College of Dentistry Musicians March to a Different Drummer

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Dentistry may be their profession, but music is a passion for The Dentones. Left to right: Darryl Jones, DDS; James Ragain, DDS: Ron Staples, DDS; (seated), Mark Anderson, DDS; Vernon Pennington, DDS; Kyle Fagala, DDS; Tim Lanier (seated right front). Photos by Houston Cofield.

On a Sunday afternoon in a spacious garage filled with instruments and sound equipment, the band launches into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” They have not been together in a few months, but they are in sync and, as the song says, “It’s all right now.”

This band is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s answer to The Rolling Stones, with a twist. It is made up of faculty members from the College of Dentistry, plus a few colleagues.

The Dentones came together in the summer of 2016 in response to an invitation to play at a dental fraternity charity fundraiser. They’ve stayed together because they’re having a blast.

“It’s great,” says James Ragain, DDS, dean of the College of Dentistry, who plays electric bass guitar and sings. He’s the guy in the black Beatles wig. “We have this Dentones persona, which is totally different than our day jobs. You get to go up there and act a little bit, dress up and just kind of let yourself go.”

In addition to Dean Ragain, the roster includes: Tim Lanier, UTHSC director of regional development, lead singer and electric guitar; Mark Anderson, DDS, chair of the Department of Diagnostic Sciences and Oral Medicine, lead guitar; Vernon Pennington, DDS, assistant professor and group leader in the Department of General Dentistry, keyboards; Kyle Fagala, DDS, part-time faculty and an orthodontist in private practice, drummer; Ron Staples, DDS, assistant professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, trumpet; and Darryl Jones, DDS, an assistant professor in the Department of General Dentistry, saxophone.

College of Dentistry Dean James Ragain is one of the original members of The Dentones. “We all feel really pumped and enjoy it,” he says. “And it puts us in like a different place.”

Dean Ragain, Lanier, Dr. Anderson and Dr. Pennington are original members of the band. At times students have sat in on the drums—until graduation, that is. Adam Gaines, design manager for the UTHSC Office of Communications and Marketing, also subs in on drums when needed.

Three decades separate the members. The oldest are in their late 60s. The youngest is in his late 30s. But, when they’re jamming, the differences disappear.

“It’s an interesting generational thing,” the dean says. “We all feel really pumped and enjoy it. And it puts us in like a different place. You know, we can step out of our comfort zones from our day jobs and do something that we all have a strong passion for.”

Rock and rollers, The Dentones cover songs from the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds—’60s and ’70s hits— some of which the students they play for might not even recognize. But, no worries, it takes only a few minutes to break the ice before the audience is on their feet.

On this Sunday, they cycled through the Rolling Stones to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and on to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”, with a bit of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” in between. The beat was strong, the sound loud, and the enjoyment palpable.

This band is not without a music pedigree. Dr. Anderson is an accomplished blues guitarist. Dr. Staples and Dr. Jones are members of the Memphis Wind Symphony, where the sound is a different kind of classic music.

Dr. Jones is proud that music, his first passion, provided him with scholarships that financed his education.

“It’s a different genre of music and allows me to have fun with it,” he says.

“They invited us to play with the band (The Dentones), and it’s been a barrel of monkeys ever since,” Dr. Staples says.

Dean Ragain played in rock-and-roll bands in high school and during his military service. All have been involved in music one way or another throughout their lives, though for most, real life and dentistry pushed it to the back burner.

“There are quite a few dentists who do play instruments or have played instruments in the past,” he says. “What happens is, they spend so much time in school, and they get busy doing their practice, and they kind of leave it behind. But I know several faculty members here who play in orchestras. We could probably put a mega-band together if we wanted to.”

The original members of this band had talked individually from time to time about playing together, but it wasn’t until that student fundraiser that the group coalesced.

Accomplished musicians in their own right, the band members find themselves in sync pretty quickly, whenever they get together.

They met for the first time in the music room at Dr. Ragain’s house. Each proposed some songs, and they got to work.

That first student fundraiser held at Young Avenue Deli in Memphis was a big success.

“They said, ‘You can come back anytime,’” Dr. Ragain says proudly. And they have played the student event several times since.

They did a few gigs a year, including the annual Slagle Dental meeting, until the pandemic put a halt to practices and performing.

“We did not get together for 15 months,” Dr. Ragain says. “When we first felt safe to come back, we played our first song and were ready to go; all the old songs came right back.”

Still, finding time to practice isn’t easy with busy work schedules.

“We pick our song list, and then we independently, on our own time, work out our parts so that when we come together it’s basically stopping, starting, timing, figuring out harmonies and things like that. So, we try to maximize what time we do have to practice. And then, as we get closer to a gig, then we try to get more practices in.”

Last year, they had four or five appearances on the books, including the NightinGala for the College of Nursing last spring and the UTHSC Employee Appreciation Day and Golden Graduate Homecoming at The Peabody in the fall.

Even as their bookings increase, The Dentones are not focused on making it big. They march to a different drummer.

“Plain and simple, it is just a lot of fun to be a part of The Dentones,” Lanier says. “Whether we are rehearsing or performing, we have a great time.”

This story was initially published in the Fall 2022 issue of Our Tennessee magazine