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.

woods childhood band
Woods playing at Beaver Stadium tailgate
Have Guitar, Will Travel
From playing basement shows as a kid to rocking State College bars and Beaver Stadium tailgates, Woods has been performing most of his life.

It has never been a career that encourages a guy to let his hair down, and for the bulk of his professional life, almost no one beyond his family and his closest friends ever saw Woods in anything other than a suit and tie. But away from the office, on nights and weekends, he has continued making music: Dating back to while he was in grad school, and ever since, he says he has written about 60 songs, about 35 to 40 of which he has recorded.

Mangan, who still stays in touch with Woods, isn’t surprised. “I knew he would keep playing,” Mangan says. “He’s one of the few guys from back then that I think, if he had his way, he’d be a musician. He was more realistic, but he kept playing as much as he could.”

A number of people at Atrium were aware he liked to play guitar, but very few knew he was that serious. So it was a surprise to many when he came on stage during the 2017 edition of Atrium’s annual talent show and performed a medley of songs from Santana’s 1977 album Moonflower for roughly 1,000 people—at one point even playing the guitar while holding it behind his head. In 2018, he broke out his guitar again for a performance with a Charlotte Ballet fundraiser. Then later that year, a chain of events was set in motion that would bring his music to a much wider audience.

One of the people who knew Woods liked to play guitar was Andre Ferreri, manager of the fixed-wing department for Gama Aviation, which has a contract to fly air ambulance aircraft for Atrium Health—and himself a musician, songwriter, and producer. Ferreri had seen a photo of Woods playing guitar, and they started talking about music. Before long, they were playing together, and eventually, in the fall of 2018, Woods decided he wanted to record several of the songs he had written as a younger man.

On Ferreri’s recommendation, they approached Gat3 Productions, a local facility where Ferreri already had a small studio. He set up a meeting for him and Woods and the studio’s founder, Glenn Tabor; they hit it off and agreed to record some of Woods’s songs. Tabor initially had measured expectations. “I’ve seen other guys come in that have money and say, ‘Hey, we want to record,’” Tabor says. “I just assumed we’d have fun and make a little project and move on. I didn’t expect great talent. But what I learned real quick with Gene was don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Since then, Woods has taken songs he recorded over the years on his own and re-recorded them in a professional studio that has produced Grammy Award winners, as well as songs that he wrote long ago but never got around to putting on tape or CD. No one is taking this lightly, either: Tabor and Ferreri (who is arranging and producing all the songs), Woods says, have helped assemble a great group of musicians to play with him.

Woods is divorced and his two sons are grown, leaving him with more time than perhaps he otherwise would have been able to devote to his musical pursuits. Still, his day job often can turn into a night and weekend job, so the process of putting the songs together in the painstaking and perfectionist way everyone involved wants has been slow and gradual. Last March, the pandemic temporarily brought it to a halt. Then a couple of months later, nationwide social justice protests and renewed calls for racial equality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing gave it a new purpose.


Woods was inspired to write “Not Enuff Joy” when he was in his early 20s, after watching a documentary about a war in Africa. “What I saw reminded me of some of the communities in Philly that were marginalized, so I saw a lot of commonality,” he says. “It just made me think about how, fundamentally, whether you’re in Africa or Philly or anywhere, there’s a common human element.”

His intent was to create a way “not to give up hope,” he explains in a voice-over introduction for the song he recorded for Atrium Health. “I wanted to tell them that, despite the cold realities they were living, that there was good in the world. And that my greatest hope was that someday they could find a little joy.” As he wrote, he recalls in the voice-over, “I made a personal commitment to do my part to making this world a better place.”

He believed in the song so much that it would become the first song he ever recorded, done at a studio in State College with him recording the vocal, guitar, and bass tracks—everything but the horns. Nothing significant ever became of the recording, and it eventually ended up in a box in a closet somewhere in his house. But “it’s always a song that has stuck with me,” he says, “and I’ve always wanted to have an opportunity to actually do a video and see if I could also convey the core of the message in as broad a way as I could.”

