The 1997 record deal he signed with his sibling sent Brad Warren into overdrive.
As The Warren Brothers, he and Brett hit the studio and went to work on their debut album, 1998’s “Beautiful Day in the Cold Cruel World,” which put three singles into the Top 40 on country music radio. As a live act, they hit the road with the likes of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, among others. And as previously sheltered Southern Baptist boys, they hit the bottle and more, Brad told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“What was alcoholic behaviors and personalities turned into a full-on party: whiskey, cocaine, the whole nine yards,” he said. “We had our own tour bus, and even though we were opening for big acts, we were ripping the ceiling off of every place we were in. For us, partying became a skill: Not only would I get drunk all the time, but my brother and I had the innate ability to get everyone in the room drunk. We had that ability to start a party, wherever we were.”
It made, he acknowledged, for some rip-roaring good times. And like it always does for those who find themselves under the crushing thumb of alcoholism and addiction, it quickly became a way of life that was at best unsustainable and at worst, abjectly miserable.
“The mirror was bad for me,” he said. “If I walked into a bathroom and did something in the stall and turned around and saw myself in the mirror, I would always think, ‘Man, this is not who your parents raised.’ There was a lot of second-guessing, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of attempts at quitting. I tried to just smoke weed, or just take pain pills and drink O’Doul’s. Everything you can imagine, but nothing ever worked.”
Until, he added, he was faced with an ultimatum: The bottle, or his family. Fortunately for Warren — along with his family, the country music industry and a whole lot of artists who have benefitted from the songs he now writes — he chose the latter.
Brad Warren: The engine under country music's hood
It may seem trite to say that sobriety is the gift that keeps on giving, but then again, 12 Step recovery is full of trite clichés — all of them familiar to anyone who spends a healthy amount of time in church basements and meeting halls, repeats them ad nauseam and understands through personal experience the truths contained therein.
“Before we got sober, we had zero hits — for us, or anyone else,” Warren said. “When we got sober, we decided we were better as writers than recording artists, and when we humbled ourselves to become songwriters, then we started having hits.”
The laundry list of those hits includes some of the biggest names in the industry: McGraw (“If You’re Reading This”, “Felt Good on My Lips”, “Highway Don’t Care”), Faith Hill (“The Lucky One”), Toby Keith (“Red Solo Cup”), Keith Urban (“Little Bit of Everything”), Martina McBride (“Anyway”, “Wrong Baby Wrong”), Dierks Bentley (“Feel That Fire”), Jerrod Niemann (“Drink To That All Night”) and more. Even the songs they write that don’t wind up on the charts find their way onto albums by some of country’s biggest names: Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Thomas Rhett, Gary Allan and Billy Currington have all cut songs by The Warren Brothers, as have a number of rock acts, including Nickelback, Hinder and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We are just always writing,” he said. “We co-wrote ‘We Back,’ the last Jason Aldean single, and Tim McGraw’s last single, ‘Thought About You.’ Tim’s got a new record coming out, and we’ve got four songs on that, and then we’ve got a Blake Shelton thing and a Luke Bryan thing, possibly coming out, although we don’t know if they’re singles right now.”
In addition, they’ve recently delivered cuts to the world music rocker Michael Frante and the country outfit A Thousand Horses. And, no, he chuckled, he doesn’t think it’s odd that a couple of sober songwriters can pen a drinking song like “Red Solo Cup” as easily as anything else.
“I’ve always felt like, ‘This is my job. This is what I do,’ and the other thing is, I am an expert on this subject!” he said with a laugh. “Not everyone has the problem that I do. I’ve never had an issue with it, because I’m a songwriter for other artists, and we’re in a service industry. We’re trying to help artists say what they want to say. And the fact is, we’ve written a ton of recovery songs — but very few of them get cut.”
Rowdiness, partying, having a good time — it’s been part and parcel of country music for decades, and if a song helps an artist connect with fans who want to feel good and forget about heavier subjects, then The Warren Brothers can deliver. Making music has, after all, been a part of their lives going back to their childhoods in Florida.
Growing up Warren
Growing up in a strict, Southern Baptist household, there was little in the way of musical inspiration around the Warren household. Their father loved country, so Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins records were around, but other than a select few secular choices, everything else was Christian in nature. Along with their two older sisters, the boys were expected to play an instrument and perform in church, and so every day, Brad Warren found himself assigned 30 minutes of music practice.
It was at a friend’s house, he described, that music went from being a daily chore to being a window into another world.
“Somehow, some way, I wound up at the house of this kid from church, and he had this guitar with an amp,” Warren said. “He played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ on the guitar, and I remember thinking, ‘Yes! This is what I want to do! This is the music I’m destined to play!’ I told my parents I wanted to learn how to play guitar, and my dad said, ‘You can play acoustic but not electric.’
“So they bought me one, and I started playing that, and it was just a matter of time before I became a complete rock ‘n’ roll junkie. But I’ll never forget that amp or that guitar. Really, it was something else.”
It wasn’t long before Brad drafted Brett, younger by 2 ½ years, into the services of rock ‘n’ roll. Brad had formed a band with friends, and they needed both a drummer and a singer. His younger brother became both, Brad added.
