Archive for January 2010

Having Fun

January 31, 2010

        I played a gig not long ago with Al Donnelly, the Irish folk rock singer-songwriter I’ve told you about before.  It isn’t straight bluegrass, so you gotta stay on your toes.  He’s organized though, and even sends me a few chord charts ahead of time so I can prepare for the gig.

        Still, I think at least the musicians in the crowd know I’m winging part of it.  One came up after our show.  I know him well, as he does a lot of the guitar and all the uke work at Harvey Methodist.  He said, “Didja hire Dr. B as your side-man tonight?”

        “Yes sir.”

         “Man, I dug ‘There is a Time.’  Enjoyed the show; loved the singing; cool clawhammer, good mandolin breaks, too.  I tell you one thing, I’ve never played a gig with Doc and not had a good time.  The boy’s gonna have fun.”

         Donnelly smiled.  He knew it was true.  I considered it a most high compliment.  I’m a serious doctor, but when I put down the stethoscope and pick up my mandolin I am but a large child.

        Let’s go play.

Dr. B


Dancing at The Jefferson

January 30, 2010

        I heard on NPR that a group of people got arrested for dancing at the  Jefferson Memorial.   Given Thomas Jefferson was committed to “opposition to tyranny in all forms,” I found this quite a paradox.

        Even the most oppressive societies give in and allow dancing ’cause when they try to ban it people go and turn to something like sex.  You see where that got us.  

        I guess I just don’t understand, but it seems to me we have a whole of serious things to waste our money on before we get around to arresting people who dance.  They next thing you know they’re gonna be after the musicians, ’cause without us subversive rabble-rousers the masses tend to be more submissive to the will of the powerful.  Music makes people take up dancing and Lord knows where that might lead.

Dr. B

Hold Your People Close

January 28, 2010

        Yesterday we lost a good friend who should have lived much longer. When someone asked how he was, he always smiled and said, “Better than I deserve.” He was such a fine devoted family man. He was successful, but had not a whit of arrogance.  He knew he was blessed, but he never took it for granted.  As a doc in a little town you come to know your people well.  He was one more quality human being, and sure did deserve a lot more Happy Birthdays.

        If I haven’t learned anything else in the doc biz, it is to hold your people close. We aren’t promised tomorrow, so let’s all make the best for today we can.  If my friend was still here, I can promise you he would do exactly that.

Dr. B

My Editor Dorrie

January 26, 2010

        I had two brothers, but was not lucky enough to have any sisters.  There was not a whit of culture or refinement in me or my brothers.  We were just wild sunburned boys who ran all day and stayed covered in red clay dust.

        If I have any sensibilities about me at all, I got it from my mom.  She was an English teacher who took me to the library every week.  I thought everybody went to the library and read five books every week, and the reading habit persisted even after formal education tried to beat it out of me at times. I owe everything to mama.

        Even mom never tamed me; but my wife did, although it took her a while.  She gave me the freedom to play as much as I wanted as long as I only loved one woman.  Man, I was like Adam in the Garden of Eden except I had the good sense to know what I had.  I cherished her, protected her, and never took my great fortune for granted.  It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve been loyal and had a great run of it.  Just as sure as mama made my childhood, my wife sealed the deal for me as an adult. 

        So now you can see why when it came time to get an editor I leaned towards a woman.  My agent is a guy and he has been an enormous influence on me, but he agreed I was more likely to flourish with a female editor.  When I was a kid if you disagreed with a guy you might just rassle him or punch him in the nose.  It never seemed very civilized to me.  I work with a group of twelve women every day, and they tend to negotiate with words.  For a doctor/bluegrass picker whose mid-life crisis was to wake up one day and decide he was a writer they provided a rich backdrop of verbal ideas.

        Now I don’t want you to be confused here.  I didn’t want a woman editor in hopes I’d get some sweet lady to say she loved my book no questions asked.  If I wanted that, I’d just get mama to read it.  In her eyes I can do no wrong.  Aren’t moms that way?  You see some guy on T.V. in an orange jump suit who has a long career in the ax murder business and his mom will be at his side saying, “Oh, Johnny is such a sweet boy.”  If you want objectivity, mama ain’t the best person to call on.

