Talkin' to you 

Montana songwriter Ben Bullington finds his voice among Music City's finest

Country music has always had its dissidents. In 1996, songwriting rebel Robbie Fulks wrote the rollicking "Fuck This Town" about the Nashville scene. A decade later, Shooter Jennings put out his album, Put the "O" Back in Country, to lament how low country music has sunk since his father's heyday. And, recently, alt-country traditionalist Dale Watson wrote a song about contemporary country artist Blake Shelton that goes, "I'd rather be an old fart than a new country turd."

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  • Ben Bullington quit his job as a small-town Montana doctor to play music full-time after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Montana singer-songwriter Ben Bullington continues in the same tradition of pushing back against formulaic music. His song "Country Music (I'm Talkin' To You)," off his new eponymous album goes:

"It's not about the claims you make,/ true tales or what's at stake/ I smell business in everything you do/ I wasn't surprised, but it made me sick/ how you turned your back on the Dixie Chicks/ while wavin' that old red, white and blue./ Country music, I'm talkin to you./ I don't love you like I used to do./ You left me, man, I didn't leave you."

Until recently, Bullington's been an obscurity—a small-town doctor in both White Sulphur Springs and Big Timber, who also happens to write songs and play guitar. His sound is more Townes Van Zandt than George Jones, and his heroes are the songwriters behind the scenes such as Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, whose original songs bolstered the careers of Emmy Lou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. But like Crowell and Clark did, Bullington is starting to make a name for himself on the national scene.

It hasn't been without a painful catalyst. Last November, a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer propelled Bullington to quit his medical practice and jump head-on into music. Over the last few months he's played the elite Kerryville Folk Festival in Texas and Florida's 30A Songwriting Festival. A performance he did in Nashville recently caught the attention of the manager for up-and-coming artist Sarah Jarosz, and Bullington was asked to open her Missoula show. He's released five albums—two in the last six months—that feature Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nashville singer-songwriter Will Kimbrough, leading multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and Crowell.

"I had a pile of songs—half or a third of the songs we were doing weren't on any record and I wasn't sure what I was going to do with all of that because some of it went back pretty far," Bullington says. He recorded part of it at Fred Baker's studio in Gardiner, Mont., but he also had plans for Tennessee.

"I had booked studio time in Nashville in December to go do that," he says. "I got this diagnosis before Thanksgiving and I said, 'Hell, I still want to go make a record.' We went down there and did. It was one of the best weeks of my life."

Bullington is a lanky, sunkissed guy with a big belt buckle, plaid shirt and a drawl. He grew up in the bluegrass town of Roanoke, Va. While his friends were listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Grand Funk Railroad, he frequented bluegrass picking circles on the outskirts of town. One musician told him he ought to get a Doc Watson album. "So I went to the pitiful record store we had in town and there I got Doc Watson On Stage [1971] and the double record on Vanguard," Bullington says. "I went home and put it on my record player, and within 30 seconds was jumping up and down, I was so excited. 'This is it!' I said. It's what flipped my switch."

Bullington was also getting exposure to singer-songwriters of the era. He had a cousin who went off to Vietnam and left him with six Dylan records, which once he had, he never gave back. In his song "Appalachian Mtn Delta Blues," from his new album, Bullington mentions the Dylan records, saying he was 15 and "just a gangly kid, all heart and appetite and misery."

Bullington went to college at Vanderbilt—not because of the school's reputation but because it would allow him access to the Nashville music scene. Sam Bush and other bluegrass musicians were just showing up around town and Bullington would go see them at The Old Time Pickin' Parlor. There were two scenes going on at the time in Nashville: Printer's Alley was where the tourists went to see George Jones and other full-blown country stars for a $10 cover. The cheaper, grittier scene included musicians like Guy Clark and Steve Young, whose songs were being done by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Those songwriters spoke to Bullington and, though he wasn't playing much music, he was listening.

"I played that first Guy Clark album to pieces," he says. "One way or another I think we saw them as alt-country but we didn't have that term for it."

Bullington studied geology, ended up in Montana at a geology camp and then worked in the oil fields in the Northwest. He went to medical school in Charlottesville, Va., but he missed the West. After he graduated in 1989, he returned to Montana and worked for a time as the lone doctor on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation before settling in White Sulphur Springs co-directing a six-bed hospital for 10 years and raising a family with three boys.

During that time he got his head back into songwriting. "I got a new guitar and started playing again every day, telling myself I was never going to put it down."

And he hasn't.

Bullington's music gives the same kind of treatment to Montana that so many songwriters give to Texas, West Virginia and Tennessee. He sings about the road from Kanesville to Pray, about White Sulphur Springs and Montana girls. His most popular tracks are "Born in 55," which is a pedal-steel-infused litany of events about the JFK assassination and civil rights, and "I Despise Flies," a dark depiction of the house fly. There are prophetic songs, too, written years before Bullington's diagnosis, like "I've Got to Leave You Now," where he sings to his sons: "Our souls might mingle in the after torch/ like four friends smoking on a midnight porch./ I've always loved you the best I knew how./ I've gotta leave you now."

Bullington met his manager, Joanne Gardner, after he recorded his first album but before it had been released. Gardner was deep in the Nashville scene, having started a production company called ACME Pictures with Roseanne Cash before going on to become an executive at Sony, making music videos for stars like Bob Dylan, Will Smith and Ricky Martin. Though she was still managing Rodney Crowell, she had retired to Livingstonand she was enthralled by Bullington.

"When I heard his songs they riveted me," she says.

She took Bullington under her wing and began pushing his songs to a broader audience. She also introduced Bullington to Crowell.

In 2010, a White Sulphur Springs company called Red Ants Pants, led by owner Sarah Calhoun, kicked off a music festival to support women farmers. Collaborating with Kris Clone of Bozeman's 10 Feet Tall and 80 Proof, Calhoun sought Bullington and Gardner's help to create a festival that would start out with a bang. They got Crowell on board, who then enticed Guy Clark, and after a few other big singer-songwriters signed on they got Lyle Lovett to headline.

"And so then there was this whole cadre of old Texas songwriter friends who wanted to hang out with each other and did," Gardner says. "But we had to create it out of nothing. A lifestyle music festival in a cattle field in White Sulphur Springs that's only got 60 motel rooms in the entire town? It was a pretty good festival but then all of a sudden Lyle got added and it was, wow."

That was the first year of the Red Ants Pants Festival. The second year saw Jerry Jeff Walker and Emmy Lou Harris, among others. For Bullington it was the ultimate experience of having all the heroes of his youth come play alongside him. Crowell even told him recently, "Welcome to the club."

"And he means the songwriter club," Gardner says. "And when you think that includes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, it's a pretty cool club to be in."

In December, a week before he started chemotherapy, Bullington played "Country Music (I'm Talkin' to You)" to a sold-out crowd at the Station Inn in Nashville, accompanied by Crowell, Darrell Scott and Will Kimbrough. He'll play the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman and the Red Ants Pants Festival this year, alongside acts like Merle Haggered and Robert Earl Keen. And he plans to keep writing as many songs as he can.

"Writing a song that I think is good, it has to sort of well up and it has to be infused with energy," he says. "And you have to keep that level of energy in it until it's done."

Ben Bullington plays the Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs Fri., July 26, at 4 PM. The festival runs from Thu., July 25, to Sun., July 28. Go to redantspants.com for festival info and tickets.

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