“I get lost in the guitar, in the music,” explained the 59-year-old Mount Laurel resident, who has been reinventing herself since 2006 with an art form she dabbled in as a teenager. That was in an era, she says, of flower children, folk music and the antiwar movement; a culture influenced by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Croce. “I think everyone I knew played an instrument,” Segal said, describing her passion as a form of expression “that transcends the pain, a form of meditation.”
Her pain is literal – the eventual result of a herniated disk in her neck sustained in 2004 while on the job as a long-haul truck driver.
Yes, the 5-foot-2 singer/songwriter with soft blue eyes and tight curls was a trucker for 12 years. She drove through 48 states – night and day.
It was an “all-boys club.” She was one of few women, one of even fewer Jews.
What sparked an interest in trucking?
“I always had that wanderlust and I liked to travel,” said the South Jersey native. “When my father passed away in 1995, I needed to find something to fill the void.” At about the same time, a “not great” 11-year marriage was ending. “I looked through the newspaper,” Segal recalled with a chuckle. “The only jobs available to me were either a stripper or truck driver.” She enrolled in an intensive six-week driving course offered by the J.B. Hunt trucking company.
Before that, she worked in marketing, sales, retail, even as a bike messenger in California, where she lived (among musicians) for 18 years after graduating in 1971 from Cherry Hill High School East.
“I’ve been down a road no map can ever find,” she sings in “Popsicle Town,” one of 11 original songs recorded on her first full-length album, released last year, The Middle of Nowhere.
The title track on a four-song EP released in 2010, “Sweetheart Desperado,” is her signature song. (Hear her work at www.sweetheartdesperado.net.) Both CDs were produced in the Haddon Heights studio of Jimmy Heffernan, a former Nashville touring musician who has produced the work of a number of local emerging artists as well as national ones – Buddy Jewell, Michael Mason, Cookie Evans.
“Benita embodies the best of the oral tradition of American music,” Heffernan said. “Her vivid lyrics take the listener to faraway places.”
Segal credits her turnaround from the horrific series of medical challenges to her only sibling, Andrea Segal-Wehman, 55, her “seeing-eye dog.”
“She’s not only my sister; she’s my best friend,” said Segal, whose balance and memory have been affected. She also suffers nerve damage on her right side, severely weakening her right foot and ankle.
It all began while driving an 18-wheeler on a 3,000-mile journey from San Bernardino, Calif., to New Jersey. About a thousand miles into the trip, while shifting a 180-pound clutch, Segal felt her neck wrenching. “I couldn’t turn my neck,” she remembered. The pain was excruciating.” An examination by a New Jersey orthopedic neurosurgeon revealed a herniated disk. Segal underwent single-level neck-fusion surgery, followed by physical therapy. Her doctor told her it would take time to heal.
“Benita had a plate and four screws implanted in her neck,” said Segal-Wehman. About 12 weeks after surgery, Segal was discharged and told she could return to work.
A year passed, yet the pain worsened, spreading down her spine and throughout her body. “I felt like I was being physically assaulted,” she said. About two years after the surgery, she was driving toward Miami and heard a pop in her neck. She couldn’t move.
After visiting an emergency room in Broward County and returning home to New Jersey, she was initially diagnosed with whiplash. Then, one day, while staying with her sister, Segal said, “I completely collapsed and was paralyzed from my waist down.” When she was hospitalized, an orthopedist discovered she had a staph infection that had spread from her neck to the lower spine. Segal believes it was a result of the 2004 surgery; she won a medical malpractice suit in January 2011.
“My sister was in critical care,” said Segal-Wehman. “She remained hospitalized for two months – in and out of consciousness.” Segal needed emergency “revision surgery” on her neck because three of the disks had deteriorated; it was rebuilt with artificial parts.
“After six months of intense physical therapy, she was able to walk again with a cane,” said Segal-Wehman. “Her doctors and caregivers were shocked.”
Still, Segal was angry. She had lost her livelihood and her active lifestyle. Her pain was constant. “I didn’t want to live like that. I was in an extremely negative state,” she said. Remembering her sister’s long-ago love for guitar, Segal-Wehman dug Benita’s old instrument out of storage and insisted it might help her escape her depression. “She took the ball and ran with it,” Segal-Wehman said.
“Andrea saved my life,” Segal said.
The transition to aspiring singer/songwriter was daunting. It took about a year before she felt brave enough to stand before a live audience. “I was very nervous, hesitant and scared,” recalled Segal. “I still get nervous before a performance.” However, when she begins playing, a creative energy takes over. “You can feel when an audience is there with you. It’s such an amazing connection.”
By 2008, Segal began attending local open-mike nights. In 2009, she played at fund-raisers and house concerts with other songwriters. Her gigs have included the Bus Stop Music Cafe in Pitman, the Ocean County Artists’ Guild in Toms River, Albert Music Hall in Waretown, N.J., and the Mount Laurel Harvest Festival.
Segal’s voice and manner have been compared to Tracy Chapman; the style of her songs, to Townes Van Zandt. Her music has aired on college and independent radio stations in South Jersey. Performing at charity events is important to her, especially those that help animals. Her own dogs, Lacy, an 11-year-old shih tzu, and Joey Bagodonuts, a 15-month-old dachshund-Pekingese mix, play a pivotal role in her life.
In 2011, Segal-Wehman founded Chicks for Charity, an organization that raises money to help abused and homeless dogs and cats. All of its events have a musical venue where Segal performs either solo or as “Benita Segal and the Snausages.” Whenever she plays a fund-raiser, she donates her earnings to the organization.
Animals are a passion the sisters have shared since childhood. “We always had adopted dogs in our household,” said Segal. “Like music, they have a healing effect.” In her trucking days, her dogs were always in tow.
Recently, Segal has scaled back on live performances so she can prepare for her next album, to be produced this spring.
Although Segal, who is on permanent disability, earns money from some of her gigs, she says it is not enough to make a living. No matter: It restores her, she said. Despite taking painkillers to ease her discomfort, she often can’t sleep through the night.
“When I wake up, I usually reach for my guitar.”