Jeff Brown opens up about his Crohn’s disease

Jeff Brown on stage – photo © 2017 by Mike Duncan

Jeff Brown has made quite a name for himself on the traditional side of the bluegrass ledger in recent years. After several years touring with Larry Sparks in the ’90s, followed by time with The Charlie Sizemore Band, Brown has been building a career as a bluegrass singer and bandleader, now touring with his own group, Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome.

And lonesome is the exact right word to describe his music. Deeply rooted in the Stanley sound of the Virginia mountains, Jeff sings the sad and tragic songs of Appalachian life where even tales of happiness and joy have mournful overtones. His two albums with Still Lonesome have earned critical acclaim as well as requests for live performances across the US.

But behind the lonesome facade has been a real difficulty that he has borne this past twenty years. Jeff is a Crohn’s disease sufferer, a frustratingly chronic inflammatory bowel disease whose symptoms include serious abdominal pain, and a variety of other unpleasant effects that can be crippling when they flare up. It is believed to be an immune disorder at its root, where the body essentially attacks the gastrointestinal system from inside. Somewhat rare in the western world, it afflicts less than .5% of the population, and though effective treatment is available, it is not curable, nor is treatment certain to relieve all symptoms.

Jeff has decided to talk about his struggle with Crohn’s as the disease has been causing him trouble of late. His followers on Facebook will have noticed updates indicating that he had traveled to visit a specialist in Richmond and that he had been hospitalized for testing.

When we spoke yesterday, he was clearly relieved that the tests had ruled out his worst fears, and that new treatments were being considered. But he wanted to share more about his journey with this disease, one that many people know very little about, especially the debilitating impact it can have on personal freedom.

It all started for Jeff around 1998 when he began experiencing unexplained symptoms that were getting worse very quickly. After almost two dozen doctors visits and a lot of trial and error, he met with Dr. Stephen Bickston at UVA Hospital who diagnosed the Crohn’s, and that he had become severely malnourished. He was sent home with a nasogastric feeding tube and for the entirety of the year 2000 he ate no food whatsoever, relying on tube feedings for all his nourishment.

If you had followed southwestern Virginia bluegrass closely, you may remember that Brown disappeared from the scene for a while after working with Charlie Sizemore, and this was the reason why, something he has not publicly addressed before. During this time Jeff underwent multiple surgeries, during which his colon was removed making him an ileostomy patient. He received several Remicade infusions and has been on many different types of drugs.

His case is sufficiently severe that it has been presented as a case study by UVA. Not exactly how one wants to be remembered!

But over the years, through careful maintenance and a variety of drug treatments being found, Jeff is able to live a largely normal life, and travel comfortably on the road. Until a successful treatment regimen is found, Crohn’s patients often feel homebound, uncertain of when the next attack may arise.

But this summer, symptoms began to return and he said that old fear resurfaced.

“I’ve been having some problems this past 7-8 months. I’d been nosediving, and the treatments weren’t helping so much.

Dr. Bickston, now at VCU in Richmond, ordered an MRI which showed a thickening of my stomach walls. He scoped me to rule out cancer. I got that result today and it’s all benign – so good so far. We are now investigating treatments that might help me feel better.

At this point, I can’t remember what it’s like to feel good. Mine is a real tough case. They’re always having to adjust my treatment. This last few months have been scary, but I have confidence that it will be getting better now.

The long and short of it is that it’s a hard struggle daily, but I’m thankful, and resilient to continue to fight and hopefully some day see a cure.”

We also spoke about some photographs we ran recently of Jeff and the band playing at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival earlier this month. He remarked that he was glad they couldn’t show how poorly he felt that weekend.

“I felt miserable, and probably shouldn’t have been there. But over the years I guess I’ve learned to be a pretty good actor.”

To us it shows that Jeff Brown is a real trooper. And that he’s earned the right to sing sad and lonesome songs. Fans can expect him to continue to be there, playing that mountain style music, no matter how he feels.

A pat on the back wouldn’t be a bad idea the next time you see him.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.