Maintaining sobriety in the music industry

As you step foot into any honky tonk, you are bound to hear Merle Haggard’s voice in the distance singing, “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.”  For some, this would become a dark reminder of trying to maintain their sobriety in the music business.

For years, it seems like Hollywood glamorized the entertainment industry.  In order to fit in, one must partake in drinking or perhaps using drugs to get by.  Television, radio, and print ads have made it appear that you are popular whenever you use substances.  There is always that pressure to fit in along with the crowd.

On the other end of the spectrum, as a touring musician or singer, you are faced with many hours out on the road driving to the next town for a gig.  Some may be trapped inside their hotel room for hours as they cannot venture out into the city with peace and quiet due to fans recognizing them.  In order to pass the time, they turn to substances, whether it be alcohol or drinking.

From the start of one drink or just one hit of a drug, it can lead down a road of trouble for most.  For some, it has led them to death that gains the attention of the news media.  Looking inside country music, two well noted musicians, Hank Williams and Keith Whitley, both died due to substance abuse.  They led a wild lifestyle and could never set the bottle down – whether it be pills or booze.  Both passed at such a young age, yet their music has influenced generations of musicians in multiple genres.

In the last year, I have sat down and discussed with several people in different spectrums of the music industry on how they have been able to maintain sobriety.  Each one of them had their own story of how they hit rock bottom, received guidance, and have maintained sobriety.  The key factor is that to this day, they still battle with maintaining that sobriety, but know they don’t want to go back to the lifestyle they once had.

Garrick ‘Puddin’ Howell with Greg Austin. Photo by Warren Cobb.

Garrick Howell is known to many in Kentucky as “Puddin’ Howell.”  He was a rowdy hell raiser that was not afraid to lift a glass to the cheers in the crowd inside a dimly lit honky tonk.  He would perform rolling with the flow and brought the party.  Garrick would become a family man, having married the love of his life and raising two children.  However, his party lifestyle caught up to him eventually.  He knew that he needed to get his life back on track

“I knew that I had an issue when my wife told me,” Howell recalls.  “That’s really where all of the problems started creeping in obviously. I was lucky. I was not sitting in jail or living under an overpass or anything at the time, but those issues started at home.  That is when they reared an ugly head and I got really bad, real fast actually.  Things were happy go lucky for a minute.  As they say, the alcohol works until it doesn’t work, and it stopped working.  It just started causing problems, not just with me, but with my wife and then the kids come right along in that situation.  So that’s when it really started to become a real big problem.  It took a little bit of walking out; a little bit of leaving on some folks’ parts.  My wife, she had to split for a minute.”

Garrick goes on to say, “I had kind of lightly batted the idea that maybe I was having a little bit too much.  That was kind of the beginning of the end for my drinking career.  Along the way, every once in a while, I would have a conversation with somebody.  Of course, I would be lit to the nines when I had it, but I would have a conversation with somebody and they would say, ‘well you know I feel like it was a problem and if you need a little backup, we got you, just say the word.’  Of course, at that point, it’s what you convince yourself as pride.  It’s ego, what it really is. So finally, those guys that I had conversations with, I texted them.  It was on a bad night.  It was probably the worst night of my life.  It was almost the last night of my life to be honest with you.  I had made the decision to go sit in the garage, turn the truck on, close the door, and go to sleep.  Obviously, things worked out for the better, but that’s where it will lead you if you think.  I got to the point that I had thought there was no.  Finally, I don’t know what it was, but I found out that I was too chicken to do it, which thank God obviously.  I’m not one for pain either, so that’s why I was going to go with the truck thing.  I got that last second detour of the universe, I was able something together for a minute to at least get through of that night.  I went to sleep, and I woke up the next day and I started putting calls in.”

The calls that he made were to Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as AA.  They have proved to provide the best help for not only Garrick Howell, but also for Greg Austin.  Greg is one of the most influential honky tonk singer-songwriters in Kentucky.  He can be credited with bringing line dancing from Texas to central Kentucky.  His home bar was Austin City Saloon, where so many other legendary performers have played.

Greg Austin Band – courtesy of Greg Austin.

“At first in the very beginning when I started, I went out on the road in 74,” Greg recalled.  A lot of my heroes in the business were just what they did.  It was cool to if Puddin and I went out, he’d buy the first round, I’d buy the second round.  We talked to the ladies.  That’s what everybody did.  Like you said, it was working until it didn’t.  I was out-drinking Puddin, and I’m not proud of that.  I’d probably have a half a pint and a 6 pack before I even started.  A lot of mine was anxiety and being scared, and I still am, but I don’t drink to get there.  I stopped one time for a little while for a couple of months.  The guys in the band, we were playing in Richmond one night and they laid about 12 shots of bourbon in shot glasses.  I had quit smoking too and they laid down a pack with a lighter down.  Before we started, they begged me to please start drinking and smoking again because I was so irritable and hard to get along with.  So, I went back that night.  I don’t know when, but I think when the drugs appeared, I started realizing that the…I stayed off drugs in Texas.  A lot of the band guys was doing cocaine constantly and I didn’t do any.  I didn’t smoke marijuana.  I didn’t care for any of that.”

