There is a scenario in which Gene Woods might never have been willing to out himself as a musician. A scenario in which a social-justice-minded blues song he wrote decades ago, while he was working his way through school by playing in various bands in State College, was lost and forgotten forever. In which no one ever would have seen him wearing a fedora and sunglasses at night in a glossy, high-end music video.
In fact, for a long time, the man responsible for leading a health care system with more than 50 hospitals and 65,000-plus employees was hesitant to be seen holding a guitar in public except on rare and exclusive occasions—largely because he didn’t want people to think he was doing it out of vanity.
“I was actually doing my music thing on the side and really not bringing it into any sort of professional circle,” says Woods ’87 H&HD, ’91 MBA Bus, ’93 MHA H&HD, who has been president and CEO of Charlotte-based Atrium Health since 2016. “And I had to think a lot before wanting to do that. But there was something about this moment, something about what I felt I needed to speak to, and this was a great way to do that.”
The result was the creation of a video last summer, amid powerful calls across the country for social justice, for his dusted-off-and-now-new-again song “Not Enuff Joy,” which opens with these lines:
Your brother is in chains, we should all feel the iron
Your sister burns with pain, we should all feel the fire
When is it ever gonna stop?
Since allowing the video to be included in Atrium Health’s virtual employee talent show last August, the 56-year-old Woods is charging ahead with plans for more music, all of which begs the question: How serious about this side gig is he going to get?
There’s actually a plausible scenario in which Woods, as a young man, could have sacrificed a promising career in health care administration to pursue his passion for music. His musical journey started years earlier, back when he was a young boy growing up on a U.S. naval base in Spain. His father, Eugene A. Woods Sr., was stationed and enlisted as an aeronautics mechanic at Naval Station Rota in the Province of Cádiz; his mother, Maria, was from nearby Jerez de la Frontera in Spain’s Andalucia region. Thanks to Eugene Sr.’s constant playing of reel-to-reel tapes, vinyl records, and 8-tracks, Woods inherited an affinity for the music of blues legends like Bobby Bland, B.B. King, and Little Johnny Taylor; thanks to Maria and her 11 siblings, he developed a deep appreciation for Flamenco music and dance.
At age 10, his uncle put a guitar in Gene Jr.’s hands and taught him to play a simple Spanish melody, one that stuck with him after his parents returned to the States and settled him and his younger sister in Philadelphia. He had no way to play it again, though, until somehow—although they could barely afford to keep the lights on—Eugene Sr. and Maria managed to scrape together the money to buy their son what was “essentially a fake Fender Stratocaster” and an amp.
“It was hard to play, the strings were really far away,” Gene Woods says, but he didn’t let it bother him. “I got a lot of calluses playing that guitar.”
In sixth grade, he played that guitar in a band he formed with two friends, one that started by doing little “shows” in garages for friends and family members and progressed to a gig at a school talent show that Woods considers his true first-ever live performance. In high school, he had the chops to take on riffs by Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. And in college, he paired his talent with his hustle, hooking up with a variety of bands, in genres from blues to rock to jazz, and helping to turn at least one of them into a cash cow.
“One of my early bands was called Stolyn Hours, and we were the most popular band in State College at the time,” Woods says of the “classic-rock-type band,” which released an album, Scattered Winds, in 1987, the year he earned his bachelor’s degree in health planning and administration. “Football weekends, we packed the house, and on a good night—and just think about this back then for a college kid—I could make $400, $500. And on a really, really special night, you can make up to $1,000, which was wonderful (because) my family didn’t have money to pay for college. I typically would play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and that’s what paid the rent. It paid for food, it paid for tuition, and I realized it’s something that was always gonna be part of my life.”
Stolyn Hours was born of a creative partnership between Woods and J.R. Mangan, a longtime fixture on the State College bar scene who now owns Café 210 West. Mangan remembers them hitting it off after meeting at a downtown bar; in no time, he says, they had recruited a rhythm section and were rehearsing in the basement of Woods’ Pugh Street apartment. A couple of weeks later, they were playing gigs at the Phyrst and the Skeller. “Gene was a lot of fun, he had a great sense of humor, and he was reliable—that’s what I liked about him,” Mangan says. “I always felt he was going places.”
Mangan remembers his bandmate as a talented player with eclectic tastes, with influences that ranged from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello. The two split vocal and guitar duties, with the flashier Woods—Mangan says his bandmate would sometimes play solos behind his back or behind his head—playing leads. Mangan also remembers Woods’ rare level of focus, like when he maintained his band duties while working an internship at a hospital in Lewistown. “We’d be playing the bars until 2 in the morning,” Mangan says, “and then he’d get up first thing in the morning and make that drive over Seven Mountains.”
Throughout grad school—he went on to earn master’s degrees in business administration and health administration—Woods sang and played guitar for a 10-piece rhythm and blues band called Soul Gypsies. He had just completed his second master’s when Southside Regional Medical Center in Petersburg, Va., called to offer him a job. He recalls it being a tough decision, but also knowing he had to take it. “I sat my band together and I said, ‘This is gonna be my last gig coming up because I’ve decided to move,’” he recalls. “It was a moment where I could have gone left, but I went right.”
That began a list of increasingly high-profile leadership roles in health care: CEO of Roy Schneider Hospital on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1998–2001; COO of MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. from 2000–05; CEO of Saint Joseph Health in Lexington, Ky., from 2005–11; COO and then CEO of Christus Health in Irving, Texas, from 2011–15.
Since arriving in Charlotte in 2016, Woods’s impact has been significant. He oversaw a rebranding for the system, from Carolinas HealthCare to Atrium Health, to support expansion into new markets. He orchestrated the deal with Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest University that will bring a four-year medical school to Charlotte. He is the architect of Atrium’s mission statement, “to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing—for all,” which has paved the way for new community initiatives, from a $10 million commitment to affordable housing to providing free and nutritious meals to thousands of students every summer.