A Christmas miracle: Banjo ace Ned Luberecki marks a major milestone

Ned Luberecki

Seventeen years ago this week — on Wednesday night, in fact, the day before Christmas Eve — renowned banjo player and teacher Ned Luberecki stared at what was left of the booze in his house and knew it wouldn’t be enough.

The Ties That Bind UsHe had moved to the Nashville area not long before, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and his roommate had left town for the holidays. He had the house to himself, and as he did in those days, he planned on spending most of that alone time inebriated.

Except this time, there was no familiar expectation of escape. Instead, Luberecki said, there was only the resounding sorrow that alcohol had become his only companion.

“I was sitting in the house, and I knew I had half a bottle of vodka and three beers in the fridge, and I knew: This is not going to be enough,” he said. “I thought, ‘You are either going to have to drive out to a liquor store at 9 at night to keep going, or find a meeting and quit this. But if you make this first choice, you are admitting death. You are going to die. So let’s decide tonight: Are you going to keep going until you’re dead?’”

After a few moments of contemplation, he decided to get busy living, to borrow a phrase from “The Shawshank Redemption.” A quick online search revealed that there was a nearby 12 Step meeting in his new hometown of Kingston Springs, and he remembered that a few years earlier, when he was arrested for his first DUI, he had attended some.

“I went to a few of them drunk, and I remember thinking, ‘Twelve Steps, yeah, whatever,’” he said. “One other time, I decided I was going to try and quit. I went to some meetings for a while, but I still didn’t believe in it. It was good to hear some stories, but I thought, ‘I’ll be OK.’

“That night, there were only four or five people in the meeting, and I told them exactly what I had been through. And all they said was, ‘Hey, man, we’re glad you’re here. Here’s our phone numbers. Call us.’ And that’s when I made the decision: This is going to be it.”

Ned Luberecki: Seventeen years of continuing to come back

Luberecki has a lot of feathers in his cap, although he’s not one to boast. In the bluegrass world, however, his name is synonymous with a style that’s as nuanced and complex as it can be hard-driving and exuberant, and over the years he’s been tapped by a number of different musicians who wanted to expand their sound using his talents.

In 2018, he was named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. He currently serves as the banjo player for The Becky Buller Band, and he also tours with Stephen Mougin (of the Sam Bush Band) as Nedski & Mojo. In the past, he’s played with everyone from Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, The Rarely Herd, Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, The Gary Ferguson Band, Radio Flyer and Paul Adkins and the Borderline Band, and he’s in demand as a noted banjo instructor.

But one of the biggest accomplishments of the last 17 years has been his sobriety. On Wednesday, as he does every year, he’ll mark it with a simple post on social media — again, not to boast, but because he knows all too well how lonely the darkness of alcoholism can seem. And if he can lift up a light to give back to those who suffer as he once did, then he almost feels like it’s an obligation.

“It’s just a way for me to say, ‘This is what happened to me. This is a meaningful thing in my life, and I want you to know,’” he said. “I don’t want it to come off as, ‘Hey look at me! I’m sober! Buy me a cake!’ It’s just me saying, ‘Things are really good. Things were bad, but here’s what I did. And if you have a problem, you can make it better, too.’”

Because it is so much better. He was never a hell-raiser back in his drinking days; if anything, many of his friends and peers were surprised when he got sober, because they had never seen him drunk. Most of his drinking, he said, was done in secret — in hotel rooms after shows and festivals, or in a darkened living room with only the glow of a TV for company. That loneliness, combined with the late-stage obsession over alcohol, made for crippling misery as he grew closer to the end.

“Other alcoholics will understand this: You plan your day, or your week, around when you’re going to be able to buy more booze,” he said. “I lived in a county that didn’t sell beer on Sundays, and I remember coming home from a trip one time, thinking about what I had in the refrigerator, what bottles of liquor I might have around the house, and whether it would be enough to get me through the weekend, and I remember being really depressed about all of it. It gave me a lot of time to reflect alone on how my life was going, and how that was the defining issue of my life.”

