“All the people on my record,
were people who kept up with me while I was sick.”
By: Gina Kay Singerhouse
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11.
Hope. Webster’s dictionary contains several definitions for the word ‘hope.’ However, for someone who is told they will have to fight a demon called cancer, hope is not just a four letter word. Hope is “one that gives promise for the future.” For dobro player Phil Leadbetter, hope began on February 18, 2011.
Phil is no stranger to the music industry. His vast picking talents have been heard throughout Bluegrass and Country Music. Born the youngest of six, on March 31, 1962, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Phil started playing the resonator guitar at the age of twelve. One year later he became a founding member of the Knoxville Newgrass Boys, one of the youngest bluegrass bands of the era. This was the beginning of a longtime career in music.
His highlights include performing at the White House for President Gerald R. Ford for the nation’s bicentennial, performing at the 1982 World’s Fair and performing for The President and First Lady Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. All this was accomplished by the time he was twenty years old.
Phil left his music behind to pursue a career in medicine. He served eight years as a head injury rehabilitation nurse and a cancer nurse. His training would later help him in his fight.
Leadbetter left nursing to pursue a full time career in music. Phil went on to perform with Grand Ole Opry star Grandpa Jones and Vern Gosdin, then became a member of JD Crowe and The New South band. While with New South, Phil recorded his debut solo album called Philibuster in 1994.
In 2001, Phil became a founding member of the band Wildfire. Two years later, Gibson Guitars released the new Phil Leadbetter Signature Dobro Guitar to world wide sales. The guitar has done very well and has earned the title of one of Gibson’s best selling acoustic instruments.
Phil went on to release his second album in 2005, called Slide Effects. A year later he joined forces with Steve Gulley and Alan Bibey to form the group Grasstowne. In 2010, Phil left Grasstowne and joined Grand Ole Opry members The Whites.
Throughout this journey, Phil was part of several Top 10 singles and had earned several Grammy nominations. Phil also was awarded “Dobro Player of The Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Awards and the SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) Awards.
“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. you will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” Jeremiah 29:12-14.
All of Phil’s successes were no match to the journey he began on Saturday, February 18, 2011.
“I was playing with The Whites then; Buck and Sharon and all them. We were in Massachusetts and I was real sick that week.” shares Phil Leadbetter. “I came back and decided then I had to goto the doctor. I went in and said ‘well you know I got this virus that won’t leave; I’ve been sick a while with it. I’ve been sick a lot. There have been times I got better.’ But I realize now that it was all the same thing. It was just I was having some better days. I kept thinking I was just re-catching stuff.
“They wanted to do a chest x-ray to see if I had pneumonia and these lymph nodes come up.” continues Phil. “The strange thing about this is that one of my friends from high school was the x-ray tech. He was scanning me and he said ‘yeah you got something going on in your lungs.’ I asked him I said ‘well you know I’ve got this place in my leg its been bothering me a while. I know the doctor has not ordered the scan.’ But you know me and him had been friends. So I said ‘would you scan just a little lower and see what we’ve got?’ He said ‘well you know I could lose my job if I do that.’ He said ‘We’ll do it. We’ll look at it and regardless of what it is, we’ll get rid of it. Tell me what you’d gonna do if it comes back positive? You gonna tell your doctor that he needs to do a scan?’ I said ‘Yeah we’ll do that.’ He scanned and then come and told me ‘this really don’t look good. Now I’m deleting this, but you got to get into your doctor and tell ‘em that you’re concerned and that you need a scan.’ We did that and they was concern and we did a biopsy and that’s when it come back that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of lymphoma in which cancer originates from the white blood cells. It can be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. The choice of treatment depends on the patients age, sex and the stage and histological subtype of the disease. After diagnosis, the patient will under go a series of procedures and tests to determine what stage of the cancer it is. These procedures include a physical examination, blood tests, chest x-ray radiographs, CT scan, PET scan, a MRI and a bone marrow biopsy.
Phil was not surprised by the result. Prior to seeking his doctor’s advice, he had researched his symptoms on Google and found several pages that came to the same conclusion. However, Leadbetter was surprised to find out that his cancer doctor, oncologist, was also diagnosed with another type of blood cancer (multiple myeloma) at the same time that he was diagnosed with his.