Greg also dived into abusing prescription medicine at one point.  “I’ve had knee problems my whole life and started taking some medication for that so I could even walk,” Greg said.  “That caught on and that as you know about the opioids, the doctor can give you some drugs for your pain and you can be hooked on it before you even know it.  I basically was.  I’m not blaming the doctors.  I probably would have become an addict anyway.  You started off with a thirty, take two a day, every four hours for pain.  Before that bottle’s out, you’re addicted.  I don’t care what anybody says, you’re addicted, and I was.  I could tell you some horror stories about that, but I won’t bore you with it.  But it’s a brutal thing plus the drinking.  The drinking led to more of that and more of that led to more drinking.  I mean it was a vicious thing.  On any given night, I could be drunker than hell and screwed up as hell at the same time.”

One of the unique things about Greg is that he is devoted in maintaining his sobriety.  Every morning he gets up and attends an AA meeting in Lexington, KY.  Every single day for 9 years he has went.

“There are 143 AA meetings a week in Lexington,” Greg mentioned.  “You can go anytime you want.  Some towns only have them one a week or it varies.  I didn’t know Puddin (Garrick) was sober until he had already been sobered for about a year.  I was playing somewhere with somebody and his name came up.  I was so excited because around here, not many are sober.  Ray (Adams) got sober 6 years ago.  That was really good for me because Ray and I worked together for so long.  I was so excited when somebody else in the business that got sober.  I’ve loved Puddin for a long time and I was so excited for him because I knew he was going to change his life.  You can’t keep this up.  If you want to stay in the business, you’ve got to get sober and clean, or you’ll die.”

For some, it may take an intervention of several close loved ones.  It may take a visit to an AA meeting.  It may take a pastor saying the right word of passage in the Bible.  Most of all, it takes courage to admit that you have a problem and need to work on improving your life away from substance abuse.

Tayla Lynn and Tim Cobb – photo courtesy of Tayla Lynn

For someone like Tayla Lynn and Tim Cobb, it takes courage to speak up about the past and hope that it helps change someone’s life for the better.  Tayla is a singer-songwriter, who happens to be the granddaughter of Loretta Lynn.  Tim Cobb is Loretta’s personal assistant and dress maker.  Both have lived life out on the road and know the hardships of being a traveler.  Kentucky Country Music did a special Facebook live interview with both of them at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.  Below is that exclusive interview:

Kentucky has been dealing with alcohol and opioid crisis for years.  You cannot watch or read a newspaper without learning about someone dying or in trouble due to drugs or alcohol.  Each year, our communities mourn the loss of those affected by the actions of those that choose to be drunk or high.

Most recently, Sturgill Simpson was interviewed on Uproxx about life out on the road and the loneliness.  According to Sturgill, “I’m just feeling very grateful for what I wake up and look at every day, and knowing that at some points, things on my end did get a little slippery. Because you spend so much time in isolation in this job, and then when you come home, you don’t really know where you belong because you’ve been in this cocoon, and you’re irritable and you’re exhausted. And the nightly adrenaline blast is so unhealthy. My dopamine/serotonin levels just got so jacked up. To be completely honest, I fell back into substance abuse in 2017, pretty heavily.  Drinking and other things, just in hotel rooms by myself a lot. You can’t really go anywhere on show days, you’re stuck. There’s always been some depression issues and I let it get on top of me. So I came home and finally got the year or more off that I needed, other than those trips to Japan, and thankfully heavily reconnected with my wife in a very profound and intense way, and then with the children.  Singing these songs, it’s almost like, did this even really happen? It’s still fine, because we’re rocking out. But when I sing these songs, it helps me understand a lot more about myself and how to be healthier, because they’re kind of dark.”

KET utilized Sturgill Simpson as the narrator for their “Journey to Recovery” series that aired in 2019.  Below is that documentary to view.

So what exactly do we need to do?  How do we combat our own issues, or a loved one’s issues with substance abuse?  Here are a few ideas that came out of discussions from those that have battled with substance abuse.

  • Be there and support the addict. Lend an ear and listen.  Keep the line of communication open.
  • Seek guidance of a mental health professional or psychologist to help you learn why you have sunken into substance abuse.
  • Attend AA meetings.
  • Encourage more non-alcohol events in your community. Family friendly should mean no alcohol!

If you feel like you need to speak to someone due to having suicidal thoughts, be sure to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Furthermore, Musicares can grant short-term financial assistance for personal or addiction needs that have arisen due to unforeseen circumstances. Funding may be awarded for needs such as rent, car payments, insurance, utilities, medical expenses, psychotherapy, addiction treatment, sober living, and more.  You can contact someone at www.grammy.com/musicares or by calling the Nashville based office at 1-877-626-2748.

Remember, you are not alone and there is always someone willing to help you.

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