Back in the ’80s, you almost saw it as a death knell when you heard that an artist had become sober — that they were now clean and working on a new record. It was almost as bad of a sign as if they had recently had a baby and you knew their next album would feature a song dedicated to them. Folks who had spent the ’70s making masterpieces while cooked out of their mind against the wall in a stupor were now fresh from Betty Ford and producing something uninspired, forced and forgettable. And why? Was it that the drink and drugs let them tap into something otherworldly, or was it that, without them, they had lost their confidence? Or was it just that a lot of people made bad albums in the ’80s?
Flash forward to the present, and it’s a different world when it comes to sobriety. Maybe it’s most surprising that many of the artists you hear that give up booze come from the Americana world. I say surprising because when you look back at the history of country music, it starts with two things — religion and whiskey. (Side note: Is there some joke I’m not reaching hard enough for that has to do with Jesus and wine? Was the Son of God responsible for what we now call Bro Country?) But in 2015, our greatest roots writers have made their best music after they quit drinking. Put Jason Isbell on top with his instant classic “Southeastern,” but don’t forget Ryan Adams, whose focus on “Ashes and Fire” was evident after he cleaned up. And Justin Townes Earle, full of legendary stories, and more recently, Langhorne Slim, who is receiving his highest and most public acclaim yet on this year’s “The Spirit Moves.” They were all great before, but reached higher heights with new lifestyles while still writing songs that are true to the genre.
What changed? Our outlook for one. Drugs, sex and rock n roll is still sexy in some circles, but I think the lot of us got tired of losing our favorite artists. Playing the game of “what would they have sounded like if they were still here” gets old after a while, especially when you start hearing demos of the songs they hadn’t finished and the promise those sounds contained. But, going back to an earlier thought, I expect confidence has much to do with it. Now that we’ve got multiple decades of rock history and “Behind The Music” episodes, the artists themselves are able to see how the game plays out, the cliché that it can turn into. Each musician I’ve ever interviewed on this subject has had a similar fear of not knowing if they’d be able to write once they were dry, but that didn’t stop them from switching lanes, and once they were sorted out and let the music flow again, it came on stronger than it ever had.
The next hurdle was getting over the social anxiety, shyness and awkwardness, which is why many started drinking so heavily in the first place. I get that one. I’m guilty of it still to this day. In fact, it’s been joked about plenty of times how interesting it is that so many of us that are in the public eye, professions that we knowingly chose, have a problem with being around people. A little bourbon and you’re loosened up. A few more and you’re life of the party. Of course, it’s about knowing when to stop. I’ve never had a problem with stopping, but I know plenty that can’t. If they have one, they’re going to have five. Or ten. It’s something that, without having the issue, I can’t fully comprehend, but I know it’s there, and I know it’s real.
And I know it’s important to help them out, because keeping the music is important. If an artist says they don’t want beer allowed in the room they’re performing in, there’s probably a pretty good reason. If you love their music, then understand that they need some time to reset. They’re not asking you to drink, just not around them. The payoff can be pretty spectacular, too. •
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.