This summer, more than three decades after he wrote “Not Enuff Joy,” he found his excuse to make that video. On June 19—Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States—Woods penned an impassioned essay, published on Atrium’s website, condemning systemic racism and prejudice. “If we truly want to understand the roots of anger and despair that have gripped our country in recent weeks,” he wrote, “then we need to have deeper conversations about the difficulties being faced and not be content with the status quo.”

Meanwhile, due to COVID-19, Atrium was making plans to hold its annual employee talent show virtually; its producers asked if Woods would contribute a song. He immediately thought of “Not Enuff Joy,” he says, noting that “the message of what I wrote as a young man is still as relevant today.” And since the talent show was going to be entirely pre-recorded, it made perfect sense to develop it into a music video.

All of the stops were pulled out: Adrian Crutchfield, a saxophonist who played with Prince, and Tyrone Jefferson, the trombonist who led James Brown’s band for a decade, were among the musicians who recorded the track and also appeared in the video; NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick loaned his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS for the shoot; Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles even has a cameo. It was filmed over the course of several nights last July in a variety of locations around Charlotte—one of which is the Black Lives Matter mural on Tryon Street in uptown, a nod to his father’s side of the family. The video also includes a Flamenco dancer, a nod to his mother’s. The talent show premiered in August, and the video landed on YouTube in September.

But beyond that artistic statement, Woods cites his upbringing—“I understand what struggle is at that fundamental level,” he says—for inspiring more tangible efforts at effecting change. Chris Berger, Atrium’s vice president of enterprise communications, says Woods personally donated $1 million to kick-start the Atrium Health Caregiver Heroes Teammate Emergency Care Fund, used to support employees during the pandemic and other crises. Pressed for other examples of Woods’s personal philanthropy, Berger says: “I really don’t think there is anything else that he is going to share, because that is just not what he does.”

Woods does indeed have a reputation for trying not to draw attention to himself when it comes to personally helping others. Take Drew Pescaro, a survivor of a mass shooting at UNC Charlotte in April 2019 that left two people dead and Pescaro and three others injured. Woods visited Pescaro in the hospital while he was recovering from surgery and personally saw to it that his Atrium medical bills were taken care of. And after Pescaro told Woods that he hoped to work for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, Woods called his friend Fred Whitfield, the team’s president, and connected the two of them. Whitfield eventually got Pescaro a shadowing opportunity with the team, and the Hornets gave him a full scholarship for his final two years of college.

By coincidence, Pescaro’s mom, Denise Bennett Pescaro ’90 Nur, is an alum who remembers seeing Stolyn Hours play at Regatta as an undergrad. She met Woods when he came to visit Drew and the other victims in the hospital after the shooting and introduced himself to family members waiting out that difficult night. It was only later that she learned that all of their medical costs would be covered. “I just found it overwhelming that the person who runs this system would consider doing that,” she says. “But I was really touched by the fact that he remembered Drew, and remembered their conversation about his hopes and dreams.”

Woods will continue to pour his own dreams into his music. In the near term, he’s hoping to have another video done soon, for a song titled “Gotta Feel,” which Woods says also addresses “the importance of recognizing the humanity in each other.” Sometime this winter, he hopes, he will release a 15-song album. He’s not planning to tour or hoping for Grammys. “It’s just sort of my mental health therapy,” he says. “I want to just have the opportunity to play and record great music. So I’m recording this for the love of music. That’s really my only goal.

“What I’ve shared with colleagues, other CEOs, is, ‘Don’t be afraid to pursue that creative side. If you’re a painter, do that. If you’re a writer, do that. If you play music, do that,’” he says. “I think it’s healthy as an outlet, especially now. But also, I think it makes you a better leader. People want leaders that are authentic and human, now more than ever.”


A version of this story originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer.

Woods at podium
Woods headshot
Industry Leader
Woods earned three Penn State degrees, including a Master of Health Administration, before launching a health care career in which he has spent more than 20 years as a chief executive, including his current role as CEO of Charlotte-based Atrium Health.