From some quarters there is a view that country music has become an “industry” with artists being moulded to a strict formula at the expense of those who have lived a bit. If you have ever felt that there are too many “hat acts” singing about pick-up trucks and beer who lack depth then give this astonishing story a go.
Nashville-based country singer and songwriter Doug Seegers is someone who most certainly has lived life. To be more precise he’s been to the brink of life itself, looked over the edge and lived to tell the tale, something he does with his very aptly titled third album, A Story I Got To Tell. Without a word of exaggeration Seegers tells of his descent into a world of alcohol and drug abuse on the streets of Nashville, which for him were definitely not paved with gold. His story slams into reverse as he finds redemption and recovery through his own faith, his music and the sheer kindness of others. Listening to this gentle and grateful man talk about his life both in person and through his music is itself a humbling experience.
If not a household name in the US, Seegers is a big name in Sweden. Why Sweden you may ask? A confluence of three unrelated events explains. Six years ago Seegers had been a regular at a Nashville food bank whose manager discovered that a film crew from Sweden were making a documentary about the less shiny side of Music City. Having heard Seegers busking and undeterred by the fact he’d kicked his habits only three weeks previously, she contacted the crew’s presenter, Jill Johnson. Country music has a wide following in Sweden where Johnson is a leading light. Initially Seegers wasn’t enthusiastic but played “Going Down to The River”, a song he’d written about getting clean. Johnson was completely overwhelmed, immediately recorded Seegers and next stop was top of the Swedish Billboard 200 equivalent chart.
“I’m so grateful to Jill and to Sweden” mused Seegers in a voice that croaked with a slight cold but also with plain gratitude. The references to the river and getting clean are on several levels. “After I had finished singing all she could say was ‘did you write that?’ I said yes, just a short while ago. ‘Can I record it?’ Really, you want to record me?”
And thus began the resurrection of Doug Seegers, country music star of Sweden. He shuns any sense of ego putting this popularity down to the universality of country music. “‘Going Down to the River’ is about me washing off my sins. I lived that song but what it’s about is universal, that’s what country music is about”.
It seemed an obvious next step to replicate that success back home in the US. Seegers’ response came as a surprise. “I’m not looking to do that”, he said firmly. “That’s not where I’m coming from. I’m very grateful for my success and if I can maintain the Swedish momentum in the US that would be great. But all I can do is the best I can and hope for the best. I just want people to be curious, my #1 in Sweden made people curious so more people got into my music there. I want people to be curious and ask ‘what’s he gonna do next?’ I’m not looking for fame when I write”.
This humility runs deeply throughout everything Seegers says. “I can describe all my music in one word, therapeutic. You must get some therapy out of music. I want to give people some sort of inspirational message. The great thing about where I am in my life is there’s not a single ounce of bullish.t in anything I say or do. Lyrically I talk about the life I’ve been through and I try to shed some hope and faith”.
Elaborating on what he means Seegers gave an example, “A woman came up to me after a show I did. She handed me a pencil and paper asking me write something, anything, that might help her alcoholic husband quit. That reduced me to tears. But it also made me realise that’s why I’m out here doing this music. I’m a living testimony of what I’ve been through so I want to help others”.
Faith is the cornerstone of his writing but Seegers stresses, “I do try to involve God’s love in my songs but in a cautious way, not too heavy. I’m sure not one of those hippy Jesus freaks who pin you up against a wall saying, ‘look out brother you’ll burn in hell if you don’t have faith in the Lord’”.
To understand this you have to realise just how hopeless Seegers had felt. “I was in bad shape, disgusted with myself. My girlfriend, also an addict, had walked out on me and I felt like I was going to die. All I could do was put my hands together and ask God to help me kick my addictions. I woke up the next morning and realised immediately I was in a different world. This must sound unbelievable to those who don’t believe in God and sure, it does sound unbelievable but like I say, there’s no bull in my story”.
That didn’t mean all was fine. Temptation lurked round every corner. Seegers may have found success in far away Sweden but he was still on his own back in Nashville with the usual suspects trying to lure him back to old ways. “I lead a clean life now, the danger is temptation, those dealers didn’t go away so fast but I now had the power to resist them.”
