Emerging Country Stars Talk About Sobriety, Alcohol's Role in Country Music

By McCarton Ackerman 02/07/17

"You dabble in order to feel connected to your predecessors, and sooner or later it becomes a full-blown addiction.”

Woman in cowboy hat with guitar.

Country music is almost synonymous with boozy tales of woe and heartbreak—but several up-and-coming stars in Nashville are singing a more sober tune.

Joshua Hedley, a singer and fiddler who performs country classics, decided to stop drinking five months ago. He acknowledged to the Nashville Scene that “alcoholism is a major player in the essential makeup of country music. Country music in and of itself is about relatability to the working class.” Hedley admitted that what had started out as emulating his country music idols had morphed into a drinking problem. 

“A lot of my codependency issues stemmed from a false sense of authenticity,” he said. “Because all of my heroes used drugs and alcohol, I felt that in order to gain perspective and to be a country singer, I needed to have these same experiences. It’s a slippery slope. You dabble in order to feel connected to your predecessors, and sooner or later it becomes a full-blown addiction.”

Hedley said he’s slipped before, but that he’s aware there may be bumps in his recovery. “You fall off the wagon, and then you get back on. If you want to, that is.”

Others have also joined him in committing to sobriety. North Carolina native Caleb Caudle has been alcohol-free for three years, while Nashville singer-songwriter Matt Haeck hasn’t had a drink in nearly four years.

Haeck said he believes the stigma of alcoholism in country music persists in part because “we look at the fucked-up artist as some kind of ultimate artist, because they seem to be sacrificing themselves for the art.” But while he followed that stereotype at one point, he eventually found that drinking hindered him more than it helped.

“One reason may just be the bevy of examples of alcohol not really working in the effort to create a happy life,” said Haeck. “I think another reason for the trend of sobriety, if that is indeed a thing, is that today more than ever, raw talent is not necessarily rewarded. To stand out you have to work hard and persistently. And if alcohol is getting in the way of the work, well, how badly do you want it?”

The three musicians are all determined to not follow in some of the more troubled footsteps of country music superstars. Trace Adkins very publicly relapsed during a charity concert last July in New Jersey, former Mavericks bassist Robert Reynolds was booted from the band in 2014 after several failed attempts at sobriety, and Mindy McCready took her life in February 2013 just days after she left rehab.

Haeck and the others also found that sobriety actually helps their songwriting process. Hedley revealed that he’s written “close to three albums' worth of material” in nearly five months of sobriety. But while he hopes to continue down his current path, he says he doesn’t regret his past drinking because it enhanced his ability to relate to a wider range of audiences.

“It’s expanded my capabilities as a writer,” said Hedley. “I can now write for the heartbroken folks drowning their sorrows at the bar the same as I can write for the people with alcohol and drug addictions who are trying to remedy those issues.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.