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'I Take The Long Way Going Everywhere': Travis Meadows On Learning To Be Human Again

Travis Meadows' new album, <em>First Cigarette</em>, is available Oct. 13.
Joshua Black Wilkins
Courtesy of the artist
Travis Meadows' new album, First Cigarette, is available Oct. 13.

Travis Meadows has done a lot of living. The Nashville-based artist has battled both addiction and cancer, the latter of which claimed his right leg below the knee. He spent years as a missionary, wrote and performed Christian music, then tumbled back into alcoholism. And he's made a name for himself as someone who can spin dark poetry into some of country music's most heart-wrenching songs. (He based his 2011 album Killin' Uncle Buzzy on journal entries he made while in rehab.)

Meadows is now seven years sober, and his latest album is called First Cigarette. He spoke about it with NPR's Scott Simon; hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

Scott Simon: The song "Sideways" has a line that goes, "I have moments when I act just like my father / The only man who ever broke my heart." How did your father break your heart?

Travis Meadows: By not being there. My first memory on this planet is watching my little brother drown, and that is why my grandparents kind of took over the parenting from that point forward. What I really wanted was attention from my father. And he was an alcoholic as well, and it took me a long time to come to the terms with the fact that he was 16, 17 years old when he had me. He had no idea how to be a father. I spent a lot of years holding something against a man that I became exactly like. And that's maybe the part that broke my heart the most.

And then cancer came into your life.

Yeah, I had a rough introduction to this world. I was going through puberty and cancer at the same time, if you can imagine. Either one of those is plenty. But we humans are resilient animals: I don't look at my life and think, "Well, I wish I would've had it easier like somebody else." Because we all have our own share of heartache and our own share of burdens.

Music was always the thread that ran through all of that. When I was about 11, I started playing the drums. And then I was 21 years old and I discovered the songwriters and that's really when the light bulb came on for me. I was in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and I had moved there to smoke pot and to play bluegrass music. And then when I picked up a guitar and realized how hard bluegrass music was actually to play, I opted out for just smoking weed. But I discovered these songwriters, and all these beautiful songs. Because chemotherapy affected my hearing, I never heard the words [to songs]. When it was just a guy and the guitar, I heard the words.

And when you were a young man, you found God again.

I did. It took a while; I had been running all my life, searching for some kind of anchor to hold on to. And at 24 I had a religious experience that took me down a 17-year-long road — that I do not regret, but at the end of that road I did start asking questions that I was not satisfied with the answers. Seventeen years is a long time. I take the long way going everywhere; I even got lost coming here [to the studio] this morning.

[Laughs] Well, you're right on time. Do I have this right — you became a missionary?

I did. I can't do a little bit of anything, so when I was getting high I wanted everyone to get high. When I found Jesus, I wanted everybody to have Jesus. Everything in my world was black and white.

I found myself at 38 years old with a lot of gray that I could not understand and I couldn't explain. And when I wasn't satisfied with the answers, I just went back to the one thing that I knew and understood, and that was drinking.

I've got to tell you, Mr. Meadows, I've interviewed a great number of country musicians and so many of them have had problems with drinking, had problems with drugs or with the law. You are the whole ball of wax and then some. What an extraordinary story.

Well, thank you. I do feel lucky to be alive and I do have a lot to live for. I'm much too old to be, at this point in my career, in some ways starting over.

Let's talk about the title track, "First Cigarette." You sing, "I am a little more content with who I am than who I was." Tell me about the contentment part in your life: What are you feeling now that's different?

Just to give you an example — I hate even going down this road, but for you I will. I would wake up in the morning, and the first thing that I would do is go to the freezer. By this time, I had completely gotten rid of any mixers — just vodka out of the freezer. I was shaking so bad I couldn't actually hit my mouth. I would hold the bottle with both hands trying to steady it, and finally I would get a sip down and I could feel it from the top of head: I'd start getting warmer and I started feeling human again. These days, I don't go to the freezer. I'm eating pretty good, I'm sleeping pretty well. I'm spending a lot of quality time with my son.

Do you think that everything that's happened to you can find its place in a song?

I do. You know, oddly enough, a lot of times I don't know how I feel about something until I write about it — it's part of my processing.

I've always been quite a pessimist, and I've been trying to battle that now that I'm seven years sober. You know, it's the glass half full or the glass half empty, and I was always like, "Who drank my water?" But these days, it's a half-full glass, isn't it? And it's a nice one, I love that glass. Look how it sparkles in the sunshine.

Web intern Steffanee Wang contributed to this story.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ian (pronounced "yahn") Stewart is a producer and editor for Weekend Edition and Up First.