In other walks of life, it’s taboo to have a substance abuse problem. In the music industry, it’s almost expected. And recovery poses special challenges to musicians, whose career choice means they don’t have workdays, but work nights. This is what recovery under the Nashville spotlights looks like.
Story by Laura Relyea
Illustrations by Courtney Garvin
It was something in the timbre of Ben E. King’s voice that tipped me off: Something was wrong with Elijah Jones.
“Stand by Me” had been one of my favorite songs since I was a child. It was a song that had grown alongside me, a melody that made a cameo on most mixes I made from my teenage years through adulthood. “Stand by Me” was my ace in the hole.
That morning, it felt all wrong.
Most of my conversations with Elijah centered on music, and we had spent at least an hour waxing poetic about “Stand by Me.” He preferred Otis Redding’s 1964 version to King’s original. As the frontman of a self-proclaimed “twisted circus” of an Atlanta band, the Constellations, music was all he thought about. Or, as I had come to recognize, music was all he thought about when he wasn’t thinking about love or drugs. Usually, it was all three.
No, I won’t be afraid.
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
It was the first song I heard that morning in March. And somehow, I knew deep in the marrow of my bones that Elijah was dead.
He had been, for a minute. I found that out later. By the time I woke up, his roommate had found him passed out in their apartment and called 911. Elijah had self-induced an overdose with a toxic combination of mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. The ambulance rushed him to Grady Hospital in Atlanta. That was the first step in saving Elijah Jones’ life.
There would be many to follow.
Drug addiction and alcoholism are not afflictions unique to the music industry. The CDC reported over 72,000 drug-related overdoses in 2017, an uptick of 5 percent over the year prior. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 21.5 million American adults battled substance abuse in 2014, costing Americans close to $200 billion in healthcare, criminal justice, legal fees, and lost workplace production and participation throughout the fiscal year.
There’s no way to determine how many addicts make their living in the music industry, but few would question the assertion that there’s something culturally unique in the relationship between the musician and the bottle or the needle.
In other walks of life, it’s taboo to have a substance abuse problem. In the music industry, it’s expected.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune that ran in 1992, Waylon Jennings explained what he dubbed “Hank Williams Syndrome” — the expectation that performers should be “be crazy and wild and die young.”
The expectation undoubtedly affected Elijah Jones.
“Honestly, I had the idea that art was suffering and it was all one in the same,” he tells me. Jones confessed that from the first time he drank at age 12, he had an abusive relationship with alcohol. By 16, the same year his band released their first album with Virgin Records, he was addicted to heroin. Collaborations with CeeLo and Asher Roth soon followed his record release. Meanwhile, Jones was spinning out of control.
“I used the music as an excuse to self-perpetuate the lifestyle,” he says. “And when the label told me that they liked that party-animal aspect of the music, it kind of gave me free rein to be a hopeless drug addict.”
By the time of his overdose in March of 2013 — his second in six months — Jones was using over a dozen different substances, including heroin, cocaine, meth, prescription drugs, alcohol, and barbiturates.
“To me, the biggest temptation is the wear, tear, and loneliness of the road,” says the legendary American singer-songwriter John Hiatt. Hiatt drank from the time he was 11 to the age of 32. “I started doing drugs in the Summer of Love. I was on the bandwagon. LSD. Pot. Whatever we could get our hands on. ‘More’ was my motto.” And Hiatt’s excessive use of drugs and alcohol kept getting in the way of his own career.
“I managed to mess up most deals,” he says. “Really, by the end, I felt like I couldn’t get drunk, but I couldn’t get sober. I couldn’t get high, but I couldn’t stop taking drugs.” Hiatt hit a tipping point in 1983 when he went to see a psychiatrist who told him he would have to check into a drug-treatment facility. The next year, he checked into Las Encinas, a 30-day treatment center in Pasadena, California.
