Music and Sobriety - One New Year's Resolution That Changed My Life
Music has always been a significant part of my life; however, it wasn’t until I arrived at Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center in Rayville, Louisiana in 2011(at the age of 22) that I began writing from the depths of my soul. Between three residential admissions to Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center from 2011 through early 2014, residing in a number of halfway houses around the Monroe, Louisiana area, a divorce, a near-death experience, and the addiction-related death of my best friend, I have certainly had plenty of material to write about and plenty of reasons to write music that reflects the importance of living life sober. From my personal experience, I can most certainly tell you that drugs, alcohol, music, and creativity do not go hand-in-hand. In fact, it will rob you of your dreams of being a musician...and, most importantly, family.
Too often, young musicians get caught up in the destructive side of being in the music scene. I, too, fell victim. Sadly, it often starts early. At the age of 11, my family and I moved to Conway, Arkansas. Being in a new town with no friends was difficult. To combat the loneliness, I picked up the guitar and started playing regularly. I quickly found an identity. Over time, my identity landed me friends, some of which were not the best influences. At around 14, I began smoking pot. The cycle continued throughout my teens as well as the frequency and types of drugs I would experiment with. At the age of 19, I was a full-blown addict. I went on a summer-long tour of the west coast with a local band. The modest success of the band only reinforced this thinking. Spurred by the adrenaline of being on the tour, I continued to think that the only way I could be musically creative was to engage in the drug/alcohol scene. I had formed a strong association between drugs/alcohol and musical creativity and was not easily swayed that one could exist without the other. I honestly thought that I wrote better music when I was high. I guess everything "sounds" better when you are too messed up to hear it with clarity. In addition, people would often tell me that I was a talented guitar player which, in all honesty, fed the addiction and the association between the two. The cycle and association between the two continued for the years that followed. Although the people who cared about me most would tell me that my music/drug association was killing me, my love for music trumped all reasoning. Over time, I started losing complete control of my life and the relationships that meant most to me. I lost many long-time friends and all family support for my music. In fact, very few people wanted to hear me play. As an artist, I can tell you that there are very few things worse than being a musician without an audience. Music became my personal "ball and chain." Soon thereafter, I became the drug-addicted guitar-playing guy that one would say, "Wow, he is really good...what a waste of talent." My association between drugs/alcohol and music was single-handedly destroying me. I became jobless, homeless (slept on numerous couches), and guitarless. Yes, I actually sold my guitar to support my habit. For three years, I actually relied on various people to loan me a guitar from time-to-time.
In 2011, I got married and had a baby boy named Kai. My family was hopeful that my son would be enough to change my path. I truly wanted it to be, but my addiction was bigger than me. I would try, but to no avail. When my son was three weeks old, an argument between me and my wife ensued and she left with the baby. I recall calling my mother and she had no sympathy for me. She gave me an ultimatum. Either go to rehab or live on the streets. I knew conceptually going to rehab was the right thing to do, but I was an addict. I honestly didn't know if I could do it. I wandered up and down the street not knowing what choice to make. It was the first time that I recognized that my life was in total chaos. After feeling alone, scared, and desperate, I called my mother back and told her I was willing to go get help. The next day I checked into Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center in Louisiana.
I completed a 30-day program and then moved into a halfway house for 60 days. Everything made sense in rehab. We worked the steps (based on AA), I played guitar and wrote music, I cultivated supportive friendships, and tried to make amends with those I wronged. At the end, I came home to try to restore my marriage. However, I came home to many of the same friends. It wasn't long until I was engaged in the same destructive behavior. Shortly thereafter, my wife divorced me and I feared that baby Kai would never know his daddy. The loss was devastating. The following 6 months were not kind. I gave up music entirely, and became completely enveloped in the drug culture. My family and the few sober friends I had shunned me and wouldn't acknowledge my existence. On my 24th birthday and after a day of "celebrating", my drug addiction landed me in ICU. I nearly died of an accidental overdose. Once again, my mother offered me the opportunity to go to rehab. This time, I didn't hesitate. I took the offer. However, I half-heartedly repeated the steps and worked the program, and came home to the same friends. Repeat.
On New Year's Day 2014, I checked in for my third admission to rehab. Only 4 weeks into the program, I received a call that my very best friend, Bradley Morrison, died of an alcohol-related overdose. His liver quit functioning due to his chronic alcoholism. He was only 25. We met in a church youth group, went to school together, jammed regularly, went on camping trips, took our girlfriends on a double-date to prom, and he served as a groomsman in my wedding. We were actually together New Year's Eve, the day before I went off to rehab and we often worried about each other's addictions. It was a devastating loss, to say the least. Sadly, I couldn't attend his funeral since it would mean that I would have to check out of rehab and for fear it would have jeopardized my sobriety. Knowing of my deep sense of loss, his mother came to see me while in rehab shortly thereafter. Only a couple of weeks later, I received a call about a friend going to jail for drug-related activities, and also learned that my ex-wife was getting married. I feared that her new husband would be a surrogate father to my son if I didn't get sober. The losses compiled. Something changed. I recognized my life was crumbling and I took ownership and responsibility for my actions. I recognized that I did have control over the things and events that were dictating my life. It was during my third stint in rehab that I became more self-reflective and responsible for my behaviors. I accepted a full-time job in a lumber yard. I made friendships that supported my sobriety, and leaned on people who had been successful in working the AA program. Honestly, I had to learn how to work, be self-sufficient, and be responsible for my behaviors. Sounds like basic stuff, but harder than one would think when you have been engaged in addiction behaviors over time. It took three admissions to rehab and the loss of my best friend for me to figure out that you can't expect to change your life and keep the same drug-related friendships and behaviors. I also learned that I had to cut my losses and love some folks from afar. I only wish that Bradley and I both could have been saved from our addictions. In a way, Bradley's death saved me from myself. It was a significant wake-up call. I also had the realization that I had to become comfortable with being alone, at least for a while, until I forged new friendships and rekindled the positive and supportive friendships that I had left behind. Not easy for a social creature like me, and not easy for those you have hurt along the way.
