Xavier Magazine

Six-string Psychologist

Oliver “Tony” Birckhead is a psychologist and director for the McGrath Health and Counseling Center. But prior to coming to the University in 1996, Birckhead split his time between academia, the mental health field and his guitar. He spent several years on the road with Them Fargo Bros., a New Hampshire-based country-rock group with big-time aspirations, and music is never far from his mind. These days, he plays with several groups, and this past spring accompanied graduating senior Dana Hunter in her Nashville-inflected concert at the Gallagher Student Theater.


“I started playing guitar in 1961 in the seventh grade. A friend of mine was into the Kingston Trio. I discovered the Ventures about a year later, got an electric guitar and started learning surf instrumentals. Then a friend visited London and brought back a Beatles album before anybody here had heard of them. We started learning these Beatles tunes.”

“I moved to Maine in 1971 and started working in mental health. I finished my master’s degree , and I’d always wanted to be a musician, so I said, ‘I’ll give it two years.’ I got a gig with Them Fargo Bros. We played the ends of the earth. We played New York City at this club called O’Lunney’s. It was an Irish bar. Everything was green. They had shamrocks and everything, but they had country music.”

“I still keep in touch with two or three of the guys in that band. It was like traveling group therapy. We were playing five or six nights a week. They were dear friends. And the things you go through, including the hopes and dreams, and could we get signed? It was a great experience, plus I really learned a lot about music.”

“Shortly after I got to Xavier, I found out that Paul Colella had a band. I called him up and said, ‘You don’t know me, but we’ve got to talk.’ I went over. We had a good time. I broke his guitar. I was so embarrassed. But he didn’t seem to mind. What a mellow guy.”

“I always considered myself an average guitar player, but people would say, ‘You’re really good.’ So part of me was like, ‘Well, maybe I should pursue this, being a good guitarist,’ which, in a way, is a narcissistic thing. I think the purest thing is to execute the music, and maybe it calls for technical ability, but maybe it doesn’t. However, I don’t know any guitar players who don’t want to be good guitar players.”

“One of the overlaps with music and psychology is perceptual psychology—how your nervous system interacts with the environment and how you hear sounds. I’ve always wondered why a minor key makes me feel sad. It’s unbelievable to think about it.”

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