News Column

Folk artist Ben Bullington lives on in his music [Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)]

November 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Today's column was going to focus on happy topics, and still will in the latter half. But first, I'd like to write a bit about Ben Bullington, who died on Monday at 58.

Bullington grew up in Roanoke, graduated from North Cross School and spent most of his adult life as a doctor. Along the way, he also wrote and sang songs and made records. He didn't tour, though. He had a family to raise, so he kept his music mostly around his adopted home in the Livingston, Mont., area.

Nearly a year ago, Bullington was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which he realized was a death sentence. He decided to take advantage of his disability insurance to spend more time traveling for performances before he died.

That led to a Roanoke homecoming on April 28, when he and his brother, guitarist Andy Bullington, performed a show of original music at Mill Mountain Theatre. It was a bad stroke of luck that I missed that show, which landed on the same day as a Roanoke Civic Center concert. But Bullington said later that the show went well and that he really enjoyed it.

A good stroke of luck is that Bullington's sister, Mary Bullington, had provided me with several copies of the CDs that Ben Bullington recorded in Nashville, Tenn. It is a good collection of easygoing country/folk music with intelligent lyrics, which Ben Bullington sang with a mellow but sort of world-weary voice. It was easy to imagine that if he hadn't chosen the life of a country doctor, he could have had musical success to match his substantial talent.

He certainly had some friends who thought so. Grammy Award- winning musician Rodney Crowell's manager, Joanne Gardner, happened to move to Livingston a few years ago to get away from the business. But when she heard Bullington sing his songs, she could not avoid getting involved with his side career. She introduced him to Crowell, who hosted Bullington whenever he came to Nashville to record.

In a message relayed via Gardner, Crowell noted that Bullington was as gifted a "late-night conversationalist" as he was "an early- morning observationist," which to Crowell's way of thinking, is "the hallmark of the timeless songwriter."

I would suggest that any Americana or folk fan hear Ben Bullington. All his albums are available at his website, benbullington.com. Among them is his final album, a self-titled affair. It features guitar work and production from Will Kimbrough, piano from Bill Payne (Little Feat) and backing vocals from Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Read about Bullington's April trip to Roanoke at roanoke.com/ living/music/1883415-12/former-roanoker-ben-bullington-sees-silver- lining-in.html.

Hey Joe

The Fret Mill Music Co. recently received a surprise visitor with some impressive gear. Blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa, who played Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Nov. 8, was in town a day early and wandered into the Fret Mill.

"He is a very personable guy," store owner Ken Rattenbury wrote in an email. "He didn't identify himself when he came in and seemed surprised that I recognized him."

Bonamassa told Rattenbury about his obsession with vintage electric guitars, which began when he worked in his father's music store as a kid.

"He took the time to go out to his car and bring one of his favorite axes to show us," Rattenbury wrote. "It was a '59 Les Paul Standard that he calls 'Principal Skinner' [a reference to "The Simpsons" character Seymour Skinner] because he got it at a Skinner auction. Definitely made our day down here."

I opened my review of Bonamassa's show with his story about playing a disastrous gig at the Coffee Pot 13 years ago, on Halloween. But a reader begged to differ with Bonamassa's memory.

Ricky Mullen wrote on my Facebook page that he saw the show in question, and it was at the Top Rail, in Salem (the venue, which has since burned, also was known as Shooter's, Howler's and Greystone Tavern). Were you there? Who is correct? Write me via tad.dickens@roanoke.com, and let me know.

Whether it happened at the Coffee Pot or the Top Rail, Bonamassa told an entertaining tale. His publicist did not return a request for comment. Watch video of Bonamassa telling the story via http:// youtu.be/uhVHEEyhnY8.

Warning: Salty language.

Another reader, Walter Trexell, added in the same thread that I was wrong about the origins of the song "Ball Peen Hammer," which Bonamassa played in the Nov. 8 set. Chris Whitley, not Bonamassa, wrote it.

Guitarist wins award

Salem resident Richard Kiser is a whale of a guitarist who has lived his dreams of playing in the Chet Atkins style and making his living as a gospel music performer.

Kiser has also won awards along the way, including a 2009 induction into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

He added to his hardware collection on Nov. 9 at the Artists Music Guild Heritage Awards in Fort Mill, S.C. In that ceremony, Kiser won the Heritage Award Instrumentalist of the Year. It was his second consecutive win.

Chubby Checker, the old-school rock 'n' roller best known for his hit performance of "The Twist," hosted the show, Kiser wrote in an email. And Kiser performed with Checker.

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