Bluesman, harmonica ace Jason Ricci reflects on recovery, relapse and the shadowlands between the two
Harmonica ace Jason Ricci has been sober for the better part of 20 years, and on days when his struggle with addiction get him down, he tries to keep that in perspective.
Continuously, Ricci is approaching eight months clean and sober after his most recent relapse, and while his story includes a few such stumbles, it also features long periods of recovery in which he applied the program that’s still a vital part of his life. He knows full well that it works, if he’s willing to commit, and he knows that his story isn’t unique.
But when he gets the side-eye from fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics, those who saddle him with the label of a chronic relapser, it can be disheartening. It is not, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, the kind of support he needs on this leg of his journey, and he hopes that by concentrating on his overwhelming success instead of his short periods of active use, he can demonstrate that his story is the epitome of that well-worn recovery idiom: progress, not perfection.
“I got sober in 1998 for the first time, and I’ve been sober for 17 out of those 20-plus years — and that’s not bad!” Ricci said. “It hasn’t been continuous, but it’s been nearly continuous, and if people would look at it that way, it would be a lot easier on me. But we don’t look at it that way. A lot of people think, ‘If it’s not 20 years of continuous sobriety, then this person has a real problem.’
“Look, I’ve always had a problem. But I look at some people who are sober in the program with years of continuous sobriety, and some of them are difficult people. Their relationships are suffering. They’re whining. Some of them are even stealing or kicking their dogs. So you tell me — is that any better?”
A fighter from the ring of the first bell
Ricci isn’t a combative individual. He’s not bitter, he’s not resentful, he’s not filled with self-pity or dragging around the twin battleship anchors of insurmountable shame and insufferable regret. He’s just a guy with a head full of recovery, enough “field research” in addiction to write a dissertation and a few thoughts on how recovering addicts and alcoholics regard one another.
Because at the end of the day, he pointed out, everyone afflicted who puts their head on a pillow without having drank or used is a winner, and in a storyline where recovery victories are often tinged with the bittersweet contemplation of whether it’ll stick this time, that’s all guys like him can ask for.
“At seven months sober, I don’t know that I’m the biggest beacon of hope right now,” he said. “All I can say is that everybody’s journey is different, and the quality of time spent sober is more important than the length of it. Naturally, if you relapse, you run the risk of dying or going to prison, as well as hurting people around you, so I’m not advocating that. But what I can say is, don’t give up. That’s the worst thing we can do.”
Ricci has been a fighter all his life, first and foremost for the authenticity in which his brand of the blues is soaked. As a teen, he got his start playing punk rock, a style that he never abandoned completely — even as a bluesman, he wore punk attire and dyed his hair, and these days he looks like he’d be just as comfortable adding some harp to a Black Flag cover as he would songs from his own catalog.
His mother introduced him to folk music, and when he picked up the harmonica and started taking lessons, his teacher introduced him to the blues. A trip to see blues legend James Cotton at the age of 14 cemented the direction his path would take. A harmonica teacher made the youngster a collection of tapes, and in the blues, he found integrity and sincerity that seemed lacking in other forms of music. When he was 21, he placed first in the Sonny Boy Blues Society contest in Helena, Ark., and went on that year to perform on the Main Stage of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. That same night, he filled in for Annie Raines and performed at The Black Diamond with Susan Tedeschi, and later that year, he recorded his debut CD.
In 1996, he started living and playing full time with Junior Kimbrough's son David Malone Kimbrough in Holly Springs, Miss. Eventually, he earned a spot accompanying the elder Kimbrough, as well as blues singer R.L. Burnside, to juke joints all over the South, where he received his real education. After releasing two albums, however, he was faced with the reality of the fact that drugs and alcohol were destroying his life.
Sobriety: take one
When he got sober for the first time, Ricci said, it was out of fear. He was facing a charge for strong-armed robbery, and after spending some time in jail in Florida, he decided to walk the straight and narrow after he got out. But being on paper, he said, was a big incentive.
“I was on probation for the first three years of my sobriety, but after that was off the table, and pee tests were off the table, I was staying sober because I was really sure I wasn’t going to be able to achieve a successful career in the music industry if I continued to drink and drug,” he said.
During those early years of sobriety, he put everything he had into music. In 1999, he won the Mars National Harmonica Contest, beating out over 1,000 other harmonica players and appearing as a special guest performer with The Fabulous Thunderbirds at the House of Blues in New Orleans. He recorded another album and went on to join Big Al and the Heavyweights before leaving to reassemble his own band, Jason Ricci and New Blood.
The members of that ensemble anchored themselves in a sound that's distinctly based on the blues but stretched out in several different musical directions. Award after award began to pile up, but after more than a decade of sobriety, things began to fray.