“The artist’s lifestyle is a lot of late nights. They get off stage and are in different cities with different people coming at them,” says Ken Levitan, the co-founder and president of Vector Management, which manages Hiatt, among many other artists. “Many of them are charged up with energy. They drink a few to calm down and adapt. You see it with a lot of young artists who are prone to partying anyway. They get off stage at 11:30 or midnight, and it seems like their night is just beginning. They’re worked up, and they’re exposed to people who want to give them things, to help them blow off energy. It’s fun at first, but it becomes dangerous.”
Americana musician Mary Gauthier has a different perspective: She didn’t get involved in the music industry until after she found sobriety in July of 1990. Before that, the New Orleans native was a successful restaurateur in Chicago.
“Being arrested was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says, able to laugh about it now. After a drunk-driving incident on the night her second restaurant opened, Gauthier was arrested and sent by the state of Illinois into a recovery program. “If I weren’t an addict I probably would have found songwriting sooner.” Since she came to Music City, she’s collaborated with innumerable artists ranging from Jimmy Buffett to Tim McGraw, from Blake Shelton to Candi Staton and Bettye Lavette. But she acknowledges her position in Americana differs significantly from the pressures big-time country musicians feel.
“The stakes are different,” she says. “In Americana, we’re selling thousands of records, not millions. It takes three-quarters of a million dollars to break into the country charts. There’s a lot of money riding on the building of a successful career there. [Artists] have to build themselves as brands.”
The relationship between drugs, alcohol, and the music industry is complicated and nuanced, especially since the onset of streaming-music services changed the economics of the industry. Since 1999, when Napster was first released, aspiring and established musicians have had to pivot their business strategies to accommodate for drops in record sales. Today, the money is in celebrity endorsements and music placement. This is especially true in two genres that have a special footing in the South: hip-hop and country.
In fact, a few years ago SAMHSA announced that nearly 12 percent of the top 40 hits in country music referenced drinking in their title. Across all genres, 2007-2016, an average of 22.4 percent of songs from Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end charts included one or more mentions of alcohol. That’s about a quarter of the music we heard on the radio for a decade. And in hip-hop and R&B, that number jumps to 30 percent.
Across genres, such notable acts as T.I., Big Boi, Willie Nelson, Zac Brown, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney, and Beyoncé have incorporated sponsorships from alcoholic beverage brands into their business models.
Of course, endorsements don’t necessarily denote addiction.
“An industry that might be harmful to a subset of people, that’s one thing,” says Hiatt. “The fact that there is a disease called alcoholism and drug addiction? That’s another thing entirely. I understand that marketing campaigns are one of the big keys to success these days, especially for big country artists, pop artists, and rap artists. Your success can be contingent on a big corporate sponsor, but I don’t think that being sober or not is contingent on that. But that’s just me. I don’t know what that pressure is like.” He acknowledged that the danger is in the lifestyle of the road. “The temptation is everywhere, particularly for a young person.”
“I don’t think the glorification of inebriation should be part of a marketing plan,” says Gauthier. “For me, that’s a suicide plan.”
Even with the abundance of interloping between the two industries, there’s still a change in the tide afoot. In hip-hop and rap, an increasing number of artists are speaking openly about the effects of addiction in their lives. Acts as revered as Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Royce Da 5’9” are all in the industry and openly speaking about their sobriety. More brazen acts like Sylvan LaCue, J Cole, and Logic are making music that directly addresses the effects addiction has had in their lives.
“This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction,” it says above J Cole’s head on the cover of his most recent album, K.O.D. Below his crowned head, a collection of people self-medicate in various ways — sipping on drinks, snorting lines, and smoking. LaCue’s album, Apologies in Advance, is structured to parallel a meeting of a traditional 12-step program, with interstitials of open discussion among members between songs.
