His tragic past, including his first memory of his brother drowning to his drug addictions over the years, has led him to where he is today. With a cut on Dierks Bentley's upcoming record called "Riser," Travis finds that he is the happiest now than he has ever been in his life. Earlier this year, he released "Old Ghosts and Unfinished Business," an emotionally-charged seven-song set making peace with his mistakes. Previously, he released "Killin' Uncle Buzzy" in 2011, a gripping EP that helped the singer claw his way back to redemption.
Nashville Gab recently spoke with the songwriter about writing "Riser," his deep well of inspiration and how suffering changed his life for the better (and much more).
Nashville Gab: I’m so glad I stumbled upon your music.
Travis Meadows: I had a big turnaround a couple years ago with a record called ‘Killing Uncle Buzzy.’ I never really intended for anyone to hear that. I was just trying to save a life at the time, and it happened to be mine. I had just gotten out of rehab for the fourth time. One of my counselors suggest that I keep a journal. I said ‘I don’t keep journals, but I write songs. So, I’ll try to write songs about it.’ She laughed at me. I said ‘I’m not kidding. I’m pretty desperate here.’ Dying. I could not quite drinking. I’m one of those hopeless, unfortunate souls that does not have a stop button. I started writing songs, and they just turned into a record. It changed a lot of things for me. The 19th of this month [July] will be three years since I’ve had a drink. It also changed a lot of things around town. It gave me credibility back and helped my career [get] attention again. A lot of people had given up on me in this town. Then, I started working on another record to follow that one up, because that one felt a lot like giving birth. I was just wore out. I didn’t have anything to say for months and months and months. I knew I needed to start writing again. I was in between deals. I wrote for Universal for six years. I started writing on this new record ‘Old Ghosts and Unfinished Business,’ and the songs that didn’t fit that record, I would just record them. Kobalt Music signed me, and I started turning those songs in. The songs that didn’t make my record are the ones that Dierks [Bentley] and Ronnie Dunn cut out of that batch.
NG: Is there one song on ‘Killin' Uncle Buzzy’ that you gravitate to the most in live performance?
TM: They’re all important to me for different reasons. Obviously, ‘Learning How to Live Alone’ is kind of the grown-up song on the record. It’s probably closer to where I am now, spiritually and emotionally. I’ve come a long way. Every time I think about that record, ‘Davidson County Police’ is one my favorites. Everybody laughs. I seriously think people listen to that song, and they hear the funny part but they don’t [get] the stuff that’s in between. It’s a serious coming-of-age life in the song. ‘I’m almost comfortable in my own skin.’ I really identify with that because I have never felt closer to feeling human than I do right now. This is the first time in my life I’ve never needed a crutch.
NG: You grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and you suffered loss pretty early on. What was life like there?
TM: Have you ever seen the movie ‘The Help’? I was not ready for it. I thought it was going to be a chick flick. I was not ready because that movie was my life growing up. It was middle class, Southern culture. I had maids growing up. I was not a desperate, young child. My grandparents raised me. I’m sure it would have been a much more tragic situation had my parents raised me. We had maids and everything you’d expect from Mississippi. There was a lot of tragedy, but there were a lot of redemptive qualities. I think it’s just life, ya know? Some of us go through a handful of things more than others, but we all go through a lot of the same experiences. I used to think I was so unique. I’ve come to realize that apparently a lot of us alcoholics and drug addicts think we’re all unique with a special set of problems. For that matter, maybe just human beings feel like we’re all so flipping unique. ‘Killing Uncle Buzzy’ was a big lesson for me because I was writing specifically about my life with no intentions of anybody hearing it. When people did start hearing it, they identified with it. I was blown away by that. I think we all identify with pain and suffering.
NG: Your first memory is of your brother drowning. Can you talk about that experience?