Over the years, booze became to Luberecki, as it does to every other alcoholic, a solution to his problems. A broken heart required the liquid panacea of pain relief. An accomplishment felt all the sweeter with a toast to continued success. Alcohol, he found, served as social lubricant, emotional anesthesia, and as a numbing agent for the internal anguish that only seemed to grow louder and more intense as life, and his drinking, went on.

What he found in sobriety, however, was a secret society of similarly afflicted individuals who understood exactly what he was going through.

“One of the most powerful things I heard people say in a meeting is the time someone said the phrase, ‘I’m sure some of you know what it’s like to get drunk at someone,’” he said. “I could tell this to anybody else in the world who is a normal person, and they would be like, ‘What does that even mean?’ But when I heard it, it meant everything to me.

“To me, that was the greatest benefit of going to meetings — hearing other people say crazy things that didn’t sound crazy to me. I heard other people say these things, and I got it. I realized, ‘I’m not alone. I feel the same craziness that person does. As weird as it seems, there it is coming out of somebody else’s mouth,’ and that made me feel less crazy — or at least among friends!”

A banjo picker's origin story

Ned Luberecki

Courtesy of Shelly Swanger Photography

No one who finds themselves holding a Styrofoam cup of bad coffee, sitting in a church basement and listening to strangers from all walks of life talk about their problems, ever sets out to wind up there. Luberecki was no different — all he wanted to be, from the first time he heard a bluegrass band play at a work party organized by his mother’s boss, was a musician.

“That probably wasn’t the first time I had seen live music, but it was the first time I remember paying attention to it,” he said. “Watching the band work together, I thought it looked cool, and I thought it looked cool to be up there. The banjo player, every time he would play, it sparked something in me, and I remember saying to my mom, ‘I think I’d like to do this.’”

His parents had sprung for piano lessons, but they never stuck. The banjo, however, was something else entirely — and when he saw an up-and-coming comedian named Steve Martin use one not just for gags but to make really excellent-sounding music, he was hooked. His parents bought him one, and a few months later, he signed up for lessons. It was more of a freewheeling exercise in exploration, which is exactly what Luberecki needed at the time, he said.

“He told me to listen to Earl Scruggs, to listen to bluegrass, because I no frame of reference for any of it other than what was on the radio,” he said. “He pointed me toward these guys and said, ‘Here’s who you should listen to,’ because so many musicians want to play an instrument, but they don’t have any inclination toward listening to music. They’re not fans of music. And to me, that’s like wanting to go play baseball but not enjoying watching the game.”

The more he explored, the more his interest grew, and he was fortunate, he said, that his teacher encouraged him to draw inspiration from whomever provided it. It’s still a rule of thumb he uses in his teaching today, he added.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to play the banjo because I really like this band,’ and I don’t, who am I too put this on to somebody else?” he said. “If that’s what got you into it, you’re not wrong.”

As a Boy Scout, he picked occasionally with his troop, and when his mother’s boss wanted to hire another bluegrass band for a company event, he approached Luberecki’s mother to see if her boy might be available. If he put together a pick-up band, her boss said, he’d pay them $200.

“So I found some guys at a jam session, and we got up there and played,” he said. “I think I was 16. It’s funny, because there might have been five of us in the band, and he offered us $200, and I thought I had hit the big time. Little did I know I was going to spend the next 25 years playing for that amount!”

He’s joking, of course — but not entirely. He eventually learned how to play guitar, and even got into the electric scene a bit, but by that point, his allegiance was to machine he’d fallen in love with all those years ago.

“I think I had already progressed far enough on the banjo and knew enough about the music and had put so much time into it, that joining a rock ‘n’ roll band and being a guitar hero was not really in the cards,” he chuckled. “For one thing, I knew I ‘d have to do that all over again! So for a hobby, I figured I would be a rock star. But for my main gig, I thought, ‘I’ll be a bluegrass star.’”

