Friends help guitarist score drugs

by Jordan Green

It’s something of a cliché that musicians are a tight-knit group, and in the anti-union South where members of the live music profession notoriously labor without the benefit of health insurance, mutual aid can be critical for survival.

Many of the seasoned blues musicians around Greensboro don’t mess around too much with the bars. They’ve found that playing weddings, cruises and corporate events are more copasetic to their longevity. Their names are not frequently listed in the arts and entertainment calendars or plastered across, but over years of paying dues the good ones have gotten to know each other’s work.

So when Ray Burnett suffered a heart attack onstage in March 2003, his fellow musicians took notice. The 56-year-old Greensboro blues guitarist has been played with Black & Blue for the past 35 years following the time when the NC A&T University dropout supplemented his factory income by playing juke joints in the area, places where guns and knives were frequently flashed and moonshine flowed freely.

Burnett required quadruple bypass heart surgery, but his heart problems were compounded by total kidney failure. On Jan. 31 he received a new kidney during an implant operation at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.

The guitarist was resting up at his apartment in south Greensboro on a recent Tuesday afternoon, getting ready for a trip to the hospital the next day to have a stint removed through his urethra. He’s through for good with the dialysis treatments, God willing, but only as long as the new kidney takes.

As he eases back into performing Burnett faces a dilemma: the Medicare program, which kicked in when he got sick, is threatening to cut off payments because he made more than $750 last month. And Medicaid cut him off after he saved more than $2,000, the minimum amount required to pay for the drugs that are necessary to help his body accept the new kidney.

He steps into the kitchen to retrieve a see-through plastic bag the size of a substantial purse. It’s full of pill bottles.

‘“I take twenty-one pills at breakfast, four at lunch, nine of ’em at eight o’clock at night,’” he says. ‘“The anti-rejection drugs I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. The first supply is covered by the American Kidney Foundation, but I’ve spent about four hundred dollars in co-pays since I got out of the hospital.’”

Burnett said he believes Charlie Atwell, a Johnston County guitarist on the blues and beach music circuit, took the initiative to rally the music community to his aid.

‘“They just formed a committee to do this,’” Burnett says. ‘“They came to me with it. They said, ‘Okay, this is what we’re planning to do.’ It’s not like I said anything to anyone about it.’”

Among those who joined Charlie Atwell in the effort to raise money for Burnett were Stan Atwell, the guitarist’s brother and member of the band Spare Change; Terry VunCannon, who plays with Burnt Biscuit; Revelators guitarist Bob Sykes; Gary Redd, who owns the Lion’s Lair in High Point and fronts his own band; Art Jefferis, owner of the Clubhouse in Greensboro; Chris Roulhac, host of ‘“The North Carolina Show’” on 90.9 FM WQFS; Shiela Klinefelter, member of the Ladies Auxiliary Blues Band; Mark Harrison, guitarist and vocalist for the Fairlanes; and musician Rob Massengale. For the sake of being comprehensive, the other four members of the Ray Burnett benefit steering committee are Patricia Wisneski, Pat Freitag, Earl Austin and Bill Moore.

Contrary to the stereotype, Burnett’s health problems did not stem from the lifestyle of a hard-living blues burner. Making a living on the road, where it can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet has taken a toll though. Black & Blue has played from Canada to the Caribbean.

‘“I meet a lot of young musicians who have this idea about what it’s like to be on the road ‘—’ party all night and drink,’” Burnett says. ‘“ We look at it as a job. We play the gig, go back to the hotel and go to bed. We’re all a little older, so we need the rest.’”

Burnett attributes his health problems to something far more mundane than the habits of entertainers.

‘“I’m a black man over fifty in the Southeast,’” he says. ‘“The average one of us has diabetes and hypertension. Most of us grew up on the farm. My grandfather, he ate country ham and sausage, but then he went and worked in the field. You ate the same stuff and then sat down at a desk, your cholesterol is going out the ceiling. Ten percent of the people waiting for a kidney transplant live in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. It’s all attributed to the diet in the Southeast.’”

Burnett has played a couple times with Black & Blue since his surgery, but he’s still taking it pretty easy. He works on guitar solos on his Gibson ES 175, watches a lot of movies, indulges his passion for crossword puzzles, and goes to the gym to work out on the treadmill. He also drinks a lot of water.

During his dialysis the doctors told him to cut back on his water intake, but now that the new kidney is integrating with his body they’ve told him to drink 64 ounces a day.

‘“It’s not an easy thing to do when you’ve been conditioned to do without,’” he says.

Then he gets up from the couch.

‘“If you’ll excuse me for just a few minutes,’” he says, ‘“this kidney is working.’”

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