Keep Breathing: A Q&A with Travis Meadows

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

Travis Meadows may be the most resilient member of the entire Nashville music community. He has battled cancer, addiction, family deaths and more, yet somehow managed to never give up. His heart-wrenching and raw first country album, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, was released in 2011, after Meadows reached the darkest phase of his life, and amid several stints in rehab. Meadows has since returned with his highly anticipated third album, First Cigarette, which is set for release October 13 via Blaster Records. Despite a life of struggle, First Cigarette is a testament to how Meadows has fought to find peace in the little things that make life worth living.

So First Cigarette. Can you tell me about the title?

I kind of went back and forth on that. This part of my career has been about overcoming, so underdog was kind of an obvious choice. But I don’t always particularly like going in the obvious direction with artwork and titles, and First Cigarette has a line that says, “learn to love the comfort when it comes, like a first cigarette in the morning buzz,” and I think that really sums up where I’m at in my life and the heart of the record. Because life can be very challenging, but there are those shining moments and it’s really, really great when they come.

First Cigarette seems to be a bit more hopeful than Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. How does that reflect how your life has changed since then?

So, on Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, I had reached a really dark point in my life. Sometimes I joke about it onstage that I had real bad day that lasted for six years. I basically just kind of checked out. I was always a get-back-up person, but there came a point where I just said, “God, if this is the best plan you’ve got, I’m done.” So I just kind of laid down, took a break, stayed drunk for six years. I kind of got tired of the chaos that went with that and I had a boy I wanted to live for, so I started asking for help. I went to rehab. My first rehab was so great — everybody should always go to rehab once, it’s that good. I enjoyed it so much I went back three more times. The last time, one of the counselors suggested that I keep a journal and I said, “I don’t keep journals but I do write songs,” and they kind of laughed. I said, “I’m not kidding, I don’t want to die,” and they told me that the good part of keeping a journal was that you see the progress you’re making and it may inspire you to keep going.

I got out and the very next day I wrote the very first song. One song turned into two and two turned into 10 and it occurred to me that I was making a record and I didn’t even realize it. I had given up on being an artist and was just going to be a songwriter and get old and die in Nashville, where dreams go to die. But that record started growing legs and getting on famous people’s buses and they started recording my songs and in turn I started getting invitations to play these songs which is so ridiculous to me – and I know this is a long way around to get to the point – but singing about getting sober in bars was just hilarious to me.

Fast-forward a little bit and I was not that guy anymore, and I was still out there playing those same songs about getting sober. I was still on the wagon but I was not nearly as dark and not in that same searching mode I was in before, so I went out and I made another record, kind of honestly to get past Uncle Buzzy, who was kind of my alter ego when I was drinking. He never dies, he’s in the next room kind of lifting weights, waiting on me to open the door. So the trick is to not open the door.

So I made another record called Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business, but that record was kind of just a way to get past Uncle Buzzy. I don’t know that it was a real record. I got a batch of songs that I loved and I’m very proud of that piece of work but I don’t consider it a real record. Not to lessen the validity of that project, because some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written are on that project. But fast forward to now, I’m four to five years into performing live in front of people, singing the same dark songs. Although any song about a man looking for answers is what hope looks like, so they’re not dark songs, but they’re hard songs to listen to because they’re brutally honest and they’re authentic and that scares some people, because we’ve forgotten what that sounds like.

Some people don’t want to listen to that, they want to bob their head back down in between the news and the weather on the way to work and that’s it. Or listen to beach songs over spring break. And nothing wrong with any of that, it’s just not what I do. I’m a little more self-indulgent.

So I knew that it was time for a new project and I had been sitting there watching, and I put myself in the place of the listener and the consumer, and I thought good Lord if I sat here for an hour listening to these songs I’d be ready to kill myself. So I needed to lighten it up a bit. So I started going through my catalog from years ago and I started dusting off some old songs that I’ve never recorded, to kind of hold me over while writing for this project. So I had the consumer in mind and I was also in between publishing deals and I think I got the best compliment I could get from the new publishing company I signed with. I played the record and said, “This is what I’m doing these days.” And a young lady who had known me my whole Nashville experience said, “This is amazing Travis. I’m a huge fan of Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, as you know. But when I listened to it, I felt like I was listening to your experience getting sober. When I listen to this record, it feels like my own experience getting sober.”