Ned Luberecki hits the road

Ned LubereckiGrowing up in Baltimore, beer was a socially acceptable beverage for crab feasts and special occasions, but Luberecki doesn’t remember it being present in his household. His father had one on occasion, but the pantry wasn’t stocked with alcohol, and the first time he got drunk was at a high school party — over a girl, no less.

“I was in the drama club, and I had a crush on her. I don’t think she even knew my name, so it really was one of those kinds of things, because I never even said hello to her,” he said. “We got to the party, and she was with someone else, and there was beer at the party. I said, ‘Give me one of those — I remember it being a thing of drinking away your lovesickness — and I got wasted that very first time.”

He doesn’t remember getting home, but he does remember the next morning, when the rueful disapproval of mom and dad was tempered by the idea that young Ned had learned his lesson. However physically ill he felt, however, the one thing he didn’t feel? Regret.

“I don’t remember having that feeling of, ‘This is not something I’m going to do again,’” he said. “If anything, I sort of thought, ‘So this is the price? I can afford that.’”

If anything, his drinking got more nuanced. He learned quickly to sober up before going home, but until that particular stopping hour arrived, he was all in. After he turned 18, he discovered one of the perks of being a musician: free drinks, and although he was mostly gigging around town with local bands at the time, he availed himself of the privilege. It was, in those early days, a mostly social phenomenon, and he had enough clarity then to limit his intake if he was driving in order to get home safely.

“Most of my hard drinking in later years was at home,” he said. “I didn’t go out and drink. I sat at home, in the dark, with my bottles.”

As a budding young musician, however, the road offered numerous opportunities. Paul Adkins and the Borderline Band became his first professional gig, and after he learned that Adkins, a veteran of J.D. Crowe’s band, was putting his own collective together, Luberecki called him up. They hit it off, and for the first time in his life, he was off to see the world.

It may have been bluegrass, but for a young man savoring his first taste of freedom, it might as well have been rock ‘n’ roll, he said: He made sure to load up on “supplies” before the bus pulled out, and when he discovered that bluegrass festivals included wrap parties that featured plenty of booze, he didn’t hesitate to help himself.

“The organizers would work on these things all year long, and they wanted to party with us as the cool band they hired to headline their thing,” he said. “I remember at one point looking back at it and thinking, ‘I can’t deny someone their desire to party!’ For them, it was their once-in-a-year blowout. For us, it was every Saturday, and that was taking a toll on me.

“That was when I could see it might be getting dangerous to me, even though it hadn’t taken over my life at that point. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I’ve gotta slow this down.’”

Down to the bottom and back out again

Courtesy of Carol McDuffie

By that point, he was in his late 20s, and while he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud, that small voice in the back of his head kept whispering that he had a problem. He was, after all, getting more experienced at hiding his drinking. Few of his contemporaries could tell when he was drunk, and there was always a bottle stashed somewhere in a suitcase when he was on the road.

In the late 1980s, he even got married. At the time, he added, he was smoking a lot of weed, and when his new bride suggested he slow it down and give it up in order to begin making plans for a family, he balked.

“That’s when I looked around and thought, ‘I don’t want to be here. This isn’t the life I wanted,’” he said. “Somehow, I didn’t know how I had made this decision, but I made the decision to not go back to smoking weed. Maybe it was the stigma. In the bluegrass world, if you were a pothead, you were one thing, but if you were just a drunk, it was somehow socially more acceptable!”

While the weed habit ended, so too did the marriage, and he made a few half-hearted attempts to sober up when the consequences caught up with him — missed engagements, late practices, etc. He would dry up for a week or so, he said, then call it good. But by the late 1990s, he was drinking “all the time,” he said.

“You could see that spiral, could see yourself circling the drain and feel yourself going down,” he said. “That’s when you ask, ‘Should I grasp for something to pull myself out, or should I just ignore it? And you just choose to ignore it, because then you don’t have to think about it. I remember feeling that way for five or six years.”

