Cardiologist by Day, Rock Singer at Night: Music Is My Polypill

Melissa Walton-Shirley, MD


December 21, 2019

Recently I’ve spent more time viewing rock music performances on YouTube than echocardiograms. When my phone rings, it’s more likely a musician needing a set list than a patient needing a prescription. The eggplant-shaped bruise on my right thigh is now caused by my tambourine, not my long-standing habit of running into hospital beds. The reason is my return to music, after a 15-year hiatus, as organizer and backing vocalist for the Rock A-Z music fest in Glasgow Kentucky. The instigator of my comeback was a patient and a most unlikely encourager.

Anthony John Thomas was a surly man in his early 80s who’d fired most of his doctors over the years. The fact that he kept me as his cardiologist was nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps he liked that I gave it right back to him. He tried my patience often, but when he eventually ran out of good medical options, I feared every visit would be his last. And so it was when he came to my office one day without an appointment: White beard. White shirt. Olive-gray pants. Bent sharply as he rested both hands heavily on his cane. "Walton-Shirley. I need you to do me a favor," he said, breathlessly. "I’m going to die. So I’ve come to ask you to sing at my funeral." I started to beg off, but he was insistent. "No. You need to promise me right here and right now."

A week later I found myself standing near Anthony’s open casket, separated only by a large urn of red roses, as I did my best acapella rendition of "Amazing Grace." At the time, I considered it another part of my service to my long-term patient, but his request was a great service to me. I was a singer before I was a physician. I’d left music to open a cardiology practice and raise two daughters. Singing at Anthony’s funeral encouraged me to reopen the door to that part of my life.

The Christmas Gift That Started It All

Throughout the years, memorable Christmas gifts were oriented toward my love of biology, but in 1970, when I got a small red and white turntable and a 45 of "Mama Told Me Not to Come," I added rock music to my list of passions. To this day, I can recall the anticipation: watching the record start to spin, lifting the arm toward the turn table, and hearing the crackling noise of the needle as it hit the vinyl.

"Will you have whiskey with your water? Or sugar with your tea? What are these crazy questions that they’re asking of me?" I sang every line in my conservative Christian household; Mom and Dad surely never listened to those lyrics about a wild pot-infused West Coast party. If they had, they probably would have never suspected the "cigarette" wasn’t good old Kentucky burley.

Over the next few years, I grew obsessed with singing radio tunes and listening to records. I practiced by spending summer afternoons on top of my sliding board, serenading a herd of black and white Holsteins. I continued to hone my skills singing acapella in a little country church painted stark white and punctuated by a modest steeple. It was there that I tried harmony for the first time, following the lead of my father’s aunt. Because of those voice lessons by proxy, I was chosen to sing solos in myriad school shows. Then my life changed forever when a neighbor asked if Dad would bring me to his recording studio.

Lavon Lile, a farmer and professional songwriter, stood me in front of a recording apparatus for the first time at around age 8. He gently prompted me to sing his hand-written lyrics while large reel-to-reel tapes turned slowly, magically capturing my voice. He pitched his songs to Nashville and had some success, most notably with a song I had demo’d for Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister). He still receives royalties to this day. He accompanied me on guitar when I sang Dolly Parton’s "Coat of Many Colors" in the Metcalfe County 4-H talent show. We won the Hart County American Cancer Society’s fundraising talent contest for all ages with the Hank Williams classic "Your Cheating Heart." Just a few years ago, a patient sent me an old newspaper clipping of me proudly displaying my large gold trophy with a big musical note on top.

My path toward medicine was almost diverted around age 10. A gentleman came to my parents’ home and asked if he could take me to Nashville to tour and sing. My father’s answer was a quick "no." I even met my husband, Tony, through music when I accompanied the local piano virtuoso to borrow sheet music from Tony’s sister Candy. Music was all around me, but things change and other responsibilities eventually took priority.

There was no time for music during my medical training. Singing was relegated to a showertime activity or the occasional wedding. When I first went into private practice, I made an effort to get back into music by recording two albums for charity on my weekends off. Some of the best session musicians in Nashville played on those albums. I pitched songs to Music Row, and a well-respected producer told me, "You have a good voice, but you’re a little old." (I was 33!) The kind of success in music that can sustain a family’s financial needs is a long shot, so I stopped performing. Then Anthony John Thomas asked me to sing at his funeral.

Music Never Left Me

My husband Tony has never stopped playing classic rock like the songs on Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. My brother Shane is a KISS fanatic who talked me in to attending not one but two of their concerts. Our oldest daughter married the bass player for the Southern-rock band OTIS. In July, we followed OTIS on their European tour, where our backstage passes allowed us to mingle with Foreigner and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, among others. Our other son-in-law is an audio engineer in a recording studio near Music Row in Nashville. Music has always been there, seemingly waiting for another opportunity to gain my attention.

That opportunity occurred on a summer evening walk, when Tony and I ran into Richard Burchett, a lawyer and part-time bass player who mentioned having trouble finding singers for a performance of Woodstock songs at the local Plaza Theater. Just like that, I volunteered to do back-up. I defended the major time commitment to colleagues and patients by comparing it to their love of golf. The next year, when Brenda Lee’s back-up singer couldn’t make the show, Richard subbed me in. It was magic.

Before long, I was on stage singing "Proud Mary" with a raucous horn section, dancing in a sparkly "too short" dress that sent my youngest daughter sinking into her chair. When the crowd leapt to their feet, it was the closest thing to flying I’ve ever felt (besides performing my first cardiac cath, but that’s a story for another day).

This year, I dove head-first into organizing the Rock A-Z Music Fest, from arranging practice schedules to navigating infighting among the potential performers to even dispensing medical advice. I took up bongo lessons in case one of our drummers dropped out for our rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil"; I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a decade.

Back-up singer Melissa Walton-Shirley with her son-in-law, John Seeley of OTIS

My father probably has the best explanation for my obsession with music. As the song director at our church for over 40 years, he could hit notes a full octave higher than I’d ever dreamed of. He told me that music was a long-held family tradition, starting with our Irish ancestors, who formed a group called the Berry Pickers in the mid 1800s. He also told me about his aunt Ana Liza, an accomplished fiddler, who at age 17 played "Over the Waves" reclining on a chaise lounge while ill. She put down her fiddle, took off her ring and gave it to my grandmother, and then passed away from "consumption" (more likely cystic fibrosis per modern-day genetic testing).

Death hovered over the Rock A-Z Music Fest, too — the mother of one of my lead singers passed away, and my former echo tech died in a car accident. Then, Tony’s first cousin was tragically killed in an accident the morning of the second show. I wanted to cancel the performance, but Tony insisted that his cousin would have wanted the show to go on. We dedicated Neil Young’s "After the Gold Rush" to Joey Jack Shirley, and when OTIS led the finale of "Hey Jude" with all the performers on stage, it brought down the house and tears spilled down my cheeks.

I’m convinced that my love of music is rooted in both nurture and nature, but because medicine is a jealous mistress, my passion lay dormant for years. I wish I had revisited it sooner, but I believe that things happen for a reason. I’m grateful to Anthony John Thomas and Richard Burchett for reconnecting me with music. Recording artist Colbie Caillat once said, "A great song should lift your heart, warm the soul, and make you feel good." Music has been a virtual polypill of positivity and the absolute best medicine for my soul.

Melissa Walton-Shirley, MD is a native Kentuckian who retired from full-time invasive cardiology. She enjoys locums work in Montana and is a champion of physician rights and patient safety. In addition to opinion writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughters and parents, and sidelines as a backing vocalist for local rock bands.

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