Issue 101, June 2008
Drumming up HD awareness
Three years ago, Trey Gray, the drummer with Nashville country act Brooks & Dunn - who played two sold-out Brisbane Entertainment Centre shows last weekend - was diagnosed with a rare degenerative neurological disorder called Huntington's Disease or HD.
He told Random Notes that he'd already begun to notice symptoms that might just as easily be put down to the natural fidgety energy that drummers everywhere exhibit.
"The first signs were some balance issues just out of the blue, then lots of memory problems and I had a less regular jittery leg thing."
HD is a condition characterised by involuntary movement (which is sometimes mistaken for drunkenness), cognitive impairment, personality changes and sometimes, mental health problems. There is no cure.
Gray, regarded as one of the best drummers in country music, has previously played with country pop crossover superstars Faith Hill and Jewel, before joining the band that backs the most successful duo in music history, Ronnie Brooks and Kix Dunn. Now, a few years on and more at peace with his fate he's decided to use his profile to raise awareness of this relatively rare inherited condition.
" 'Just be kind' is what I want to say to people. If there's something you don't understand talk to them about it before you make assumptions. They're not drunk or being assholes. Let them do their thing - if it takes them an hour to pick up a glass of water, leave them. Because it's all they've got."
While he does have years of productive and self-reliant living ahead of him, he does know - unlike most - what's likely to get him in the end. HD symptoms appear gradually when people are in their mid-30s to mid-50s. Once symptoms appear the disease gradually takes a 15 to 20 year course. Every sufferer experiences the range of possible symptoms differently, but what is certain is that his drumming career will be cut short.
"It's already getting difficult. But like an athlete who knows when it's time to go, I'll leave before I lose my capacity. After diagnosis I started to get into production and everything is computer- based now, so I can still follow my passion, but just by helping other people out."
He's admirably philosophical and positive and still enjoying his work and the lifestyle it allows. "Hey it's cool, it's all good - it's not an expensive disease and people who have cancer and stuff suffer terrible pain. Things could be worse."
Gray was aware as a young man that an uncle had HD and it was then they realised his grandmother was most likely a sufferer and later his mother was diagnosed with HD.
The things that scare Trey the most are the fear of losing his mental capacities and the thought that his children aged 3, 8 and 17, have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the condition.
"I'm worried to death about them, I'm not scared about anything that's going to happen to me - I just don't want them to have to see it knowing the same may happen to them."
"I've told them that what is happening to their grandmother will also happen to me - and that's as far as we've gone with it. It's hard."
Huntington's Disease is not a "marquee" disease and has no famous patrons like Parkinson's or Breast Cancer. So the fact that Trey Gray is prepared to speak out is a real boost for awareness. Folk legend Woody Guthrie is the best known sufferer of HD, his career was cut short and he died in 1967.
Acknowledgement: Pat Whyte, for The Courier Mall, 6 March 2008.
Acknowledgement: Newsletter - AHDA (Qld) Inc May 2008