TM: I was so young. It’s just the memory that’s embedded in my the back of my brain somewhere. I was turning three, and he was about 18 months old. I imagine somewhere between the actual memory and the memory my grandmother [talked about]. I have some pretty vivid pictures of it. I didn’t think it affected me. I remember when my grandmother died I went out there, and I had not been to my brother’s grave…I don’t think I had been since I was a child. I walked over to try and find it, and I did. Walking up, I just lost it. Apparently, in my subconscious, I locked away a lot of that pain. When I say lost it, I mean, I’m glad nobody was around, because it was bad. I really, really lost it. That song ‘Old Ghosts,’ man. I think since I’ve stopped drinking, I’ve been reconciling a lot of those past things. Maybe it contributed to the drinking or maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to reconcile them. You have to either make friends with them or be haunted by them. I choose to try to make peace with those things that in a roundabout way shaped me.
NG: Have you written a song about that?
TM: No. The more you get to know me, the more that if you listen to my songs going back to the first record I did in Nashville, ‘My Life 101,’ there’s a song called ‘My Life 101’ on that. It says ‘I was born like rain on the Fourth of July, another lost name, my family line.’ There’s another line that says ‘Me and my brother that I never knew.’ I think that may be the only line that I’ve even hinted at his death.
NG: At 14, you were diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in your ankle. How did you deal with that at such a young age?
TM: It was horrible. I hadn’t even gone through puberty yet. Going through puberty and dealing with cancer at the same time sucks. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I spent about two years (all in all) in and out of the hospital. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade. When people get me to talking about it, I always take the badass approach and just say ‘school was too much like work.’ Truth is, I was diagnosed with cancer. I did drop out with the intention of going back the next year. I had actually gotten on drugs and stuff so bad even then that I was failing. It didn’t seem like much sense in finishing. Soon after dropping out, I was diagnosed with cancer. By the time that I had gone through the hospital, I had missed so many years that I just said screw it. I got my GED eventually and left it at that. I always hated school. I never enjoyed the school experience.
[Adding:] It was like war, man. I would make friends in the hospital, and then they would die. So, [it got] to where I just wouldn’t make friends anymore. I started sticking to myself and hope for the best.
NG: Later, you started performing at bars and clubs with legendary Blues players such as Sam Myers (Anson Funderburg and the Rockets) and Fingers Taylor (Jimmy Buffett), correct?
TM: I started out playing drums. I played in little garage bands pretty early. I guess I was 16 and started getting involved with a couple bands, and they would sneak me in the back door because I wasn’t actually old enough to play in a bar. I would play drums for them. I got tired of being the first guy in to load in equipment and the last guy out and being from this city is such a huge part of that experience. I was maybe 18 or 19, and I decide that the harmonica would be an easy thing. I could put all these harmonicas in a Crown Royal bag. I started playing, and I took to it naturally. The thing is, I’m so compulsive. I can’t do a little bit of anything. That’s why I’m such a terrible drug addict and alcoholic, because I can’t [just do a little]. When I picked up the harmonica, I just constantly kept playing. When I played the drums, it was the same thing. When I picked up a guitar at 21, I wasn’t satisfied with learning a chord. I picked up a guitar, and I wouldn’t put it down until I learned a whole song. I love Neil Young’s ‘Helpless.’ I played the harmonica and these blues riffs. One thing led to another, and I was making the rounds to all these blues clubs. Then I started making friends with Sam Myers, especially. He’s just a sweet, sweet man. Around Mississippi, he’s just a blues legend. He was legally blind. He called me Brother Travis. [I] played the Subway Lounge in Jackson, MS. Jimmy King used to run that joint. It was just a great time. We were in the same circles. He was a lot better harmonica player than I was. I devoted many more years to that. I was always on a quest of what to do next. I’ve never been satisfied. Before I discovered songwriting, I stayed on that quest. I went from drums to harmonica. Then I discovered singer-songwriters. I moved to Gatlinburg and decided I was going to be a hillbilly. There were guys playing up there for tips. I went ‘wait a minute, that sounds pretty cool.’ That’s when I discovered Bob Dylan and Springsteen and all those guys. I started playing for tips, and that was it. I started writing, and the rest is history, as they say.
NG: At 24, your life changed again. You went into Christian music. How did that come about?
