joseph, and Ben. That, and making as much music as he can for as long as he can.

My cousin went to Vietnam And left the first six Dylan records with me I was 15 then Just a gangly kid All heart and appetite and misery Appalachian Mountain Delta Blues Ben grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, the middle of five children. His dad was a Naval officer who became a stockbroker; his mom was a beauty with deep local roots. Bens older sister Mary showed me a report from Bens preschool teacher, who observed that the five-year-old boy had an excellent attention span, was interested in stories, enjoyed music, and sings often as he works or plays. She concluded, Ben lives well in his world. Ben didnt develop a real passion for music until he was a teenager. His first instrument was a Kent guitar he bought for $20 from a kid in the high school lunchroom. To my surprise, I took to it, he says. He started taking lessons and trading for better and better guitars, which led him deep into the culture of Appalachian music that seemed to pour out of the hills around him. It touched something in him that he couldnt name. The first time he

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saw somebody flatpick a guitar was at the Union Grove fiddlers festival. When I asked about it, this guy said, Get a Doc Watson record. So he did, and within 30 seconds of putting it on his turntable, Ben started jumping up and down, he was so excited. It went right through the middle of me, he says. Before long, he was listening to Mississippi John Hurt, and then his cousin went to Vietnam and left him his Bob Dylan collection. (The cousin made it back; its unclear what happened to the albums.) Ben started working out his own tunes and lyrics while he was still in high school, although none of them has seen the outside of his old orange notebook for decades. He went to Vanderbilt University (cause it was in Nashville), absorbing the music scene in the picking parlors as he studied for a geology degree. After college, there was an oil boom in the West. Ben hired on to lead a seismograph crew that traveled all over the Rockies, packing dynamite to shake up the earth and sensors to see what oil it contained. He liked it fine and didnt mind the cheap motels in dusty corners of Montana and Wyoming. And he was gathering material. Corby Bond was based on an oil field driller he met in Douglas, Wyoming. In the song, the roughneck tries to articulate why the settled life isnt for him: Red sky to the east on the northern plain, Every day dont have to be the same. Ben, too, couldnt stand the thought of a desk job. And he was falling in love with the wide-open country. Then he transferred to Brazil and came down with a bad case of hepatitis A, which meant a helicopter out of the jungle and a stint in a Roanoke hospital. Before long he decided his oil field days were over. The question was what to do next. I was pretty good with science and liked working with people, he says. So I figured Id put the two together. He was accepted at the University of Virginia medical school in Charlottesville. There was a vision in his head of becoming a country doctor, living outside of the big cities, seeing all kinds of patients with something new happening every day. Ben met his future wife, Debra, a nurse at UVA hospital. After he got his license, he and Debra and their young son, Samuel, moved to Montana, where he took a job with Indian Health Services on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Two more sons would follow: Joseph and

Benjamin. The Bullingtons stayed in Lame Deer for a few years, then moved to a small coastal Alaska town and then to a clinic in the mountains of West Virginia. I didnt go into medicine to make a lot of money, and Ive been very successful in that way, he says. But my boys grew up with a lot of elbow room. Ben had always pictured settling down some day on a farm in southwestern Virginia, but the Rockies kept tugging at him. There was something about the big space out West that I needed to feel free in life, he says. Dreams dont come easy On seven bucks an hour Maybe its a matter Of what kind of dreams you have Therere trout streams and the air is clean And money dont mean everything In a place called White Sulphur Springs. White Sulphur Springs