Some where in the back of Phil’s mind were the memories of his older brother and father. Both had passed away from this. However, it was due to his research on the internet that he found out that people were taking on the fight and winning. Thus, producing the seed of hope within Phil’s mind.
“I took about six rounds of some pretty intense medicine that was really suppose to be the thing to get rid of it and it didn’t work.” shares Phil. “I went through lots of other medicine. Then one day on the Today show we saw a thing about a new medicine that was suppose to be the miracle cure for this stuff. My doctor had told me that he had been hearing about it and had good reviews. We really knew that if we took this medicine, that just with everything that we had read, it was gonna really be the thing. I need to get down where my cancer was not active. Because they thought that I really needed a stem cell transplant, which is the same as a bone marrow.”
Phil was given the medicine. Instructions dictated that he should be given the medicine for four months, prior to a scan. Because the medicine was new to Phil’s doctor, he was uncomfortable with it. Phil was given the medicine for two months, then went in for a scan. The scan showed that the cancer had been isolated to Phil’s leg. The medicine was found every where in Phil’s body to the point that it worked more like fertilizer for him. If his doctor would have gone the full four months, Phil would not have been able to recover and would have died.
Phil was then excused from a stem cell transplant. He was then told that there was nothing more that they could do for him. Phil was not able to accept defeat, as it was not his style. He sought treatment at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“As the months went by, I found myself fighting a battle like none I had ever fought. The days of traveling city to city playing the music that I loved so dearly were now just a memory.” tells Phil. “It was like it had all been in another life. The side effects of my chemo made it impossible to play. I remember one day picking up my guitar and nothing felt right. I couldn’t recall how to play. I didn’t know how the melodies went. My fingers wouldn’t operate like they once did. My hands and my mind pretty much told me that I was finished. The same guitar that used to seem like an extension of my own arms now seemed out of place in my hands. Nothing about it made sense anymore. I remember hanging my guitar on the wall for what I thought was the last time. My cancer doctor had told me that some of the cancer meds would possibly take away my motor skills, as well as damage my sensory and touch. He was concerned about this since he knew I was a musician.”
Phil’s condition worsened to the point that a higher dosage of chemotherapy was needed. He was not willing to give in or give up to this demon. The hope that music can bring was hung up. Now the hope for survival was eminent.
“People think that with stem cell transplant like with cancer that stem cells is what gets you well.” shares Leadbetter. “Stem cell isn’t. Stem cell is what rebuilds you after they kill off everything. What they do is give you such massive of different kinds of chemo. You can’t get this kind of chemo through the hospital. It’s only offered through stem cell. It’s so potent that it basically kills all your bone marrow. I remember being there in the hospital - I was in the hospital for thirty-three days - I could sit there, when I was by myself and you could hear noise around your ears, in your skull. My doctor told me that was bone marrow drying up.”
Phil Leadbetter was brought to the brink of death as his blood count was brought to zero. It’s the blood count that allows us to move, eat, walk, talk and basically live. Phil was told that he would have to fight the exhaustion caused by the treatment. At 3 o’clock in the morning, he would get out of his hospital bed, done a mask on and walk the halls to fight.
For five days, his blood count was zero. His doctor’s feared that they had over damaged his bone marrow. However, on the sixth day his blood count was at ten, normal blood count should be in the 3,000 plus range. Each day after, his count was higher and higher. With each day, his blood count would rise as his body fought to recover.
It was his positive thinking, determination and following doctor’s orders that earned Phil his “Get out of Jail Free” card as he was discharged and his cancer was declared in remission. It took Phil the better part of two years to battle this demon called cancer.