        I figured what I needed was a big sister.  I never had one, but from what I have read they aren’t in the business of false praise, and yet when the chips are down will defend little brother to the death.  Sister Dorrie turned out to be just that, a big sister who worked with me to get every passage right.  To do it, she had to immerse herself in a world of tobacco chewing bluegrass pickers, late night card games, golf hustlers, and assorted other scoundrels.  She not only did her job as a pro editor, but went the extra mile. She sat in on our sessions, got inside their heads, and whipped those boys into shape. By the time she was done with ’em, even a refined literary woman would want to read more. 

        At the same time, she refused to write it for me.  (“I’m not your mama, Doc”)  Dorrie worked hard to hear my voice, did all she could to make it stronger, but she never strangled it.  It was a fine line to walk.  I am a serious doctor, but otherwise a large child. Dorrie put enough polish on to make me readable, but never compromised my enthusiasm.  I guess it was like a big sister who helps little brother get ready for prom night.  She knew how to take a rough kid who loved baseball and make him presentable enough for a date with a young lady, but knew there was no point to take all the boy out of him.  

          When my book finally sees the light of published day, sister Dorrie deserves much of the credit.  She knew how to rassle little brother with words and could fight hard like siblings do.  But, never make the mistake to diss little brother to any big sister, ’cause they’ll stick up for you when the chips are down every time.

       In addition to her work on my book, Dorrie edited an article for me that will be published in an international magazine this spring. My agent just assigned me another one he has high hopes for and I am sure I will call on her for that one too.

        Dorrie is my editor and always will be.  I told her it was like the Opry told Bill Monroe.  “If you want to leave you’ll have to fire yourself.”   She knows it is true, ’cause old Doc believes in loyalty.  Besides, who ever heard of a little brother firing his big sister?  That ain’t possible.  Even after all the childhood squabbles and word wars, she’s the one who saw to it he was ready for the prom, and that took some doing.    

Here’s her link:

Also she is on my blogroll.

All the best, Sis.

Dr. B

Why I Play Music

January 25, 2010

       Neuse River had a gig Saturday night.  I don’t write about all of our shows.  In a way they are so similar I was afraid you might get bored.  And yet to me each one was unique; some small variation of God’s creation was revealed every time we went out.  

        There is often barbeque, sometimes fried chicken, and almost always iced tea.  Sometimes they’ll be pickled peaches and deviled eggs on long tables prepared by little silver-haired ladies with spindly legs who cook at Wednesday night church suppers.  Every so often one will say they like our music okay but wished we knew something by Lawrence Welk. 

        The sound systems range from bad to professional.  Well-scrubbed children sit in front of the stage and sometimes get up and clog.  If you ask their parents how they learned to do that they say, “It just come natural to ’em.”

        The combinations and permutations of musicians have varied over the decades.  We started when I was a young doctor with jet black hair.  (Now I’m salt and salt)  I was a banjo man in those days.  I heard about Moose Dooley and called him up to see if he wanted to trade a few licks.  He turned to his girlfriend (now his wife) and said “Honey, some crazy doctor wants to play bluegrass music with me.  I’m gonna check him out.  If he’s okay you can go next time.”  We’ve been friends ever since.

        Moose was very young, but already a fine banjo player.  I knew enough flat-pick guitar to get by, and he knew some kid who played mandolin and had just gotten a driver’s license.  My cousin was a bass player.  We had us a band. 

        It was fluid.  Sometimes someone would get married (or divorced) and move, but we kept it going.  The mandolin player ran away to Nashville and turned pro a while.  We found an elderly gentleman to play guitar and I took up mandolin to fill in the gap.  When he died a couple years ago we played the funeral.  We barely got through it.  Next to your family and your office staff your music people are the closest people a doc can have.

         Over the years we played church socials, rescue squad fund-raisers, and Sunday School picnics.  Every so often the first mandolin man would come in from Nashville and the boys would play a bar gig.  I skipped those.  It wasn’t that I was being judgmental; it really wasn’t.  Somehow though, the notion of a fight to break out and my picture in the crowd on the front page of the Harvey Herald wasn’t something I wanted to explain to my patients, much less my mama.  

