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October 22, 2014

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Under lab coat, a songwriter

Las Vegas physician has rekindled his dream of hitting it big in country music

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Tiffany Brown

Dr. Gary Skankey, an infectious disease specialist, has been making regular trips to Nashville, Tenn., in pursuit of a career in country music songwriting. The 52-year-old, whose interest in music was sparked by the 1964 album “Meet the Beatles,” says, “Even though the cards are stacked against me, I’m going to do it.”

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  • "Real Dad" written by Dr. Gary Skankey
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  • "One Step Closer" written by Dr. Gary Skankey
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  • "His Eyes" written by Dr. Gary Skankey
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In the early 1980s biology grad student Gary Skankey thought his rock band was about to be discovered.

A major record label had asked for a demo. It was shipped away, but Skankey and his buddies never heard back.

“We had to decide whether we were going to be starving musicians or get real jobs,” he said.

Skankey went on to become an infectious disease specialist who treats patients in hospitals throughout Las Vegas.

But the 52-year-old doctor is still hoping for his big break as a songwriter who tugs heartstrings with country songs about faith, family and patriotism.

At the hospital, if you see him in his navy blue lab coat and stethoscope, hunched over his BlackBerry or talking into his voice recorder, there’s a good chance he’s jotting down lyrics or humming a melody.

It all started when his parents bought “Meet the Beatles” when he was 6.

“I can do that,” he recalls thinking.

His dad built a stage in the garage. Skankey played drums, his brother the guitar. He wrote songs throughout grade school and high school, even writing and arranging a musical for a 10-piece band.

At the University of Southern California, his band played fraternity houses. He wrote his second musical when most others would say it was impossible: in medical school.

Skankey married a nurse in 1995 and music took a back seat to their four children and medicine.

In 2004 he rekindled the dream, joining online songwriting communities and attending seminars in Nashville, Tenn. He chose country music because it reflects his Mormon values, and because it’s an industry geared for songwriters.

You were born a songwriter, he remembers hearing at a seminar. He’s holding on to that.

“Even though the cards are stacked against me,” he says, “I’m going to do it.”

A week ago he returned from his second trip this year to Nashville. A group of studio musicians recorded several of his tunes, and they sound sharp. The lyrics follow a familiar country template, in which words take on touching double-meanings by the last line.

“His Eyes” is about a disfigured war veteran wondering whether his girlfriend will love him despite his facial scars. “Real Dad” is about a daughter who finds her biological father, whom she’s never known, and realizes through the experience the value of her stepfather, who’s loved her all her life.

He’ll be back in Nashville in October and plans to make four trips a year, performing at open mic nights and meeting with artists and industry representatives.

He’s already faced his share of rejection but he’s not giving up.

“I’ll get a hit. It’ll happen.”

Skankey doesn’t regret pursuing medicine. It provides the income that now allows him to be a songwriter. But he wonders what would have happened if he had pursued songwriting more seriously in his youth. Perhaps, he says, he’d never have become a doctor.

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