“In December 2012, [two months after his stem cell transplant] Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley were playing a concert here in town, and I decided to try to get out of the house to go see them.” tells Phil. “I was barely walking at that time, but I thought I might be able to make it. So I called Dale Ann to tell her I might come see them. She told me to bring my dobro. I did, but I wasn't close to being ready to play again. Dale Ann had me play a couple songs with her as I sat in a chair on stage. Afterwards, she told me that when I was ready to pick again, I had a job with her. This motivated me, so I started practicing again. My hands and mind starting to work again once the chemo drugs left my body. I felt things starting to come together. I just kept pushing myself. I had always taken picking for granted, but I realized how quick it could be taken away for good. On February 16, 2013, I found myself walking back onto the stage at the Joe Val Festival with The Dale Ann Bradley Band, the same stage where it all ended exactly two years earlier. But this time, a new chapter began. It's like I picked up right where I left off. It's funny how something such as cancer can open your eyes to so many great things. You come to realize how blessed you are, and how blessed you have been. I found out how strong the power of God really is, and there is nothing too big or too small for Him to handle. I realized the power of unconditional love from family and friends, and I found out that God listens to their prayers and mine.”
It was while in the recovering process, Leadbetter had thought about all the wonderful and talented people he had picked with over the years. He devised what he calls his “Bucket List” of people he wished to record with again.
In 2012, his dream of fulfilling that ‘bucket list’ came true as he gathered up his friends to record his new album The Next Move.
“The thing about it, I couldn’t have ever afforded all those people that played. But so many people had been friends.” shares Phil about the album. “The good thing about the music community, those guys were so busy and they just wanted to help me do a record. They got paid, but they didn’t get paid what they were worth. All these guys would say things like ‘send me whatever you got in your budget for musicians’ and some of them said ‘hey, I’ll hit you up one day for diner’ or something like that.”
The result of this album was a group of musicians coming together to celebrate the life of one of their own. The album features twelve beautiful songs performed by some of todays most talented Bluegrass and country artists.
The album opens with “I’m A Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” written by Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis, performed by John Cowan and Sam Bush. The album continues with “I’ve Never Seen A Love That Wasn’t Blind” performed by Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley, “Hole In The Earth” performed by Steve Wariner and a unique rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” performed by Con Hunley. Phil includes two beautiful instrumentals including one with Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes in “Just Joshin’” and a solo in “Leadbelly.” Other songs include “Pull The Trigger” with Shawn Camp, “I’m A Modern Day Interstate Gypsy” performed by Ken Mellons and “Sweet Georgia Brown” performed by Bela Fleck and Buck White.
As good as all of these songs are there are three more that stand out enough to hit our list of Top Songs of 2015 while earning a nomination for the Spirit Award’s Song of The Year Award. The first song, was originally recorded by Kenny Chesney and Randy Travis in 1999, that same year Susie Luchsinger also recorded it, later in 2001 Randy did a solo version of the song. However, it’s this version of “Baptism” that brings it to a higher life as Joe Diffie and Marty Raybon perform it as a duet.
“I knew I’d wanted to do it.” shares Phil. “In case some body’s heard that a lot, I’ve got to find two people who are just really great singers. Marty Raybon wanted to do it right off the bat. When I called Joe Diffie, we talked and asked Joe what his fee would be? Joe said ‘I think I need to pay you. ‘Cause I’ve always wanted to sing with Marty Raybon!’”
Both Marty and Joe’s vocals compliment each other to draw out the power of this beautiful non-traditional Gospel song.
The second song that stands out is performed by Shawn Camp. “Jesus, My Old Dog and Me,” is a beautiful heartfelt two-step ballad about missing someone that is dear to us.
The final song that stands out, stands out among all of the rest. It’s the closing song called “When The Roll is Called Up Yonder.” In this beautiful instrumental, Phil Leadbetter shows his vast picking talents as a solo artist. But what brings it to the listener’s attention is the pure raw emotions that Phil draws out of his dobro while performing this traditional song.
After two years of being free from cancer, Phil found out that it had returned. He under went another six rounds of chemo. On January 5, 2015, Phil announced that once again - he beat the demon. He now is cancer free - a two time survivor.
Hope. A four letter word that contains more power than one can imagine.
“I want to be a good example to others who are fighting this same fight. I want to show them it can be beat.” - Phil Leadbetter, 2-time survivor of a demon called cancer.
*Phil Leadbetter passed away on October 14, 2021.
(This article was printed in the March / April 2015 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
“I think it is the very best article anyone has ever written about me. I've had others say the same. You are one of the only ones that really ‘got it’, and understood what I had over come. My life has become more than just the music. I believe that God has me here for a reason. I think that reason is way beyond just picking. Thanks so much my friend.”
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