Over time, my music changed as well. My audience were those who were in the rehab trenches with me, and my music reflected our journey and the many struggles and losses we endured along the way (family, friends, children, careers, etc.). I would characterize it as music therapy. The experience bonded us. From that point on, I viewed myself as a "solo" artist whose music reflected the life and struggles of addiction, and most importantly, hope.
After completing my third stint in rehab and celebrating 12 months of consecutive sobriety ("consecutive" is the key word here), I decided it was time to move back home to Conway, Arkansas to be closer to my young son. In an attempt to jump start my solo career, I began recording my acoustic-style music and entering in a number of guitar competitions. I immediately entered the longest running Guitar Wars competition in America (located in San Antonio), and placed 3rd. Shortly thereafter, I picked up a music sponsor, Preston Palmer Music Center in Conway, Arkansas, to produce music videos for me as a marketing tool and submissions to various venues and competitions. The first music video, titled “Kai,” had over 10,000 views on YouTube within the first two weeks and drew a modest international following. I posted a couple of others, and they did just as well. It gave me hope.
To further hone my skills and to learn the trade, I took a number of master guitar classes from international guitar legends in the summer of 2015 through musician camps (e.g., Joe Satriani, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Tosin Abasi, Javier Reyes etc.). This required me to travel frequently (California, New York, etc.) and spend several days at guitar camps.
On July 26, 2015, I somehow managed to win 1st place in the Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Competition. Most amazingly, I entered the competition as a stand-by contestant (since I signed up late) and simply hoped for the opportunity to compete. A competitor didn't show up, and by default, I got the opportunity to play. Winning the competition, particularly over some of the best artists I had ever heard, was beyond my wildest dreams. Beyond the birth of my son, it has been the single-most exciting moment of my life. Shortly thereafter, I signed endorsements with Stonebridge Guitars International, Elite Acoustics Designs (maker of Sunburst amps and related gear), K & K Sound (pickups systems), Elixir Strings, and Radial Engineering (I have since secured many more). I also opened for Andy McKee at his concert in Birmingham, Alabama on December 2, 2015. I was thrilled, to say the least.
Shortly thereafter, I released the "Alpha" EP in December of 2015. In the fall of 2015 and after earning the hard-earned trust of my family, I conceptualized an audio and video recording studio which eventually led to the formation of FRETMONKEY RECORDS, a full blown studio and record label consisting of some of the most talented musicians across the world. When developing the label, we had envisioned a business model that put the needs of the artist first and that would eventually change the way that the music industry engages with artists. We launched March 1, 2016 and it has been a whirlwind ever since. Fast forward to 2017 - FRETMONKEY RECORDS led to us forming weekly syndicated internet guitar radio show, "Slap Nutz," which aired in four countries for one year. It has also led to us conceptualizing FRETMONKEY NATION - the first social media site of its kind for musicians which launched in the fall of 2017. When the studio opened, I also started working as the FRETMONKEY Studio engineer, and quickly picked up producer and music videography skills, and began recording other artists. And to top it off, I also returned to Guitar Wars to compete and won the 2016 Acoustic Division and 2017 Electric Division - a surreal experience since it symbolized coming full circle where the inspiration for relaunching my music career began. I also began applying my fingerstyle acoustic skills to the electric guitar - it's been liberating, to say the least. This inspired an upcoming album, "Dissonance", which will be released in 2018 and includes some collaborative works with some notable players in the electric world - an inconceivable idea while battling addiction.
Since having several years of (consecutive) sobriety, I have the clarity to reflect upon the many lessons that I have learned along the way. I understand that being a musician will, at times, land me in bars and other venues that will challenge my sobriety. However, these days you will find me drinking a Red Bull and getting high on playing my music. I hope my journey will encourage, inspire, and challenge young musicians everywhere to pursue their dreams in the music industry despite the challenges of engaging in the music scene. If you need help, get it. If someone offers a hand, take it. If you fail the first time, try again. Listen to those who love and care for you. Don't buy into the drug/music scene. In other words, DON'T DRINK THE KOOLAID. It will only rob you of your musical dreams!
My words of advice (and the words that I remind myself on a daily basis)…be persistent. Plan the work and work the plan...whether the plan is music, sobriety, or any other life goal. Preparation plus opportunity equals success (this applies to music), so diligently prepare for big things so you will be ready when the opportunity arises (it's what motivates me to practice for long hours every day). Lastly, if you believe it, you can be it.
Take care, be safe, and God bless.
If you would like to follow my ongoing journey, please follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and my You Tube Channel (links located on my website homepage). I would appreciate your words of support and encouragement.
Won this beauty (Stonebridge / Furch G21SW-C) at the 2015 Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Festival. Happy that I no longer have to borrow a guitar!
Me and my FRETMONKEY brothers
NAMM with my brothers
Wedding Day on the Carnival Cruise Ship