“When we were kids, he was kind of the black sheep of the family, because he couldn’t play anything,” Brad said. “I could play trumpet really well, and I got really good on the guitar, but he couldn’t. It turns out that he was just not really trying, and he can play everything now. He’s a good drummer, a good singer, a piano player, a guitarist; he played bass in a band for a while after that. Oh, and he can play a little saxophone, too.”
At first, the brothers were only allowed to play Christian rock, but as they played school talent shows and church gigs, they wanted to say something unique. They started writing their own material, and it turned out they were pretty good at it.
“The songwriting started because we hated corny music, and Christian music was kind of corny at the time,” he said. “Some form of that band that we formed when we were 13 and 11 is probably still what we’re doing. We never really didn’t have an act. It would morph into metal and grungy metal and Tom Petty-style rock, but once we started playing in rock bands, that was it.”
It wasn’t long before the boys broke out of the confines of Christian music and began playing rock ‘n’ roll in Tampa area clubs. A manager hooked his wagon to The Warren Brothers and landed them a development deal with A&M Records, and the pair drove all the way to Los Angeles to play a couple of showcase gigs on the Sunset Strip. The deal fell through — “Thank God that nothing really happened!” Brad said — but in 1995, the pair moved to Nashville.
Brad Warren: Music City mayhem
By 1997, they were country artists signed to BNA Records, and the partying began in earnest. Although Brad had tried alcohol a couple of times in high school, the first time he got wasted was a memorable one.
“A couple of buddies of mine and I split a huge bottle of Jack (Daniels) and a 2 liter wine cooler, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I’m 100 feet tall, and I’m not insecure about anything! This is crazy!’” he said. “But then I almost puked myself to death that night. I thought I had alcohol poisoning, and I told my parents, ‘I’ll never do that again!’”
At 18, he meant it … but the accoutrements of budding stardom had a way of swaying a budding country singer’s mind. The next eight years, he said, were spent “trying to keep it between the ditches,” and in the meantime, both brothers had gotten married and fathered children.
“Our parents were good people, and we tried to be — we loved our families and loved our kids, and we’re still married to the same women today, which is phenomenal now, but at the time, I blamed her for my drinking,” he said. “What changed everything for me was when my wife gave up. After so many years of not knowing when I would get home — I used to joke that I always got home ‘at the wrong 5 o’clock’ — it wasn’t funny anymore.
“I always thought, ‘I’ll straighten up when I get a DUI,’ but I never got a DUI. Finally, when she gave up and said, ‘I love you, but I can’t do this anymore. I’ll drive you to rehab, but then I’m done with you’ — that’s when it hit me. And even then, my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, my babysitter is firing herself!’”
Warren returned home to Nashville from the West Coast, and his wife drove him to a drug and alcohol treatment center in Music City where he enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient program. Somewhere along the way, he said, he underwent what in recovery parlance is known as a spiritual awakening.
In other words: Something happened. The veil was lifted, the lightbulb went off, the slumbering part of his spirit awoke and said, “No more.”
“I was just done,” he said. “There was a lot of denial, for years, and it literally took, for me, my wife saying, ‘I’m done.’ And then, me not even thinking that I wanted to be married at the moment she did that, but that my babysitter was leaving! That was the moment, on April 15, 2005, that I got sober.”
Brad Warren: Music City redemption
For the first couple of years, he threw himself into a 12 Step program. As life got busy and success found him, however, he settled for “maintenance sobriety” — going to recovery meetings periodically and drifting away from the program in which he’d found peace of mind. It was only when that peace of mind was threatened, he added, that he doubled down and recommitted himself.
“My disease tried to make up for lost time,” he said. “I didn’t drink, but I wasn’t really sober; but five or six years ago, a friend of mine in the program who had moved to Atlanta moved back to Nashville. I knew I needed a sponsor, so I asked him to be my sponsor, because he’s got that glow. He really works a program.
“And he told me, ‘My sponsor has a meeting at his house every Saturday. You should come.’ And at first I thought, ‘I’m not going to that!’ But of course, I went. I didn’t want to be one of those book-quoting dorks who goes to every social function and chili cook-off, but now I’m doing everything I said I wasn’t going to do — and I’m so happy about it. I have a sponsor, I have four sponsees and this core group of guys are some of the best people I’ve been around in my entire life.”
As real as life got after he first got sober, he’s found another level entirely in the past five years, he added — because sobriety isn’t about mere abstinence. Recovery isn’t about just stopping the use of drugs. At the heart of any successful recovery program is the discovery of a new way to live, and today, Warren has the serenity that’s prayed for at the beginning of every meeting.
“It’s amazing, because the simplest things are what I get the most pleasure out of,” he said. “If someone asks me for help, I always tell them to meet me at a meeting, and if they do, I know they’re serious. If someone will come meet me at a meeting, I know they’re desperate, and I’ll jump in and ask if they want a sponsor, if they want me to introduce them to some people, whatever.
“I’m not a self-sacrificial guy by nature, but people in the program have taught me that’s the key to all of it. I’m sponsoring a 68-year-old homeless guy right now, and he’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always what I need.”