UW-CTRI Collaborator Wins Blues Competition

Retired psychiatrist and UW-CTRI collaborator Dr. Eric Heiligenstein won the 2021 Paramount Music Blues Challenge for the State of Wisconsin in the solo/duo category. He is headed to Memphis, Tennessee to compete in the Paramount Music International Blues Challenge January 18-22, 2022.

Approximately 260 blues acts will fill the clubs up and down famed Beale Street for the quarterfinals on Wednesday and Thursday of that week, with the semifinals on Friday and the finals at the historic Orpheum Theater in Memphis on Saturday, January 22.

Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, aka “Too Sick Charlie,” plays guitar and sings while fans dance. Click the video to watch.

Heiligenstein, who retired from practicing psychiatry four years ago but continues to serve on the Wisconsin Nicotine Treatment Integration Project (WiNTiP) he co-founded about 15 years ago with David “Mac” Macmaster, ironically picked up the instrument called the “cigar-box guitar” about five years ago when his girlfriend bought him one for Christmas.

He had played guitar much of his life but avoided playing gigs in bars and clubs due to secondhand smoke exposure. Now, with the smoke-free indoor air law in place in Wisconsin since 2010, he has been playing gigs using the cigar-box guitar under the moniker Too Sick Charlie.

The Paramount Music national blues competition will culminate at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis
The Paramount Music national blues competition will culminate at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis.

While a standard guitar typically has six strings, Heiligenstein said he enjoys the simplicity of three strings on the cigar box. It’s also a challenge to get the sounds out of it with three strings, typically tuned to G, D, and G, or essentially a G chord.

“It got started because it was a perfect sound box for people who didn’t have money for a guitar,” Heiligenstein said. “You just needed a cigar box, a stick, and some strings.”

Dr. Eric Heiligenstein, aka Too Sick Charlie, is a one-man band who plays guitar, bass drum and tambourine
A one-man band, Heiligenstein also plays a bass drum and tambourine using foot pedals, so he’s his own drummer. (That way, his band never argues about when to practice!)

He arranges cover songs that were typically written by the original songwriter on a six-string guitar. He likes that because it means his version of the song will be inherently different on three strings. “I use tunings, ghost notes, aural equivalents, so people think they’re hearing the other notes but they’re not.”

He also writes originals. “Songs just kind of come to ya,” Heiligenstein said. “I wrote one last week for Memphis.” He’ll play five songs at the national challenge, including three originals.

He said he had no expectations going into the Wisconsin competition. “Just trying to do the best I could. The judges liked what I did. Paramount put it on and did a marvelous job. Played about 30 minutes. There were probably 200 people there listening, it was a lot of fun.

“Some shows nobody cares… you finish playing, and it’s total silence. Other times, people love it. I just enjoying playing. And sometimes when the audience really gets it, that’s a nice reward. If you do it to get praise, you’re not going to last very long. It can be so ephemeral.”

He played at the New Orleans Cigar Box Festival right before the pandemic, in January 2020. He still sees smokers outside of bars occasionally and thinks about his work with WiNTiP over the years, including with Dr. Bruce Christiansen and other UW-CTRI colleagues.

“It was probably the most satisfying thing I did in my career,” Heiligenstein said. “I wouldn’t do it any differently.” He appreciates the ongoing collaboration with UW-CTRI and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to try to reach behavioral health patients who smoke, as well as the clinicians who treat them. “We realized smokers with mental illness were the greatest disparity there was.”

Now he’s focused on one cigar box in particular—the one he’ll play in Memphis.

“It’s great exposure, you get to play to people you might not normally have an opportunity to. Great for marketing, even if you don’t win, and a heck of a lot of fun. It’s like a dream getting to go to Memphis and playing on Beale Street.”

Beale Street clubs will host the competition
Beale Street clubs will host the competition.