After his condition stabilized at Grady Hospital, Elijah Jones was transferred to a mental hospital. “It was very One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he tells me. At the time, there was no plan for his release. He wasn’t allowed to make telephone calls. “It was just a lit room. I had no bed. I remember going to the nurse and telling her that I didn’t belong there,” he says. “She took one look at my wrists and told me that I absolutely did.” (In his previous suicide attempt, Jones had woken up from an intentional heroin overdose and slit his wrists.)
Meanwhile, Elijah’s mother was working around the clock with manager and producer Dan Dixon and Dixon’s partner Ashley Wilson, to get her son out of the mental hospital and into a treatment center. Their outreach led them to an organization called MusiCares.
The recovery process is personal, difficult, and intimate. There’s risk involved with admitting one has a problem. It opens a struggling person to judgment and confusion among those they have interacted with, both in sobriety and before. Speaking openly about recovery can be tricky.
“It’s been misunderstood over the years,” Gauthier explains to me when I confide I’m a little nervous about accidentally compromising anyone’s recovery with the publication of this article. “None of us can be a poster-child for recovery. The simple way of handling it when talking publicly is to say, ‘I’m in recovery.’”
There’s a reason “anonymous” is in the name of so many recovery support groups. Anonymity liberates the sick from judgment, allowing them to disclose to their groups what they cannot say elsewhere. They don’t have to worry their status as an addict will compromise their work, careers, or families, and that’s why so many elect to remain anonymous, as least as concerns their struggles with addiction.
But what if the party persona is locked to their public identity, the personal brand that supports their livelihood? For those living in the public eye, recovery can be a horse of a different color. In an industry fully saturated by and openly associated with drugs and alcohol, it takes a genuinely triumphant spirit to publicly pronounce their sobriety. To help them turn the tables and combat the overwhelming pressure to keep up with the lifestyle, MusiCares exists.
Woody Herman’s death spawned the establishment of the MusiCares Foundation in 1989. The lauded Vaudeville-era clarinetist, who throughout his 50-year career had collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, died under a mountain of debt, homeless and alone. This caused a group of musicians to rally and found an organization to aid musicians in “times of financial, personal, or medical crisis.” Overseen by the Recording Academy, the same folks who throw the Grammy Awards every year, MusiCares now operates programs across the country that offer everything from emergency financial help, addiction recovery, outreach, leadership activities, and senior housing.
“I didn’t know anything about it until I checked into rehab,” Jones tells me. “I didn’t know it was an option, to go to a real treatment center. It saved my life.”
“Addiction recovery services comprise about a third of what we do here,” says Debbie Carroll, the organization’s senior executive director. In 2016, MusiCares helped over 2,700 individuals with nearly $3 million dollars in financial assistance.
The saving grace of MusiCares is its openness to anyone involved in the industry. It’s not just musicians who qualify for help. Road crew, management, assistants — they all qualify. “They just have to provide proof that they’ve worked in the music industry for at least five years or made attributions in six commercially recorded albums or singles.” says Carroll. “Once we have that, we can get them into treatment — and pay for it — in a matter of hours.”
On a hazy morning in August, I drive to Nashville’s Cumberland Heights, a treatment center that for over 50 years has helped people on their road to recovery. A little over four years earlier, Jones had made this same drive with his producer after Jones’ mother checked him out of the mental institution. His support network had secured him grants from MusiCares and H.A.R.T. Inc., a Nashville nonprofit that funds treatment for those who can’t afford it. MusiCares would pay for Jones’ first 30 days of treatment at Cumberland Heights. After that, he would spend 60 days in an outpatient facility.
Cumberland Heights’ 177 acres abuts rolling horse pastures and the winding, lively Cumberland River — the roads leading up to the facility’s entry hug the riverside. My pilgrimage ended just as the sun made its final cut through the morning fog. Nashville felt worlds away.
“Over the years, I’ve called on Cumberland a lot, along with other places, to help,” says Levitan. “They’ve always been there.”