58 Peregrine Way u Bozeman, MT 59718 406-556-8417 u www.montanatile.com

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The family ended up in central Montana, where Ben worked at the six-bed hospital in White Sulphur Springs, surrounded by mountains, ranches and miles of empty. When his youngest son was four, Ben started writing songs again in the quiet early morning hours. Those sessions provided most of the tunes on his first CD, Two Lane Highway, released in 2007. The album was produced by Sean Devine, a singersongwriter from Livingston, who met Ben by chance and discovered that the doctor was also a songwriter. By then Ben and Debras marriage was ending. Devine encouraged Ben to start performing at local venues and introduced him around Livingston. Which is how Bill and I met him. And it was at dinner at our house that he met Joanne Gardner, his future manager. Joanne was a recovering music industry executive who regained her senses and moved from Los Angeles to Montana. I had no idea he was a doctor; I honestly believed he was a traveling songwriter, she says with a laugh. That was because he looked kind of homeless, and he was real hungry. Then he started playing music and I was sure he was a traveling songwriter because the songs were so damn good. But I remember being perplexed when he stood up and announced that he had to be on call the next morning. I was like, Uh, where would you be on call? Is there like a poetry hotline? Ben and Joanne were fast friends from that day on. After a career in the big-time music industry, she was moved by his homespun lyricism, the level of detail and nuance in his songs that make them completely come to life for me. He also inspired her to start singing again and she became a regular part of his act. Before long, she was managing his career, booking gigs, and introducing him to some of her influential friends in Nashville, including Rodney Crowell, the Grammy award-winner whom Joanne also co-managed at the time. When Ben recorded his next album, White Sulphur Springs, Crowell stopped by the Nashville studio from time to time, and even traded verses on Toe the Line, one of Bens anthems to honesty in art and life, with the refrain, Do you find your own truth, or do you toe the line? But Rodney says he didnt realize the depth of Bens talent until the two of them went for a ride in Crowells car and listened to the album top to bottom. I said to him, This is poetry. Youve really created something here. And thats when I became a fan of Bens, says Crowell.

Enduring notes
Ben Bullingtons music will live on. Rodney Crowell, above with Bullington, is putting together an album of Bullington songs, played by J. D. Souther, Darrell Scott, Guy Clark, Crowell and others. The music takes them back to a purer era, one that got lost in the commercialization of country music. Then flash-forward to 2009, and along came Ben Bullington, reminding us of why we do this, Crowell says. Thats the gift we were given.

White Sulphur Springs established Ben Bullington as a songwriter to be reckoned with. His artistry resonates in every song, from the title track, an homage to the simple but bountiful life of small-town Montana, to Twangy Guitars, the story of a farm family dealing with the wifes cancer and finally getting some good news. His exquisite sense of detail puts you right at the kitchen table for breakfast, in the antiseptic waiting room, and then driving the pickup back from the hospital on a snowy, wind-whipped highway, a country western soundtrack pulsing hope over the radio. IN 2008 BEN LEFT WHITE SULPHUR TO TAKE A job at the small hospital in Big Timber. He put thousands of miles on his SUV, burning up highways between Big Timber and White Sulphur, where his two younger sons were still in high school. Meanwhile, he was honing his chops as a performer, traveling around the country, sometimes opening for Crowell. He broke into radio, too, climbing the Americana charts, and new songs came in a torrent. He wrote them in his head while he was driving those long stretches; he

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jotted lyrics on the 3-by-5 notecards he always kept in his shirt pocket. Before long he was laying down tracks for his third album, Satisfaction Garage. By the time it was released in 2010 he already had all the songs lined up for Lazy Moon, an album that is Montana to the bone: recorded at Electric Peak Studios in Gardiner, and featuring a lineup of locally based musicians, including Bill Payne of Little Feat. Payne, who co-wrote some of Little Feats greatest hits, asked Ben to write a song with him about a dear friend, Stephen Bruton, a songwriter who had recently died of throat cancer. Tapping Ben was kind of unusual because he didnt know Stephen, says Payne. But they were very kindred spirits in a certain sense. The result is The Last Adios, a sweeping elegy, earthbound in its details, sublime in its reach. The subject matter was hauntingly prophetic.

