Ben Bullington Bio
“Ben Bullington's work draws life-breath from the earth, rivers, sky and people of Montana,” says Rodney Crowell, the Nashville songwriting legend who plays guitar and performs a duet on Bullington’s latest CD, White Sulphur Springs. “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.”
“Plus,” Crowell adds, “the guy's a pretty damn good doctor for a songwriter.”
In the tradition of poet-troubadours like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Ben Bullington tells stories that explore what it means to be a citizen in these perilous times. His latest collection of songs are urgent dispatches from the front lines of America’s war with its own heart and soul. He finds his material in truck-stop diners, VFW dance halls, jittery waiting rooms, and the sun-warmed stones of a castle observed from his window in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. That small town, where Bullington lived until recently and helped raise his three sons while working as a country doctor, inspired the title song of the CD.
Accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and backed by a sure-footed Nashville session band, Bullington sings,
“Dreams don’t come easy on seven bucks an hour,
Maybe it’s a matter of what kind of dreams you have.
There’s trout streams, and the air is clean,
and money don’t mean everything,
in a place called White Sulphur Springs.”
His layered, subtle lyrics and deceptively simple melodies have attracted the attention – and praise – of some famous musicians including Crowell and singer Tracy Nelson, who also appears on the album.
Like the character in his searching song “Ain’t Found It Yet” Ben Bullington has been all over this country - and a few others - waiting tables and working on oil exploration crews and in remote clinics and hospitals.
He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, the middle of five children born to a stockbroker/ex-Navy man and a homemaker. His brother, Andy, became a professional musician and has worked as a solid Austin sideman for close to 20 years, but Ben Bullington took a different road to his life as a songwriter. He went to Vanderbilt University (“cause it was in Nashville”), absorbing the music scene of some of his heroes like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell. Songs stayed in the back of his head while he left performing to the professionals as he studied for a geology degree.
After college Bullington worked in the oil fields of North Dakota, the Northern Rockies and the Texas panhandle before reaching the end of that trail up a river in the central Amazon of Brazil. “I was out there in an oil crew camp, realized I was finished with that line of work and thought about what to do next. I was pretty good with science and liked working with people so I figured I’d put the two together.”
He moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, enrolled in medical school and fell in with some young grad students of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, Charles Wright. “It wasn’t the best match in every way; their work loads were a little different than mine. I’d get home at midnight after a day in the library and they’d be pouring me whiskey and thrusting a guitar in my hands. Next thing it was three in the morning and I’d have to be in class at eight,” Ben recalls. “But I did learn from those guys that I was at least as much one of them as I was a doctor.”
Music was on the back burner through most of med school and training and stayed there while he started a family and practiced medicine, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, a small coastal Alaska town, in the mountains of West Virginia, and finally back to Montana. “I haven’t gotten rich,” he says. “But I like the people and my boys have grown up with plenty of elbow room.”
Ben took a job for several years at the small hospital in White Sulphur Springs, home to a thousand hardy souls on the banks of the Smith River in central Montana. When his youngest child was four, he started writing songs again in the quiet early morning hours. Those sessions provided most of the songs on Bullington’s first CD, Two Lane Highway, produced by Sean Devine of Livingston, MT.
Devine, a singer-songwriter himself, encouraged Ben to start performing at local venues – and the experience shows in the sparkling guitar work and assured vocals on White Sulphur Springs. “Sean was extremely generous and helpful to me,” says Ben. “He’s a great musician and a great listener.”
Another Livingston resident, former Sony music executive Joanne Gardner, inspired Bullington to expand his horizons and experiment with different musical forms.
"When I met Ben, it was immediately apparent this man had a grasp of people and a deep understanding of the human condition, warts and all,” says Gardner. “And, he has this easy manner, lovely sense of humor and can observe without a lot of judgment. I love the way Ben writes.”
Gardner introduced Bullington to some friends in the Nashville music scene, including Crowell, and Nelson - who helped arrange his recording sessions. Gardner even sang harmony on two of the songs on White Sulphur Springs.
“This recording was very old school - all the musicians in one room, not a lot of tricks. Nearly every track used was the first take,” says Gardner. “After the last notes were played, the musicians would comment on just how well crafted the songs were. Having been in Nashville during recording sessions for way too long, I can tell you how rare that is."
The result is a stirring, thoughtful CD. White Sulphur Springs showcases ten finely-rendered songs of love, war and redemption, ranging from simple, seductive tunes such as “Ring Around the Moon” to colorful essays on the state of the world, like “Born in ’55.” That cut sprang straight out of a true story when Bullington was carded at a saloon in Wilsall, Montana – even though he had grey in his sideburns and was the nearest doctor to the north. In recalling the incident, the narrator of the song slips into a reverie on what it meant to grow up in the sixties, watching the shining lights of liberalism get gunned down, one after the other.
“Twangy Guitars” is written by a doctor from a patient’s perspective: It’s the story of an uninsured farm family dealing with the wife’s cancer, and finally getting some good news. Ben’s deft lyrics put you right at the kitchen table, in the waiting room and driving back from the clinic in a pickup on a wind-whipped highway, a country western soundtrack pulsing hope over the radio.
“Toe the Line” is a country tune that poses some serious questions about where one stands in this world – as a victim or a valentine, a righteous man who finds his own truth or a “messenger for the king’s liars.” Rodney Crowell trades verses with Bullington, and supplies some tasty guitar work on the track.
Finally, “I’m a Stranger” is a story told by a man who loves his country but no longer knows whom to trust. Tracy Nelson’s powerful harmonies build to a crescendo of loss and wonder.
In the end, Ben Bullingon’s White Sulphur Springs leaves you with hope but without certainty. One thing you can count on is that you’ve heard an important new voice with something to say.