Phil Leadbetter Makes The Next Move

The Next Move - Phil LeadbetterImagine turning 49 years old, being diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, and wondering if you’ll live long enough to start getting AARP pitches in the mail a year later.

Imagine, as a professional musician, being told by your doctor that to save your life, he needs to jack up the chemotherapy drugs to a point that you might not regain the motor skills to play music again.

Phil Leadbetter didn’t have to imagine. He lived those nightmare scenarios. The fact that you’re reading this review is evidence that he survived them and is making music again. It’s also proof that making a bucket list is a wonderful exercise.

Leadbetter’s bucket list included songs he wanted to play and musicians he wanted to play them with if he survived Hodgkins Lymphoma, a blood cancer. Those songs, featuring those artists, form the dozen cuts on his Pinecastle Records release, The Next Move, which is officially out today.

I’m usually not a fan of music recorded by an all-star cast of musicians because everything sounds great on the recording – duh! – but can’t be replicated on stage, except maybe once or twice for awards shows or other special events. But given the circumstances, and given that Phil is now dealing with a second fight with cancer (successfully, he reports), I’m willing to make an exception. (Or maybe I’m just getting soft. I also recently gave a thumbs up to The Earls of Leicester, which is sort of the ultimate all-star band. But I digress).

The glue that holds this collection together is Leadbetter’s fabulous Dobro picking. On song after song, from traditional bluegrass—such as the single, I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone—to a bluesy version of Georgia on My Mind and a jazz-inflected version of Sweet Georgia Brown with Buck White playing honky tonk piano, Leadbetter lays on just-right parts that can’t help but make you sit up in awe.

In fact, the first time I heard this project, driving home from IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, I found myself wishing I could hear him without all of the layers of accompaniment, great as it was. So I was pleasantly surprised, then moved to tears, when the final cut on the CD was just what I asked for: IBMA’s 2014 Dobro player of the year playing, alone, on When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. I’m listening to it once more as I type this, and getting misty-eyed all over again.

>So about that all-star cast? In addition to Buck White on piano, Leadbetter is joined on Sweet Georgia Brown by Béla Fleck on banjo, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Steve Thomas on fiddle, Mike Bub on bass and Kenny Smith on guitar. If that lineup doesn’t sound good, schedule a hearing test.

Other highlights include John Cowan and Sam Bush playing and singing on Ramblin’ Rolling Stone; Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes trading Dobro solos on Just Joshin’; and Con Hunley singing the heck out of Georgia on My Mind. Add other standout vocals by Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley, Shawn Camp, Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie and this is a record you’ll want to play time and again.

But there’s one more reason to buy this record: The liner notes. I have never read a more honest account of a musician’s fight with a career-threatening illness than the words Phil shared here. If he doesn’t win the IBMA award for best liner notes next year, I’ll be first in line to demand a recount. You won’t find many notes that devote as many lines to thanking his medical team (seven) as there are to thanking family. And there’s a poignant  dedication “to the memory of all my friends who I met during my journey with cancer who lost their fight.”

One of his darkest days came when the doctor said he might never play again…if he survived. He writes: “It was then that I realized how blessed I had been to be able to play for 37 years and what a good run it had been. But it was time. It now became an issue of survival. I told my doctor that I understood the risks and I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to survive. Music was no longer important. I wanted to be here for my family and I vowed to do everything I could to be here for them.”

But he kept dreaming. He made that bucket list. He prayed. And in time, he was able to make this wonderful record.

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting my bucket list today.


See our video interview with Phil the morning after he was awarded the IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year award here.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.