“I was pretty convinced halfway through my sobriety that I could drink beer and smoke pot and be successful at that — I just wasn’t doing it,” he said. “But that kind of thinking shows that I hadn’t admitted to my innermost self that I was a real alcoholic, in terms of thinking I could get away with it. There were some unchecked psychiatric issues relating to bipolar disorder — I received an early diagnosis at the age of 15, and I was diagnosed again at 23 or 24, and another time shortly before I relapsed.
“I refused to go on medication, because I was convinced my only problem was drugs and alcohol. But when I finally did relapse, I had lost a seven-year relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and there were some existential things going on too, and I hadn’t worked any of the 12 Steps at all. Even though I was 12 years sober, I somehow managed to never really be exposed to the actual program of (recovery). I’m not talking about going to meetings — that’s great, and it’s good to go to meetings, but I hadn’t actually been exposed to the Big Book.
“I had worked a version of the Steps that I later found out was not related at all to anything in the Big Book, and even though they were ones that a sponsor had taken me through, they had very little to do with the program,” he added. “I’m not blaming him, because if I really wanted to get sober, one would think I would have cracked that book at some point.”
Back out, back in
Twelve years into his first stint of sobriety, Ricci had reached a professional pinnacle. The summit, however, wasn’t nearly as attractive when he arrived as it had seemed on the way up, and it certainly didn’t fill the internal void he felt. But that primitive part of his brain remembered what did. He turned once again to alcohol and drugs, and things got bad quickly.
“I was in New Orleans, and the girl I was dating and I had been separated, and I decided that I was going to get some help, so I went up to Indiana to stay with some friends, and that situation really didn’t work out,” he said. “I was supposed to stay with them for a few days or a week, then get on a plane and go to drug treatment, but instead I ended up leaving their place, drunk, and sleeping outdoors behind a Mongolian barbecue in Bloomington, Indiana.
“I woke up in handcuffs: Apparently, I had been sleeping in a cardboard box, and when they went to put the handcuffs on me, they had to drag me out by my feet. I blew a .04, which was under the legal limit, but I was still charged with public intoxication and public nudity, because my pants fell down when they dragged me out of the box. Oh, and they also charged me with assault on a police officer, but I never touched him.”
Facing a 12-year prison sentence, Ricci pleaded guilty to felony assault and accepted a seven-year suspended sentence. He went to Tarzana, California, for addiction treatment, and there, he added, he was properly introduced to a 12 Step program.
“I met with the actual program for the first time in my life,” he said, his voice emotional as he recalled the relief he felt in wake of that discovery. “I got a great sponsor out there and worked the 12 Steps for the first time in my life. It was incredible, and my whole life changed dramatically. I went through the Steps with not one, but two sponsors, one in California and one in Indiana.”
Back in Indiana, the law wasn’t done with him: Because his assault conviction saddled him with a reputation, he was arrested a second time for driving under the influence. His blood alcohol content? 0.00.
“I took a blood test and everything, and I passed it,” he said. “I had some anxiety medication in my system at the time, but the limits were too low to be considered an impairment. It took three years for that case to go to trial, but I won, and it cost the state of Indiana $30,000.”
Despite his innocence, his reputation took a hit: He was, after all, on his way to a gig in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when it happened. He freely admits to being in a fragile emotional state given his early recovery, but throughout that ordeal, he continued to work on his sobriety and racked up four years before moving back to New Orleans.
The facade crumbles once again
Once again, however, he neglected his mental health.
“I was convinced God had removed my bipolar disorder,” he said with a chuckle. “I mean, if he can remove character defects and alcoholism, why not? That was a huge mistake. I was manic for a few months, and then I relapsed in 2017.”
For the next year, he tried to stay “Hollywood sober,” as he jokingly described it: sticking mostly to weed, with occasional binges on crack and heroin. Eventually, though, the center couldn’t hold, and he began to see how much his use was damaging his relationships, including fellow musician Kaitlin Dibble, whom he married in early 2017.
“I’m coming up on eight months sober, and as hard as it’s been, it was nothing compared to how hard it was to stay off the hard stuff and just smoke pot,” he said. “I was smoking so much pot as a defense mechanism against what I really, really wanted to do, which was shoot dope and smoke crack. The Big Book tells us that self-centeredness is the root of our problem, but for me, it really hit home when I became aware of the terror and the bewilderment and the pain I was causing people close to me.
“Knowing that was really, really humbling, so I was really just willing to do anything it took. Even if that included going back to treatment for a year or more, that was OK. If that included working the 12 Steps all over again, that was OK. If that included taking psychiatric medication and going to an institution, that was OK.”
He completed four months of residential inpatient treatment, then returned to New Orleans and completed 10 weeks of intensive outpatient treatment. He’s continued to tour, promoting his most recent album — 2017’s “Approved By Snakes” — and making plans for his next one, but his recovery always comes first. He goes to meetings, sees a psychiatrist for medication management and works with a therapist. He attends group therapy outside of a 12 Step program. He has a sponsor. He’s working Steps.
