Thursday November 24, 2011

LENOX -- "Music is my life," says David Grover, the Berkshires' best-known native balladeer. "It's the only thing I know how to do."

On this Thanksgiving Day, Grover is especially grateful since he's back from the brink of disaster. Dual medical emergencies over the past year threatened to end his four-decade career as a singer-songwriter and entertainer beloved by adults and children not only close to home but also on the road.

Tonight, he performs at the Lions Den in Stockbridge on the 40th anniversary of his debut there as a professional singer.

During a conversation at a local coffee house, Grover, 59, was candid about his series of crises, beginning with a diagnosis of adult-onset attention deficit disorder, coupled with the shattering impact of the Great Recession that left him just scraping by with minimal income -- "I was flat broke," as he put it -- and no medical insurance.

A graduate of Pittsfield High, Grover was among the original performers in Arlo Guthrie's band Shenandoah, along with Steve and Carol Ide, Terry "A La Berry" Hall and Dan Velika, from 1976 until the early 1990s.

On his own, apart from paying gigs, Grover has headlined many pro-bono benefit events in the Berkshires and beyond.

But last Thanksgiving, down and out, at his wits' end, he was far removed from a notable career that included Grammy and Emmy nominations as well as a Parents Choice award for albums and for network and public TV shows aimed at youngsters. He had performed at the White House, the United Nations and the Goodwill Games.

"This is very uncomfortable and difficult for me to talk about," Grover conceded.

But he is going public to help raise funds for Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, the clinic of professionals in Great Barrington that came to his rescue just in time and provided urgently needed dental treatments worth well over $10,000.

While he's not yet out of the wilderness -- "I'm fighting to save our home by setting up a studio so I can give guitar lessons" -- the acoustic folk singer born and raised in Pittsfield is recovering from a severe case of ehrlichiosis, an infectious bacterial disease transmitted by dog and deer ticks.

About a year ago, while Grover was on tour in Florida, he developed a 105-degree fever and other flu-like symptoms typical of the disease, a close medical cousin of Lyme disease. Though rarely fatal, it can cause kidney or lung damage and even result in a coma unless treated promptly with antibiotics.

After being flat on his back for several weeks, Grover finally checked in to the BMC emergency room, where blood tests revealed the diagnosis and medication was prescribed.

Last November, upon the advice of a friend, the singer sought help at Volunteers in Medicine for advanced gum disease untreated for many years -- "I didn't have the $4,000," Grover said -- that was affecting his ability to sing and speak properly.

On the day Grover arrived at the VIM clinic in Great Barrington, he learned that dental surgery was on hold because of a 100-patient backlog. "You can imagine how I felt as I left," he said.

But Margo Rockefeller, the VIM coordinator of dental services, was able to work him into the schedule a couple of months later, just in time. Dr. Frank Sessa, the dental director at the clinic, and Dr. Thomas Sakshaug of Pittsfield provided the care, extracting his remaining teeth and fitting him with dentures.

"We got him back on the road so he could resume singing for a living," Rockefeller said Wednesday.

Grover, who lives in West Stockbridge with his wife of seven years, actress and singer Kathy Jo Barrett, is in better health now but is still grappling with the crippling effects of the weak economy.

"Live music is one of the first things to go because it's discretionary," he said. Once in heavy demand for concerts, benefits, weddings and other special events outside the Berkshires, especially in the Greater New York area, he lost most of those gigs. "But the Museum of Natural History kept me on," he noted gratefully.

With income at low ebb, Grover faces potential foreclosure on his home despite negotiations with his mortgage-holder, a major national bank. He's trying to sort that out while pursuing a more active career. On Wednesday night, he was performing in the New York suburb of Great Neck, Long Island.

Nevertheless, bookings remain scarce.

"If you had told me a year ago that the economy would be even worse this year, I'd have said you're crazy," said Grover, sadly.

But at least, against all odds, he has surmounted his health crises.

"I come from a holistic family," he said. His late father, Henry, was a chiropractor and at 86, his mother, Pauline, is still working as a home health-care aide caring for the elderly.

"Traditional medicine had not been high on my list," he conceded.

Now, grateful to the medical professionals who donate their time to Volunteers in Medicine, he is giving back by allowing the organization to tell his story through a fundraising mailing that has gone out to nearly 3,000 addresses.

Grover, a self-described alcoholic who has been sober for 24 years "a day at a time," calls his medical recovery "truly a miracle, and that's no exaggeration."

As he puts it, "the health care system could learn a lot from VIM about how to treat people in need with dignity."