        We opened up gas stations, RV dealerships, and apartment complexes, and competed for a Harvey County Fair time slot with the pig races.  I have notes in my files from young brides who thanked us for making their day even more special.  The thought my music would be on anybody’s radar on such an important day in their life humbles me.  Sometimes when I wonder if I made an impact I’ll re-read a note like that late at night and imagine that when I’m dead and gone someone might say to an elderly spouse at Harvey Nursing Home, “Honey, you remember when old Dr. B played out there at the farm for our wedding?”

         We played so many shows for causes and kids with cancer I’ve lost count.  People acted like it was noble, but I felt a little guilty when they’d say such a thing.  We were having fun and some human being was struggling to survive; there warn’t nothing to it.  I believe if God blesses us with something we ought to do a little good with it.  I’m too lazy to work, so I had to play to do my part.

        We played doctor parties and lawyer gigs, and shows at the college a couple counties over.  We did a few funerals.  One time we did one at a church for a pastor who had been called somewhere else. That one was one of those ugly transitions in life, but I thought it was a smart gig for everyone involved.  How can you listen to bluegrass music, eat BBQ, and be hateful to a man of God all at the same time?

        We played the charity events for some nominal fee or for free, and didn’t charge much for the paying gigs.  Only one time did anyone consider stiffing us.  Moose told the cat he was gonna break his neck.  The man sized up the situation.  When he glanced my way, I said, “Dude, he’ll do it, and I only made a ‘B’ in neurosurgery.  I wouldn’t take a chance.”

        He paid up. It was a bluff.  Moose had two young children and no interest in time in the Pen, and I really made an ‘A’ but I didn’t want to encourage the man.

        We shared the same stage with folks like III Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, John Hartford, Doug Dillard, Blue Highway, and many more. I was a sixth man for the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet, and played a few shows with them when someone was out sick.  It was like batting practice with the Cubs for an old doc. 

        Darin is my number one mandolin influence for all time.  My wife and I love him and Brooke like family.  A couple years ago Darin recommended I seek out Wayne Benson to tighten up some loose ends in my style.  (sort of like a second opinion in doctor gig I guess)  Wayne and Kristin also became true bluegrass friends and we fell in love with them too.  This here is a fact:  If a man can’t learn some mandolin with Darin Aldridge on his right hand and Wayne Benson on his left, there ain’t no hope for him.  How could one old doctor be so lucky?

        I played so I could better understand singer songwriters or old-time fiddlers or girl singers in hopes I might be a better doc or least improve myself as a human being from the common bond of music we all share.  I played music with my wife and children along the way and it bordered on spiritual.

        Neuse River wound up on the big stage a few times.  My guys are a lot younger than me and they are very fine musicians.  They might even have one more run in them for the circuit.  If they do I’m gonna be the first to tell you of it, ’cause at this point they are the best band you never heard of.  But if they go they know I can’t hit the road with them.  My role is to be old Doc and play at home.  Except for a few short book store gig tours someday I am a homebody and that will never change.

         I’ve always told them if they go I’ll have to put ’em on the bus and wave good-bye, ’cause Doc can’t leave.  I don’t want to seem too dang sappy but if they ever pull off in that bus I’m sure I’ll have a few tears.  We’ve had one more large time.

        If the economy hadn’t turned bad I think they’d made a run at it a couple years ago.  If things turn around they might yet. We’ve talked about it at length.  Even if they go, we haven’t played our last gig together.  I’ve had more bands than Mickey Rooney had wives, and the music has to go on.  Every county needs one doctor mandolin picker and I’m the only one in Harvey County, so I have to continue on.

        I have to play music just as sure as I have to doctor.  If you are passionate about your art form, I’d love to hear about what drives you, and hope you’ll leave a comment.

        It’s back to the doc gig.  I’m recharged and ready to go do my best.

Dr. B

Why I Love the Music

January 23, 2010

        When I see a young man in his Sunday best sing harmony with a beautiful young woman whose eyes sparkle as she shakes the rafters and sings out her soul, when I hear complex chords underpin simple truth, when funny dobro men tell country stories and serious banjo pickers play to perfection, and when an almost baby-faced young’un bows sweet fiddle tunes, I know why I love this music.

        In my work, I see a lot of bad things. Some of it is near unspeakable.  Once the music starts the people who play it allow me to forget all that at least for a little while.  There it is all beauty and truth and peace.  I pray for the heard-hearted who do not find even a few stolen moments of tranquility in this otherwise troubled world.