Fast-forward to that fateful night, two days before Christmas, in 2003. Done, he went to that 12 Step meeting and came home to sweat it out the booze. He remembers well those first few sleepless nights of sobriety, because the late actor Jerry Orbach became his spirit animal during all-night holiday marathons of “Law and Order.”

“I remember watching all of ‘Law and Order’ in a weekend,” he said with a chuckle. “I would sit there, and I would try to go up to the bedroom and go to bed, and I would just lay there with my eyes open, so I would go down and turn the TV on, and ‘Law and Order’ was always on. Jerry Orbach’s character, Lenny, was a recovering alcoholic in the show, incidentally. So the spirit of Lenny was instrumental in helping me in my early recovery.”

That Christmas, he added, was mostly a blur. He had alienated a lot of his closest friends, and family gatherings were limited to a phone call back home to his father in Baltimore. He was recently divorced, so he spent that holiday season with Lenny and trying to find things to fill his time other than drinking. He taught a few music lessons, and he had a couple of standing gigs around town. The routine helped, but it also meant plenty of time to think.

“I remember people telling me in early meetings that some of the things you’ve got to do is avoid being in places where you drink — stop going to bars and hanging out with people you drank with — but that was impossible for me, because the person I was with most of the time was me, and the place I did most of my drinking was my bedroom.”

Ned Luberecki v. 2.0, brought to you by sobriety

Ned LubereckiOf course, solo and secretive drinking affected him far beyond the bedroom, and one of the earliest dividends of sobriety came about through his public performances. He was with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers at the time, and one of his first times back on stage was a local Nashville show with the band. He remembers showing up, getting on stage and noticing a curious thing: His hands weren’t shaking.

“I remember always before looking at how bad my hand as shaking and determining what level I would be able to play to — 70 percent, maybe 60 percent if it was bad,” he said. “But it was one of those local Thursday night gigs, and I remember how steady they were. I remember picking up banjo and thinking, ‘Man, I can play anything I want to.’

“That bar has raised a lot since then, but I remember having that feeling of taking the brakes off, or the blinders off, or putting on the best running shoes, like you would do in school and think, ‘I can run faster and jump higher!’ I remember thinking, ‘I can play the things that are in my mind!’”

As he began to discover the true Ned Luberecki that years of booze had drowned out, he also began to open up to the possibilities of new relationships — platonic ones in sobriety, but also a new romantic one. They took things slow, and a few years later, they got married.

“She was a very stable and calming influence on me,” he said. “Just having somebody to love, who loves you, makes such a difference.”

And in 2004, he looked back and realized it had been a year. Sobriety wasn’t just a fad or a habit — it had become his life, and he kept moving forward. A few years later, his anniversary came back up, and he decided to mark the occasion with a social media post.

“I just started thinking, ‘This is worth celebrating, or at least saying out loud to people,’” he said. “That’s when I started thinking that maybe I could possibly help somebody else by saying that, and that if I can be a positive influence toward somebody, I should.”

And so, every year on Dec. 23, he makes a simple post. His life is a full and beautiful thing, full of banjo instruction via private lessons in the digital realm during COVID-19; a few in-town gigs to keep his chops up; an online show or two with the Becky Buller Band; a radio show on Sirius XM (2-6 p.m. Sundays on the satellite radio’s Bluegrass Junction channel). And that’s just his professional life — his personal one is rich and full and so very far removed from sitting in the dark, nursing a drink and going over the same mental checklist to ensure he had enough to make it through the night.

It is, he added, a simple token of gratitude to acknowledge it, and if he can show to others an example of a life well-lived on the other side of an alcohol problem, he’s paying it forward.

“I at least want to put it out there,” he said. “If somebody is in it, and they hear through the grapevine that I am recovering, then once they’re ready to take that step, they can reach out to me. And it’s such an honor when they do. I’ve had several people reach out and say, ‘I just decided to get sober, and I thought I’d talk to you about it,’ and I’m always grateful.”