TM: I don’t know. I was doing a lot of drugs. The short version is I kind of had an encounter with God. I don’t want to offend anybody or talk about anybody else’s faith, but on my experience, I don’t know what it was. All I know is later in life, I learned none of that worked. My experience with God and religion wound up being very black and white and rigid. I think that was part of the problem. One of my counselors later said that I traded one addiction for another. I had some choice words for him. The more I thought about it later, I thought he may be right. I wanted everybody around me to be high. When had that encounter, I wanted everybody to know Jesus, too. That quest led me to about every state in the United States and 22 or 23 countries giving out Bibles to kids all over the world. It was a pretty big deal, raised millions of dollars. I had a handful of songs on Christian radio and could not get arrested in the Christian industry. It was pretty ironic. Out of everything, I just wanted to sing. I just wanted to play music. I wound up being a preacher because that was the only way to [get my music out there]. They’d let me play two or three songs. It wound up just being just really disillusioned. When I was approaching middle age and wondering ‘what the hell have I done with my life,’ I wound up being somebody I didn’t want to be. I bottomed out. I had two things on my list I wanted to do before I died. One of them was to write with the best writers in the world. So, I moved to Nashville at 38, and I had three meetings with publishers. The first two went so bad, I didn’t go to the third one. I made 30-something phone calls to churches and got turned down 30 times. I said ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ So, I started drinking and playing in clubs. Looking back, it turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I started writing from a deeper place, getting water from a deeper well.
[Adding:] Scott Dunham came to hear me probably a year later or so. I got a deal at Universal and started a professional writing career. In a roundabout way, I got everything I wanted, and it cost me everything I had. Now, it’s freaking great. I’ve never been happier in my life. It made me who I am. All those experiences that I never wanted to live through and I would never wish on the people I hate the most made me who I am today. It’s the reason I write the songs that I write. It’s the reason that I handle crisis like I do. My world view is affected by it. I am a result of all of that. I’m almost ready to say I wouldn’t change it. For what it’s worth, ‘Riser’ is probably the reason that I got anybody’s attention in the media’s stuff. After my little brother drowned and cancer and my father died and my mother died and my grandparents died, I would always get back up and shake my fists at life and say ‘is that all you go?’ I’m a fighter. At 38 to 43, I had a really bad day that lasted six years. I quit trying. I quit getting back up. I laid down and said ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ So, ‘Riser’ was a direct result of me. I walked in with Steve Moakler that day writing it. He’s a real optimistic, young fellow. He’s in love with life and newly married and in love with God. Everything is perfect in his life, and I love that optimism (even if I can’t experience it for myself). I looked at him and said ‘I’m fighting again.’ I had this idea about ‘I’m a riser, because I’ve always been able to fight and get back up. I can see it rising up in me. This spirit, this resilient human being. I’m ready to fight again, and I want to write about that for my record.’ He said ‘I love that.’ I had most of that chorus, if I remember correctly. He had some great perspective on that. I love the way he writes. ‘Riser’ wound up not making my record. My records are what keep me sane and sober. I feel like I have something to say. I knew it when it was leaving my lips that I knew [Dierks] was going to love it and it disqualified it from my record. I felt it leaving my body. I can’t look you in the eye and say that’s the way I feel today. I’m not saying it’s wrong for anybody else to feel that way. I’m so glad that I didn’t [record it]. It wound up being a great opportunity when Dierks cut it. He did such a great job on it. I’m so pumped about that.
Dierks is such a great guy, confident in who he is, great artist.
NG: What was running through your mind when you got the call that Dierks wanted to cut your song?
TM: Oh, man, I was beside myself. It was really, really, really cool. It was actually a Facebook message, ironically. I tell you what’s supper funny is the guy that reached out to me [about the song] was one of those first publishing meetings that went so bad I didn’t go to the other one. It was such a cosmic circle of life, you know? Everything he had said me at that time was exactly right. It all had to do with figuring out who you are. ‘Don’t try to write what you think I want to hear.’ I started writing for me. It’s the craziest thing. [The industry] is like a cat. It’ll lay down and act like it doesn’t want anything to do with you. [laughs]
Find out more about Travis Meadows here.
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