I just smiled and just thought, I did it, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. To make it a little more accessible but still have some meaty songs on this record for the people who love those meaty songs with heavy lyrical content like I do. But there are also some more accessible things, things where you can catch your breath between the heavier songs. So I’m really proud of it, and I feel like fit is the first real record I’ve made since Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. That’s a long answer but it’s pretty thorough.

You’ve clearly faced and overcome an enormous amount of adversity. Is it hard to write so raw and vulnerably about the adversity you’ve faced?

Do I find it hard? No. I find it necessary, because it’s a lot cheaper than therapy. It’s the way that I process how I feel about things. And to be honest, sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about things until I write about them. It just helps me compartmentalize, helps me put them in the right filing cabinets in my heart and head. It’s necessary; I can’t imagine my life without writing about the hard stuff. Killin’ Uncle Buzzy was the only record that I never intended anyone to hear because that was me trying to dig myself out of a hole I had put myself in. So almost every single word was true. When you think about that, it’s kind of impossible to do that and make it rhyme. But the emotional content and following records, the heart is still authentic and still true. It’s a little lighter approach so not every word is exactly true to me, but it’s the same heart so that you can kind of feel your experience in this one as well.

Is there a song from the album that you are most proud of?

That is so hard. I’m so proud of the whole record. If you asked me to play one, it would probably be “Sideways,” just because that is emotionally something I’m deeply connected to, because I had been pushing my emotions down and going to rehab. I used to think counseling was bullshit, but going through that process over and over for years and years, where I would have to rehash everything, it occurred to me that psychology is not bullshit, it’s very powerful stuff, which led me to talk about my feelings mostly in songs with other people in recovery.

Another song, “Pray for Jungleland,” is an homage to Bruce Springsteen. Has he had a big influence on your music?

Absolutely. He was a huge influence. In the early years I played the drums and I was just all about the beat. And when I had cancer as a kid, the chemotherapy really messed up my hearing – I was very hard of hearing by the time – so I could never really hear the words to songs when I started paying attention to music. But you can still feel connected by the way it feels. I loved rock and roll and then picked up harmonica and was going to do that because I got tired of carrying stuff and I played blues. And then I discovered the songwriters, which kind of led me to Springsteen and that song “Jungleland.” At 18 or 19 I was dating this girl, had a Mustang, and we would ride up and down the strip in Jackson, Mississippi listening to Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. But when Springsteen came on, that’s when things got heated in that Mustang. So I was very connected to Springsteen – those lyrics – good Lord.

What was it like working with Jay Joyce and Jeremy Spillman?

It was amazing. Jeremy’s been a long-time friend and he’s been in recovery too, so he’s always been an ally. For a long time we would write a lot together anyway, so when I started talking about doing this record, I thought, rather than trying to find not some guy I don’t even know, maybe a couple of friends could make a songwriting album. He works with Jay Joyce and so I became friends with Jay as well, and Jay is a heavy hitter in town, and he said man I’d love to be a part of it if you don’t mind, and I was jumping up and down on the inside but said yeah that’d be great, that’d be cool.

But I felt like I had just gotten a lot of candy. So Jeremy and I would work on the record all day and into the night and then Jay would stick his head in the door and listen to what we did the day before and make suggestions; they were all great suggestions. So it was just a beautiful, non-stressful way to make a record. There’s Pink Floyd-like transitions between the songs, which was all Jeremy. He gets bored with things so thank the universe for that. That’s why every song sounds kind of different, because it pulls you in and then something changes and happens and so the way we intended the record to be heard was that you hit play and you listen to it all the way through. It’s like a movie, going through an experience, which is much like my shows are. It’s an experience, it’s storytelling. There’s laughter, tears, and I wanted this record to capture that and I think we did. Jay was just invaluable.