        Between the Good Lord and the music I can see another day through.

Dr. B

See pictures of the show at  I can’t find the right words today to say it all today, but I will over time.

Cut Off Your Own Ear, Dang it

January 22, 2010

        There are some folks who have said my kinda art is not serious enough for individuals of their social standing.  They believe a true artist must be dark and troubled, and a moody countenance would be more suggestive of intellectual superiority.  If light-hearted offends you I am sorry, but I see enough tragedy in the doc gig that I ain’t gonna take myself too serious as either a writer or a mandolinist.  I’m serious about Eternity, my family and friends, heart attacks, and cancer.  Go much further down the list and I’m gonna try to play to forget my troubles, and I don’t apologize for it. 

        If you tell me you can’t take my work for what it is ’cause I won’t cut off my ear to prove I’ve suffered, I’m gonna break into doctor mode and tell you the micro-circulation to the cartilaginous aspect of the pinna can be somewhat compromised in the elderly, and no thank you them rascals can be dang hard to sew back on and get ’em to take. 

        So, have nice day, and you can go cut off your own dang ear if you just have to prove something, but I sure don’t recommend it.  I know a bluegrass doctor man named Junior who might be able to put it back together if you go and do something like that.  As for me, I like both of my ears, and I think I’ll hold onto ’em.

        I’m gonna go read about existentialism.  I’m a serious man, and it beats lopping off an ear to prove it to anyone.

Dr. B

Under the Double Eagle

January 20, 2010

        This is not my story, but I believe it comes from one of the Traum brothers. I can’t recall if it was Artie or Happy.  If you are not familiar with them check out Homespun tapes at  They have some great home study material for traditional music, both by mail and via on-line lessons.

         If you are like us in Harvey County, where as Mike Snyder would say, “City Hall is in the back of the Dairy Queen and duct tape passes for chrome,” access to the minds of world-class players is invaluable.  The days when you had to dig it all out by your lonesome are over.  Don’t wear out the grooves of your LPs trying to decipher licks; those old records are gonna be worth something some day.  One day our music is gonna be the new hip thing all over again, so be prepared.

        I read this story years ago and it is paraphrased from memory, so if I didn’t get it just right I apologize.  Maybe Happy will correct me.

        Years ago one of the Traum brothers was hitch-hiking in upstate New York.  He toted a guitar in a beat up case.  A farmer tooled by in a pick-up truck.  He pulled to a halt, put the truck in reverse, and backed up.  The dust settled to the ground, and he opened the door.

        “Need a ride?”

        “Yes sir.” 

        “You play that guitar?”

        “Yes sir.”

        “You play ‘Under the Double Eagle?'”

        “No sir.”

        The farmer frowned.  “Hell boy, you don’t play that thing!”  He slammed the door shut and sped off.

        Around here they feel like way about Doc Watson’s ‘Black Mountain Rag.’  You can’t fool anyone if you don’t know those tunes.

        I like farmers.  As with bluegrass musicians, I’ve had good luck with them over the years.  I find they tell me the truth.  One old farmer asked Lynn O’Carroll about the ‘Mandolin Case.’  She just shrugged her shoulders and said “I dunno.”    

        He said, “Well I know Dr. B real good.  He knows something and he ain’t talking.”

       He doesn’t need to worry.  I am going to tell all in the book and it will be true fiction.  As far as the facts….well, if you learn ‘Under the Double Eagle’ and ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and play ’em for me at Harvey Nursing Home in a few years, I might get to know you well enough to tell you that too.

        Only problem is by then I’ll have a little more age on me, so I might have it all tangled up in my head.  You know how it is.  Sometimes old folks get to where they are sweet but you can’t count on their recollection of details.  (Recall the Ronald Reagan Iran Contra defense) 

        Better go practice. When I run into one of those cagey old farmers I want to be ready.

Dr. B

Standing Room Only

January 19, 2010

        We got a call last night from Darin and Brooke Aldridge.  Today is their official CD release day.  Their show at the Don Gibson theater sold out.  Maybe I should say it ‘Souled Out’ as Johnny C. would sing, ’cause they have soul and aren’t afraid to show it.  

