Ben Bullington wrote songs while working as a country doctor in White Sulphur Springs, Montana (population: 939), often scribbling away in the early morning hours before work and during down times in the emergency room. He wrote lyrics on cards, boarding passes, propane receipts — anything at hand — and crafted melodies on his 1933 Martin D-18. He worked alone, but his obscurity was not destined to last.
Bullington had taken a crooked path to Montana. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, he attended Vanderbilt University and pursued a career in the oil exploration business. During a trip up the Amazon, he contracted a near-fatal illness and decided to become a doctor. He worked at an Indian reservation and in Alaska before settling in Montana, where he raised a family, produced five CDs and died from pancreatic cancer on November 18th, 2013, at age 58. It was his cancer diagnosis, which arrived one year before his death, that convinced Bullington to leave his work and spend as much time as possible making music.
His songs have taken on a life of their own. Highly descriptive meditations on small town life, love, death, war and even flies — which the doctor despised — they can carry a sharp bite, as in the opening line to "I’ve Got to Leave You Now," a song that predicted his own demise: "Too many men are worse than rodents." Perhaps not Clear Channel material.
But Bullington's work has attracted a devoted following, especially among Nashville's songwriting elite. Darrell Scott's recently released tribute album, 10: Songs By Ben Bullington, is performed with sparse guitar, banjo and piano accompaniment, echoing Bullington's solo performances at Elks Clubs and other small venues out west. "These are real, honest, literature-based pieces of art for art's sake," Scott says, adding that the songs are not marred by "a swing for the commercial fences. I felt I was being part of a beautiful piece of art and part of a beautiful gift that will outlive both of us."
Grammy winner Rodney Crowell says Bullington's songwriting sensibilities "were a hybrid blend of intelligence, innocence and wry observance" and "refreshingly free of what we came to know as 'the music business.' He reminded me that a good and true song needs no other purpose." Scott and Crowell were joined onstage by several Bullington fans at the album's Nashville CD release party in late May, including Bill Cowan, Bill Payne, Gretchen Peters, Tracy Nelson, Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough. Earlier that day, Bullington's "Country Music I’m Talking to You," a scathing indictment of Music Row and country radio, was played on WSM — the voice of the Grand Old Opry.
There's a storybook quality to Bullington's ascendency, whose catalyst was an April 2007 Montana dinner party introduction to Joanne Gardner, a former Sony senior V.P. and refugee from Los Angeles' rat race. She was immediately captivated by his songs and embraced his DIY spirit.
"There was no machine, no label, no distribution," she says. "We kitchen-tabled the whole thing. He had champions all over." None were more dedicated than Gardner, though, who introduced Bullington to Scott, Crowell and other musical pals. She acted as his manager and, during his last year, often drove Bullington to gigs. "Sometimes he felt pretty good, and sometimes he rolled into a ball in the back seat," she remembers. He died at her house.
Mary Chapin Carpenter and Crowell have written songs about Bullington, and Crowell may do some post-mortem co-writing with help from the large collection of lyrical fragments he left behind. Meanwhile, Scott's 10 is Number 26 on the Americana radio play chart. All of which has the feel of an unlikely legend being born.