Cumberland Heights has a unique positioning within the music industry as a solid place for recovery, and not just because of its proximity to Music City. “Being a musician in recovery, you have different work hours and environment than more traditional forms of work. We equip them with what they need to survive in that. There’s so many variables in that world,” says John McAndrew. Along with being a musician in his own right, McAndrew is Cumberland Heights’ music therapist.
McAndrews walks me through the weekly programming participants in Cumberland Heights’ Music Professionals Recovery program can expect. Along with the group therapy and education that could found at most recovery centers, Cumberland Heights invites major artists in recovery in every Tuesday, along with individual music therapy sessions.
“Music is a good place for them to express their pain and commit to their recovery,” says McAndrews. Cumberland also has a tour-support day, where they bring in managers, agents, road crews, producers, anyone who works with the addict. “We do an education with them about the concept of the disease and the dynamics of working with someone in recovery. We teach them that, even on tour, you have to surround yourself with recovery.”
My interview with McAndrew took place in Cumberland’s music therapy room, stocked with an array of musical instruments including a Steinway baby grand piano, guitars, and microphones. Hiatt and Levitan donated the bulk of it.
“A good friend of mine, Walt Quinn [Cumberland’s director of national and community relations], got me involved initially,” says Hiatt. Since 1996, Hiatt and Levitan have raised over $3 million dollars for Cumberland Heights through an annual benefit, the Concert for Cumberland Heights, staged at Nashville’s “high church,” the Ryman Auditorium. Screen-printed posters from those fundraisers line the walls of the music therapy room, which all patients at Cumberland have access to if they need it. Hiatt’s name is featured in the lineups listed on a few of the posters, alongside the likes of Emmylou Harris, Kenny Rogers, Lyle Lovett, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Peter Frampton, and Trisha Yearwood.
“Having other musicians around me definitely helped,” says Jones. “There were a couple of other guys that were with MusiCares. One guy was kind of my cheerleader. He knew a lot about working the program. He took me under his wing.”
“The alcohol in our business is not going away,” Levitan tells me. “The artists have to have a support system once they get help, be it other artists who are sober and clean or other support systems. Cumberland Heights makes sure to educate members of the team, to make sure they can figure out where their meetings are on the road so that they can take advantage of them. That part is really important, having that support readily available.”
“When I first got sober, I didn’t go back on the road until I’d been clean for about six months,” says John Hiatt. “It was a scary proposition. I’d never even performed without the aid of some mind-altering substance.”
Little did Hiatt know that sobriety was just the beginning for him. Over his career, Hiatt has become one of the country’s most influential singer-songwriters. He has nine Grammy nominations and has released 22 studio albums, two compilation albums, and one live record. The likes of B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Eric Clapton, and Keith Urban (to name just a few) have recorded Hiatt’s songs.
“Anything good that is in my life is a result of being sober. There’s no alcohol in my green room,” Gauthier declares to me proudly. “I don’t play in rowdy bars. I’m a troubadour. They pay at the door, they come in with or without a drink, and they listen. There’s not pressure on me to sell shit at the bar as an artist. I don’t want that pressure. That’s a relief. That’s never, ever been what I do.”
Though her description of herself may sound pretty humble and low-key, Gauthier has had her fair share of success, including being named “New Artist of the Year” by the Americana Music Association. Her 2005 album Mercy Now was on top 10 lists in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Daily News, and Billboard, and her 2018 album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, received a Grammy nomination. Currently, she’s performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry and working on a book about songwriting.
My friend Elijah Jones just celebrated the fifth anniversary of his sobriety. He’s starting to take the stage again with his new group, Elijah Jones and the Tenderness.
“When I got sober at Cumberland, I just started writing. It’s some of the best stuff that I think I’ve ever done — honest songs with better stories,” he says. His group is playing shows regularly in Nashville and throughout the Southeast again and the Constellations just released the studio album Jones was working on at the time of his second overdose. “At the end of the day, I will always write songs. And I’m grateful to be able to perform live. Sure, it’s terrifying without social lubricant — but I get so much more out of it now.”