        There is a reason for all this.  Folks love their music. There is nothing more to it than that.  Dennis Jones of WNCW 88.7, the bluegrass voice of the Carolinas and Internet stream radio predicted their success over a year ago.  Eddie Stubbs of WSM Grand Ole Opry radio loved their CD and told the  world.  Kyle Cantrell of Siruis radio has an interview on tap in February.  

        As big as that is though, it is more than that.  These folks are professional musicians, but they haven’t forgotten to sing from the heart.  They aren’t pro-tooled or fluffed up or marketed or packaged in some pop culture homogenized cookie cutter art.  They are real.

        They are red clay and mica; mountain church suppers and funerals, late night jam sessions and endless road miles in search of their voice.  Their people want to hear this kind of music.  The barbers and preachers and teachers and mechanics and doctors and all kinds of regular people who are weary of a greedy world spoke for these artists, and they spoke loud.  As Indie would said, we are all gonna have a large (bluegrass for big) time.

        The Aldridges are in music because they were both born and called to it.  They aim to use their gift to let us forget, at least for a moment, all the senseless hate, power, and ego that often dominates our modern world.  

        As the Stanleys would say, ‘It’s standing room only.’  For the fine people who have music in their heart and didn’t wind up with a ticket, I sure am sorry to say there are no more for this one, but there will be many more shows. 

        For some folks it is ‘Standing Room Only Outside Your Heart.’  For them I hold no animosity, but only regret they are so hard-hearted they don’t even take a minute to hear what these kind of artists have to say, or even worse do their best to degrade traditional music by preconceived notion.  This you can be sure of: we will never go away.  One way or another you have deal with us.  

        I believe people who love true music have grown tired of the status quo.  If I never in my life see an artist exploited by some dude out to make a buck who can’t play the first note, it’ll suit me just fine. 

        It is obvious from the turn-out I am not alone in that opinion.  Folks like me have always been out there, but we have begun to find each other.  Through the power of the Internet, the grass-roots movement has taken hold.  It is now much more than just a bit of kindling smoke a few of us die-hards breathe on to keep the fire burning.  Bluegrass based country music is poised to make a serious comeback via young artists like Darin and Brooke Aldridge. 

        If you don’t believe me, ask Dennis Jones or Eddie Stubbs.  They are experts.  Or you can come to the Don Gibson Theater and see for yourself.  It’ll be standing room only but the Fire Marshall might let you stand in the back a minute and take it all in. 

        Marty Stuart sold out his show there, and now Darin and Brooke Aldridge have too.  My guess is theaters like to see a full house in these hard times, so traditional music seems to be off to a good revival in Shelby N.C.  Given it is the home of Don Gibson and Earl Scruggs it is as it should be.    

What My Patients Taught Me

January 18, 2010

        The short answer is everything.

        I thought about my patients this weekend.  As part of my CME every winter I kick off the New Year with a big on-line test, then some of the boys in charge send me a piece of paper that says what a smart doctor I am.  I guess what they say is important but what my patients think matters a whole lot more to me.

        After all, my patients were my real teachers.  I was always okay with books and made it a habit to speed read all kinds of things, but I have a secret.  The way I take those tests is I just think about people.  I read the question and Ms. Smith or Jones pops into my head, and then I remember what all those fancy doctors at the medical center said about their case.  After that all you gotta do is fill in the right bubbles.  One year I got every single cardiology question right on the Boards, and all I did was recall what a favorite consultant said about my people in the letters he mailed me. 

        Sometimes they’ll reference some obscure study and try to confuse you.  A fun exercise is to read the answers without even reading the question.  All you gotta do is pick out the responses a fellow in a three-piece suit would think some country doctor would take for the right answer and mark them wrong. (The ones that feel condescending are a dead give-away)  The guy who wrote the test put those questions in there to try to trip you up and make himself feel smarter than what he is.  Ain’t nothing to it.

        The problem for the guy in the suit is he hasn’t seen as many people over the years as I have.  Even though I might not be as smart as the cat who wrote up the quiz I’ve had so many good teachers the test gurus have trouble hanging with me.  I enjoy poking  a bit of good-natured fun at ’em.  My wife says I like being a bit contrary. 

        Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, said, “Seeing patients without reading books is like going to sea without a compass, but reading books without seeing patients is like not going to sea at all.”  I figure Sir Billy knew more about it than I do, so I’m sticking with him.

        In memory of Aunt Minnie.

Dr. B