Last November, I got an email from my friend Rik James, host of the Americana Backroads program on KGLT radio in Bozeman, Montana asking if I knew of Ben Bullington. It was the first time I’d heard of him.
It turned out that Ben, who had died about a year earlier from pancreatic cancer at age 58, was a family doctor in the tiny town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana who also wrote songs – mostly, I assume, for himself, his friends and his family. Between 2007 and 2013, he recorded and self-released five CDs of his songs.
Rik passed my name and address on to Joanne Gardner, a close friend of Ben’s who had helped him put out the CDs and who has continued to spread the word about him and his songs. She sent me the five CDs and they revealed Ben Bullington as one of the finest singer-songwriters I’d ever encountered. Had I heard them when they were first released, each would have been on my annual year-end best-of lists for the years they were released.
10 Songs of Ben Bullington
Full Light Records
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Darrell Scott met Ben Bullington toward the end of his life through Joanne Gardner, a mutual friend, and Darrell also discovered what a great songwriter he was. On 10 Songs of Ben Bullington, he offers some fine, often very moving interpretations of 10 of the 50-something songs from his five albums.
The album opens with “The One I’m Still Thinking About,” a beautiful song written with love about a former love. As someone who hosted a folk music radio program for many years (and who still does occasionally), I appreciated the way Ben wrote folk music radio into the song.
Darrell performs solo on the album and other favorite tracks include “Born in ’55,” a narrative that travels through the years calling attention to many of the history-changing events that those of us born in the middle of the last century have been witness to; “Green Heart,” a vivid reminiscence of falling in love for the first time as teenager; and “I’ve Got to Leave You Now,” a poignant song I presume Ben wrote for his sons during his final year after his cancer diagnosis (it was on his final album).
10 Songs of Ben Bullington is a fine album and great tribute from one songwriter to another. The greatest success this album can have – and I’m sure that it will have – would be to inspire listeners unfamiliar with Ben Bullington to search out his own recordings.
Two Lane Highway
White Sulphur Spring
Two Lane Highway, released in 2007, is a superb introduction to the work of Ben Bullington. Like Darrell’s album, it also opens with “The One I’m Still Thinking About” before continuing with such fine songs as “Sittin’ on the Porch,” a tribute to the great joys found in making music and writing songs; “When the Wind Blows from the East,” written from the perspective of a D-Day soldier; and “Corby Bond,” a story song in which Ben assumes the persona of a travelling oil field worker.
As good as the first album was – and it was, as I said, superb – Ben’s second album, White Sulphur Springs, released in 2008, was even better. Ben’s singing was more confident and the album, recorded in Tennessee, benefitted from some stellar backup work from multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and from a fine duet with Rodney Crowell on “Toe the Line.” Other highlights include the topical commentary of “I’m a Stranger,” featuring lovely harmonies from Tracy Nelson; “Born in ’55,” one of the best songs on Darrell Scott’s tribute CD; and “White Sulphur Springs,” a vivid description of Ben’s home and hometown and the people who live there.
The production values and backup musicians introduced on the second album continued on the third, Satisfaction Garage, released in 2010. And this album also contained a superb set of highlighted by “The Engineer’s Dark Lover,” a lovely song inspired by a lonely scene at a small town train station; “Lester Mays (He Lived the Way He Wanted To),” a tribute to an original character reminiscent of the old man in Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”; and “Would You Walk With Me Tonight?” a courting song filled with vivid imagery.
By 2012, when Ben recorded Lazy Moon, his fourth album. The template was pretty much set in stone. More great songs with simple but compelling arrangements sung in a natural storyteller’s voice. While any of these songs could be picked as a highlight, I’ll mention “I Didn’t See You Maggie,” in which the narrator sings to an old lover with a new life that doesn’t include him; “Lone Pine,” about an Afghanistan War vet back tending the family farm with an appreciation for art, poetry and music; and “Buckles and Leather,” a series of stream-of-consciousness observations.
Ben Bullington got his cancer diagnosis about a year or so before he died in November 2013. It was only then that gave up his medical practice and dedicated his last months to playing music full-time, performing concerts and recording a final album, the self-titled Ben Bullington. I don’t know how many of the 11 songs were written that year but there’s a sense of finality, of saying goodbye to friends and particularly to family in such songs as “I’ve Got to Leave You Now” and “The Last Adios,” and even indirectly in songs like “His Chosen Time.”
There is hardly a weak song on any of Ben Bullington’s five albums. Whether he’s singing of his own life, or of characters inspired by others, or of fictional characters from his own imagination, the songs are timeless vignettes marked by a rare authenticity.
I wished I’d known of Ben Bullington’s work while he was still alive. Each of his albums carries my highest recommendation.