The Two Paths for Country-Music Stars With Drinking Problems: Repent or Die

Randy Travis's troubles show that addiction is messier than Nashville mythology often makes it out to be.

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Randy Travis has had a rough year. Six months after an arrest for public intoxication, he was again booked for a DUI in early August after being found naked on the side of the road. Then his old truck was discovered, wrecked, in the middle of a field. Days ago, he ended up in the hospital after an apparent fist fight outside a church.

In the pop culture, this type of behavior inevitably leads to jokes—and indeed, observers have leveled YOLO cracks and comparisons to Charlie Sheen. But country-music culture has historically offered only two options for those who drink to excess (at least where drinking to excess is defined as a problem—there are dozens of songs where overindulging is a goal, or a reasonable solution to the lovelorn): Either wait to be redeemed, or wait to die. Travis, though, isn't fitting so neatly into either narrative.

The headline on a nearly decade-old "700 Club" interview reads "Randy Travis: Road to Redemption," but he may have never stopped drinking.

In the redemptive branch of country, the dark night of the soul is worked through, prayers and loved ones occur, people intervene, and at the end of the story, the person—song subject or real-life singer alike—is absolved and healed. The best example of this comes from the greatest self-mythologizer in country history. As popular legend tells it, Johnny Cash became so despondent that he decided to kill himself, entered Tennessee's Nickajack cave, was halted when he heard the voice of God, and exited the cave forever sober. And then there are the cases of people like Tye Herndon, who underwent a few public scandals resulting in a two rehab stints and emerged in 2010 with a Grammy-winning contemporary Christian album.

Recovery from addiction without a public come-to-Jesus moment is rarer. There is outlaw country legend Steve Earle playing a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor on Baltimore cop show The Wire. And there's the Deana-Carter-penned, Kenny Chesney tune (sung with Grace Potter) "You and Tequila," that has its chorus repeating a tweaked AA motto—"one is too many, one more is never enough"—with nearly erotic obsession.

The alternative vision of country-singer alcoholism is of the star who becomes unable to drink, and, tormented by desperation, destroys himself. Think of Hank Williams dying one day before New Year's Eve, in the back seat of his Cadillac, after a medical intervention. Tales of Keith Whitley's drinking in the 1980s and the inability of wife Lorrie Morgan to save him are legendary. Morgan would tie him to the bed, and he would wriggle out. She would hide the booze, and he would drink nail-polish remover.

In real life, of course, there are those who fit into neither category—singers who embark on a stop/start cycle of recovery and binging. But they end up ignored or thought of as a spectacle: excommunicated from the country conversation one way or another. One can think of Mindy McCready, whose drug use and suicide attempts were reported in the gossip presses, but whose attempts at a comeback failed (perhaps due to the lack of label support).

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Anthony Easton is a Toronto-based writer who regularly contributes to The Singles Jukebox.

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