“I’m getting involved as much as I can in saving my life,” he said. “Kate, she’s stood by me through the whole thing, and she was the one who helped get me into treatment this last time. She and some of my closest friends in (sobriety) were the ones who facilitated an environment of acceptance and love and opportunity if I was willing to take the bait.”
Back to basics
One in particular, he added, changed his whole outlook. A Big Book-thumping old timer, he never excoriated Ricci, and he always demonstrated the spiritual principle that’s at the tip of the sobriety pyramid and the top of every religion’s call to action: love.
“He would say, ‘Oh, gee, you’re smoking pot again? Let me know how that works out for you, because it works out fine for some other people. Maybe it’ll work out good for you, too. Just make sure you call me all the time, because I love you,’” Ricci said. “When it stopped working out, which it did pretty quickly, who was the first person I called? This guy. The majority of my friends in the program, they had all told me, ‘We don’t want to talk to you. You’ve (messed) up, you’ve relapsed, you have every reason to feel guilt. You can’t come to our meetings if you’re smoking pot, so you might as well be shooting heroin.’
“That was the attitude I was met with by some people in the program, and I get it. Shit, man, that’s tough. We’re all out here trying our best to stay sober, and when you see somebody doing something you’d like to do, like smoking weed, it’s hard not to retaliate against that person and say, ‘Well, screw you.’ So to have met this person who was non-judgmental was monumental, and he gave me an avenue back to the program if that was what I wanted.
“And that’s all I wanted, was the program back,” he added.
But with it has come a turn down a new musical path. His next record, he said, will be “happier.” He’s still touring, but he credits a “wonderful booking agent,” “an incredible support system” and “an incredible band” with helping him put his sobriety first. They all check on him regularly, making sure he doesn’t burn out or start to unravel, and he’s immersed in the Big Easy scene. His band, in fact, includes veteran sidemen who have played with Dr. John, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jerry Douglas; he plays in an acoustic trio with singer-songwriter J.J. Appleton; he’s worked this summer with bluesman J.P. Soars; and he recently completed a tour with Nick Moss.
“I couldn’t be more musically fulfilled, and frankly, I’m a little more overwhelmed,” he said. “I’ve got an email box full of tunes I need to learn for recordings, but these are what we call luxury problems.”
Reducing harm, spreading love
The new album, titled “My Chops Are Rolling,” will be released this week. And whether he’s blowing beside Walter “Wolfman” Washington or taking advantage of the sober peer network Send Me a Friend, pioneered by his New Orleans compatriot Anders Osborne, Ricci is seizing life by the scruff of the neck this time around. His own story, as filled with cautionary tales and slips and outright through-the-guardrail flame-outs, is the story of a winner.
“If you’re a one-time wonder, it’s really great. They love you,” he said. “But if you’re a guy that struggles, if you’re a guy that’s picked up a couple of four- or five-year medallions and fallen off again and again, people kind of get tired of it, and they don’t treat you the same. You lose gigs. And that can be a self-perpetuating cycle.
“The Big Book tells us that we relapse over fear and resentment, and then it tells us that the No. 1 way to get out of this fear and this resentment is to help others. For me, loving people is the key.”
He’s a big proponent these days of harm reduction, and he doesn’t pass judgment on those who aren’t ready to cross the threshold into sobriety just yet. He advocates for common sense precautions, however: “Keep Narcan available. Surround yourself with people who are advocates for responsible drug use and who will help you get involved in treatment if and when you’re ready to try to stay out of jail. Find a recovery alliance or some kind of hard reduction program and get involved and try to minimize the damage.”
What he does not do, not anymore, is give those individuals 50 feet. He’s been on the other side of that line, and he’s skeptical about whether the “tough love” approach is the nudge that addicts like he used to be actually need.
“Personally, I think we can do a lot more than a moment of silence for the addicts who are still sick and suffering,” he said. “We can bring these people free Narcan and needles and places to shoot up where they’re not going to go to jail and socks and sweaters and blankets and places to sleep.”
Because, he added, they’ll remember that kindness, that empathy, when the lightbulb goes off and they’re ready to crawl out of the darkness and into the light. He doesn’t want to go back to those shadow lands, especially when its tendrils still cling to the scars etched into his soul, but he’ll always be willing to reach a hand back in to keep from leaving another addict behind.
And on the other side, he added, they’ll see just what a program of recovery has done for a guy like him.
“My life improved so much as a result of working the Steps and continues to, and that’s my hope,” he said. “My hope is that I get more involved in helping others, because that’s what really changes things for me. I wish I had a full circle story of how everything is wonderful now, of how I’m sponsoring guys and have multiple years sober and everything is great and my career is fantastic.
“I wish that was my story, but it’s not, man. It’s just not. My story is that I’m right where I am, and it’s a tough place to be.”