Our hearts are thorns and roses And you cant ever know If its the first step of a journey Or the last adios IN THE LATE FALL OF 2012, BEN NOTICED AN ache in his gut that wouldnt go away. At first he thought it was an ulcer. But the pain got worse, and he finally checked in with a colleague who ordered a CT scan and then delivered the hard news: a tumor in the middle of his pancreas and spots on his liver. By the time this kind of cancer produces symptoms, its too late to cure it. Soon after the diagnosis, Ben took leave from the hospital (Nobody wants a sick doctor). He decided on a mild course of chemotherapy that would hopefully hold back the disease without giving him terrible side effects, like neuropathy in his hands that would

Though Bullingtons final days have been marked by song, one thing did stop: his songwriting. I dont want to take what little part I have of the day and use it for that, he says.

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make it impossible to play guitar. He even delayed the start of treatment so he could fly to Nashville to record his fifth CD. Afterwards, he arranged chemo treatments early in the week, so that he could feel well enough to perform on the weekends. Some of his friends worried that he should be doing more to fight the disease. He pointed out hed spent a career trying to help people make good decisions, that he knew what he was doing. I just say to them, Dont worry. Ive got this. The self-titled album, Ben Bullington, came out the next spring. Its an elegant, stripped-down piece of work that flows like a musical memoir, from the story of his Virginia roots in Appalachian Mountain Delta Blues, to the poignant refrain of The Last Adios. Along the way he tweaks the rank commercialism that pervades Nashville in Country Music (Im Talking to You), and connects climate change to the human heart in Heres to Hopin (with harmonies by another good friend, Mary Chapin Carpenter). To the astonishment of his friends, Ben kept up a solid schedule of touring all year. With Joanne by his side, he played music festivals from Florida to Texas to Tennessee, topping off the summer with his third appearance at Red Ants Pants, the White Sulphur Springs answer to Woodstock. He even went back into the studio to record a track for a compilation hes putting together called Montana Jukebox Songs. The one thing he hasnt done much is write songs. It takes a lot of work to do something good, Ben says. You have to go over it, and over it, and over it. It removes you from the world. I dont want to take what little part I have of the day and use it for that. Id rather watch movies with the boys. The one song hes written since he got sick is a farewell to his boys, called Son, Were Good. Its the only song he has a hard time singing: Things dont always work out the way you wish they would. Go on and do what you need to son, were good Ive got plenty of stuff that Im happy with, he says. Its a fair body of work now. That can be enough. Although it wasnt planned that way, the concert at the Elks Club in Livingston was Bens last show. It just

got too hard after that. But hes okay with it. That, too, was enough. I looked out at the audience and everyone was a friend, he says. Just what Id always envisioned when I started out. It was the best concert Ive ever done, a perfect night. THESE DAYS BEN SPLITS HIS TIME BETWEEN THE house hes kept for his sons in White Sulphur and the couch in Joanne Gardners living room in Livingston. His best time is the morning. Often hell pick out a tune on his banjo while the sun lights up the Absarokas beyond the picture windows. Bens goal was to live long enough to see his eldest son get married to his hometown sweetheart in early October. He made it. It was a classic outdoor wedding in Montana, with folding chairs and cowboy boots sinking in the uneven grass. Sam Bullington and Lorinda Hunt said their vows beneath a wide blue sky anchored by snow-dusted mountains, the Yellowstone River running just behind the cottonwoods, like an welcome guest tying everything together. Young Ben, who postponed college to help out his dad, served as a groomsman, and Joseph, a promising young writer, officiated the ceremony. Their father sat in the front row, beaming from beneath his Stetson. Ben has been spending his time making lists, getting his affairs in order, tying up loose ends. There have been lots of talks with his boys about finances, women, fate, politics, and joy, cramming a lifetime of advice into a few short months. But hes already said it best in a song, of course. Ive Got to Leave You Now is another one of those premonition songs, written a couple of years before he learned he had cancer. Promise me you wont worry Its probably like the time fore I was born Make some waves out on the ocean With all the best inside you, my sons. Our souls might mingle in the after torch Like four friends smokin on a midnight porch I always loved you the best I knew how Ive gotta leave you now

Ive got plenty

of stuff that Im happy with. Its a fair body of work now. That

can be enough.

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