We recorded a couple of tracks like people normally do today – we would cut a track or two, play guitar and then come back to sing a vocal. We worked all day the first day, I think we got two or three tracks done and Jay came in and listened the next morning and he said, “I don’t believe any of this, how did you record this?” And we said, “Well, we recorded the guitar and then came back and sang the vocal.” And he said “Stop right there, that’s the problem. It doesn’t sound like you, it doesn’t sound like what you do. I want you to play guitar and sing at the same time, like you do in a bar, I want you to do what you do; that’s where the magic is.”

So we scrapped the first day and started recording, which is absolutely terrifying because there is no click track or Auto Tune on this record and there are very few punches, meaning most of this is first and second takes. We’ve grown accustomed to listening to records that are polished, and Auto Tune has made listeners get used to music that is flawless. And this record is nothing but flaws. Scarred and scratched and rusty, there’s fret buzz and noise. It’s like 1975 man, and that was Jay’s idea, and I’ll give you one perfect example, which is “First Cigarette.”

We were just about to give up on that song, because we’d tried everything. I’d always heard it as a rocker, but we could not get it. And I had about 20 songs to choose from and the clock is ticking and I said, “Forget it, let’s move on,” and I promise you during this discussion Jeremy’s phone clicked and he looked down and Jay had sent him a text that said, “Travis has been screaming at me for three days and I would love to hear a song where he’s singing softly, almost like he’s trying not to wake up someone in the next room.” And Jeremy smiled and asked if I wanted to try it and I said sure, we had nothing to lose because we were about to scrap it. We went down to play it live, and the engineer played the guitar and I sat down at the mic and I snapped and I sang, and we did one take and that’s what you hear on the album. That’s Jay Joyce.

You have some tour dates coming up following the release of the album. What will be most exciting about playing these songs live?

I’m not going to change much. I’m going keep doing what we do because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ll do my favorite songs off of all the records but just add songs from the new record and place them strategically where I think they’ll feel natural and still keep the audience satisfied. We may not play the whole record but at any given show it will be a different set. So you may hear one set one night and a different one the next night. I never have a set list, I just always feel so confined doing that. So we just feel the audience out and just kind of go with the flow. There’s something really spiritual about that. I only travel with one guy, Jack, it’s just him and me. And there’s some nights where really he and I are in it but the crowd isn’t. And sometimes the audience is with us, and we’re just not quite there. But when we’re both in it and the audience is right up with us, that’s one of the most spiritual, beautiful experiences there is. It’s amazing. It’s worth all the driving, the work, the tears, the trouble you go to and the pain to turn a song out of the hole in your guitar and the hole in your heart.

Speaking of spirituality, I know at one point you relied a lot on faith to get you through some of your hardest times. Is that still a big part of your life?

It is but it looks a lot different now. I was a preacher, and everything was black and white. I do feel like it’s all a little too perfect. Now I do consider myself spiritual, but not religious at all. Nothing’s like it used to be but I do feel really connected to something bigger than myself and ironically, back in the day when I was a preacher and everything was black and white, I felt like I understood God and the things thereof. But I feel much more comfortable in what I don’t know now, than I ever did in what I was sure was certain then.

What advice to have for someone in your shoes, or someone struggling the way that you did.

Keep breathing. Just keep breathing man because at some point it has to break. I get a lot of Facebook private messages, and I don’t want to be curt or brief but I always just say to keep breathing ‘till you wake up in a better place. Don’t give up because it will pass. It’s funny to say that right now because I just got terrible news. My girlfriend and I were talking about getting married and then she got cancer so we went through the surgery and everything. And I’ve actually got a 3-legged dog who was on the cover of the album and that’s actually the last picture of him. He went missing a couple of weeks ago and yesterday they found his body.

I’m so sorry to hear that.

But you just have to keep moving, life is tragic, man. It is ugly and it’s terrifying and it is beautiful and it is magic and it is worth the effort. It’s hard, but those challenges make us who we are.