While still busking he got an opportunity to play at the Ryman Auditorium. Seegers took up the story “I only played a song that night. After that I was out back when someone came up, shook my hand and said ‘you were the best of the night’. I asked if she was in the music business. ‘Yes, she said, I work for BMG publishing and I’d like to help you’. Her name was Kate Hyman and a year later I was signed up”. All this he told in a voice that softened and slowed until at the end with a barely audible “amazing” he stared out to a busy London street as if he still couldn’t quite believe all this had happened to him.
And all this appears on A Story I Got To Tell. Opening track, ‘White Line’, one of the record’s two covers (written by Canadian Willie P. Bennett) could have been made for Seegers in its depiction of his previous life. Seegers pleads, “Standing by a midnight highway, excuse me sir are you going my way?” This could have been Seegers on his way to make it in Nashville only for, “You know that could have been me on the radio”.
‘Give It Away’ goes to the heart of the album and Seegers’ life. In a reflective, almost plaintive voice without an ounce of self-pity he recognises he had hit rock bottom. But armed with his new found faith he began his recovery and redemption.
In comparison ‘Demon Seed’ has a fast, almost frenetic pace to match Seegers’ pain and anguish both at losing his girlfriend then his inevitable desperation to clinch his next high.
So digging a bit deeper, how did he come to reach this grim predicament? Seegers went back to his childhood rowing up on Long Island where he soon inherited his parents’ love of music. “I believe that was genetic. Everyone in my family had music in their blood”. But then his dad walked out. ‘Angel From a Broken Home’ records that heartbreak both from the perspective of those left behind and the departed dad, in every respect far away.
A few years later at a local gig Seegers met Buddy Miller. Now a highly sought-after producer, then only a musician, Miller invited Seegers to join his band in Austin. “I didn’t enjoy it, or the life on the road so I went back to Long Island where I raised my family. Music was a weekend hobby, I would never consider music and family together. I got divorced but stayed around until my children had grown up. Music never went away so when my son was 15 I asked if he would mind me giving Nashville a try. He said no so I went. I gave the songwriting rounds a shot but I didn’t think I was good enough. I drank more and took drugs as depression also took hold. I did some work but otherwise I led a homeless lifestyle singing on the streets”.
This stage appears on the record in all its bleak reality as ‘Six Feet Under’. Needing little elaboration this was the end of the line, “Feeling so tired and lonely/feeling so scared and cold/that’s the way you feel when you’re two steps from this life….put me six feet under”.
While never entirely leaving his story Seegers explores his musical roots further during the second half of the album. Typically understated, he claims not to “know much beyond country music (and The Beatles)” but he does venture into other styles, blues, gospel, soul and rock describing the whole package as “what’s now labelled Americana, with a country feel”. Among his influences he lists Hank Williams (check out Doug Seegers Sings Hank Williams released 2017), Willie Nelson, “I can place when I first heard a Willie’s song to the exact day and place”, Gram Parsons (just go back to ‘Give It Away’).
‘My Little Falling Star’ is old time country that glides effortlessly into soul and back. Seegers develops his soulful side with the Johnny Rivers classic ‘Poor Side of Town’. As the title suggests, ‘Rockabilly Boy’ is just that and ‘Can’t Keep Running (Back to You)’ is blues dripping with the heat of those Nashville streets Seegers inhabited.
Seegers keeps good company too having duetted with Emmylou Harris, “Buddy Miller gave me a ride home one day and just said ‘I’ve never asked Emmylou for a favour but I am now. I’m going to ask her to sing with you”. She thought it a success, “When I first heard Doug Seegers’ voice, so full of soul and raw emotion, I was stunned”. And not just performers he has worked with top producers too; Joe Henry for A Story I Have To Tell and Will Kimbrough produced Going Down to the River.
‘Life Is A Mystery’ is a perfect way to close the album. Not only is it a thought Seegers must have mulled over many times, it pulls together so many of those musical styles he mentioned earlier.
Having experienced such a change in circumstances asking Seegers about plans seemed trite but patient as ever he replied, “Sure I have some plans, dreams and goals but I want God to know that his decision to help me was the right one. He brought Jill Johnson and Kate Hyman to me. In his eyes I’m looking good. That’s why all this has happened. This is being rich”.
Much of the best in country music revolves around hardship and determination but it must be authentic. Doug Seegers achieves all that in spades, “I’m the real deal. I’m not a star or big-shot. People who treat me as if I’m special make me uncomfortable. I’m a humble man and the greatest thing I can accomplish is to save another man. That’s what I call rich”.