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Suzie Brown juggles cardiology and a Nashville country music career

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Obviously, there’s plenty of heart in classic country music, which is where Suzie Brown, whose 2011 debut album Heartstrings' title alluded to her dual career, has an advantage.

Brown, who just released her latest album Almost There, is also a cardiologist, and is employed to that end at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. But she’s moving with songwriter husband Scot Sax (he wrote the Grammy-winning Faith Hill/Tim McGraw duet “Like We Never Loved At All” and co-wrote two of his wife’s Almost There songs with her) to Nashville next month, and has already lined up a job at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“It’s two weeks on, two weeks off,” says Brown. “You get what you ask for, and don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

She asked for—and received—Vanderbilt Cardiology’s only part-time position in order to split her time between the two aspects of her career.

“I didn’t have the same balance between medicine and music in Philly, and there isn’t a sense of community there,” says Brown, who was born in Montreal and grew up in Boston. “Nashville offers the best of both worlds.”

Brown, who’s been compared to Patsy Cline, began her unusual career blend in 2008.

“That’s when I started writing songs,” says Brown, who also did her first show that year and released her first EP the following year. As for writing country songs, however, she acknowledges, “I don’t know where that came from!”

That’s because Brown grew up listening to folk and pop music.

“I always loved to sing, and locked myself in my room and learned Billy Joel and Whitney Houston songs,” she says, also citing vocal and songwriting influences including Linda Ronstadt, Patty Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, Gillian Welch and Ron Sexsmith. “When I started writing songs, for some reason country songs came out!”

But as her parents and sister are doctors, she never considered a career in music as a possibility. Then in college, she tried out for an a cappella group.

“I made it and sang my whole senior year,” she recalls. “It was the first time I sang ‘outside’ with a group, and made me feel something I never felt before. And I realized that music people are my people—but it was only a year before I graduated.”

Still, Brown bought a guitar, learned the basic chords, and figured out some cover songs.

“I’m a nerd, so I learned by ear,” she continues. She attended Berklee College of Music’s Summer Performance Program before entering med school.

“I like the physiology of the heart—pressure, volume, flow,” she says. “But you get into medicine because you want to help people. Then you realize that some diseases aren’t treatable.”

Brown also realized that being a cardiologist allowed her to be “somewhere in the middle” between caring for terminal patients and helping those with a chance at a prolonged life—since some heart-failure patients fully recover. And she certainly gained knowledge and experience that was applicable to her music endeavors.

“Just knowing how to work your ass off!” she says, stating one major lesson. “I’m the least lazy musician you’ll ever meet.”

Also, perseverance: “Medicine can be intimidating when you start—but then you study and do it. I got the feeling I can learn how to do things--I just have to work at it.”

Plus interpersonal skills: “`Learning how to play well in the sandbox,’ I call it,” says Brown. “It’s collaborative performing for the sake of the patients.”

The big “challenge about medicine,” she says, is that “it’s not about me at all, but about anything but me.”

“You have to put yourself totally last,” she explains. “You have to be there for your patients, their family, the whole team of people under you. It doesn’t matter at all what’s going on in your life.”

Brown’s music, however, is “all about me.”

“I needed to be more honest, and music gave me the permission to be more honest,” she says.

At first she was “afraid to write something terrible” and relied on cover material, she admits. Then she went through a bad breakup.

“I was feeling blue and realized, I can write about this! It was like crack: I started writing and performing.”

Seven months later, and now with a batch of similarly personal songs, she sold out one of Philly’s top performance spaces.

“I wanted to find a way to leave academic medicine so I could write and perform,” she says. “I’d been on the academic path and did research for two years, figuring that in a couple years I’d go back to real life—and then realized, this is my real life!”

She also realized that “taking care of really sick people” was hardly conducive to “getting into the mindset to write songs.” But the move to Nashville should help. After all, she's already been a finalist in the Mountain Stage NewSong contest and a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Competition, and has been featured at Starbucks, The Gap and Anthropologie.

Two weeks on, two weeks off should suit her just fine.

Subscribe to my examiner.com pages and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman!

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