If the name Derek Dugger doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because the musician has been fine with fading into the background of the metro’s vibrant rockabilly scene for years.
As the current drummer for Brian Dunning & The Rock & Roll Trio and The R.I.P. Tides, and a founding members of the metro’s seminal roots-rock group The Poison Okies, Dugger has had a fundamental presence in local rockabilly since the 1990s.
So, when word got around that he was diagnosed with brain cancer, it didn’t take long for his fellow musicians, fans, gearheads and other rockabilly diehards to scramble and rally for a fund-raiser that takes over 66 Bowl all day Saturday.
Despite recent surgery to remove a tumor and ongoing chemotherapy, Dugger will sit behind the kit on at least three sets during the 13-hour, 13-band benefit.
“It’s funny: My neurosurgeon plays drums, too, and had been in the OU marching band,” Dugger said. “He said it would be good for my morale, so do whatever I feel up to doing, as long as I don’t push myself too hard.”
He and his wife, Buffy, remain optimistic, despite a dire diagnosis. Among the few signs of Dugger’s ongoing struggle are a scar that arches up into the drummer’s once-perfect pompadour, the fact that he can’t drive the custom cars he’s building, and a few brief but heavy pauses that settled on the room as the couple described his illness.
“The official name of this type of cancer is Glioblastoma multiforme,” he said. “It is relatively hard to treat and aggressive. It is fast-growing and, in the past, the prognosis was not good, but these days, it’s a little better.”
“It stopped right in the center,” his wife said, gesturing to her husband’s right frontal lobe.
She said she’s thankful the cancer’s spread seems to have slowed.
“It didn’t grow over, thank God, because if it had, it would have been a real mess,” she said. “The doctors said he had three to six months, and I said, ‘Bullshit.’ He is so healthy.”
Pausing in an awkward silence, Dugger shifted in his seat, uncomfortable with how much he was talking about himself. His wife wiped a tear from her eye, and the smile returned.
Saturday’s benefit was quickly mobilized as Dugger underwent brain surgery. His first seizure occurred after an overnight gig with Dunning’s Trio in Fort Smith, Ark. The violent fit awoke the entire band at the hotel, but doctors took a wait-and-see approach. On Sept. 13, he had a second seizure while sleeping. A trip to the emergency room led to a CT scan, which revealed the tumor.
Dugger was booked for immediate surgery, but he had no health insurance to pay for the procedure, thanks to a recent job switch that made him ineligible for health coverage for the first three months with his new employer.
“We’d actually got the paperwork for insurance in the mail right after we got back from the hospital,” Buffy said, giggling. “Can we still fill this out and use it?”
Members of The Road Killers Car Club have been driving Dugger around since his return from the hospital. He seems as healthy and capable as he’s always been, but said the effects of the chemotherapy will become more visible when he starts doubling up the treatments later this year.
Every few months, he will check in with MRI specialists who will keep tabs on the tumor with the hope that it won’t re-grow. Dugger said that the entire tumor couldn’t be surgically excised, because its placement meant doctors would inevitably remove brain tissue as well ” a procedure he smirkingly said “could cause some problems.”
“The last MRI he had looked really good,” Buffy said. “It didn’t look any different, which is good, because it could have grown back already.”
Dugger returned to the stage in October and will continue to perform as long as his body holds up during chemotherapy. His head will be shaven soon, his trademark hair yet another victim to his tumor’s toxic treatments, but his wife has already made peace with that particular setback.
“You should just keep your head shaved since your hair isn’t going to grow out evenly because of the scar,” she said to her husband. “You have a good head for it, anyway.”
Derek Dugger Benefit with Brian Dunning & The Rock n Roll Trio, The Starkweather Boys, Ong and more perform at Noon Saturday at 66 Bowl, 3810 N.W. 39th. “Charles Martin