Delivered by grace: In sobriety, Jon Foulk sings ‘A New Song’

Jon Foulk

Within the span of a week, singer-songwriter and sideman Jon Foulk went from the lowest of addiction’s lows to the highest of spiritual highs.

The Ties That Bind UsIt was early 2016 when, after numerous times through addiction treatment gave him a glimmer of hope only to have it dashed by an ensuing relapse, that he found himself at the end of his rope. Representatives of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services were making inquiries into allegations that he had driven drunk with his three children in the car. His wife, Brooke, felt as if she were losing her husband and the father of her children.

And Foulk himself felt like he was losing his mind, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I knew I was finding death and was trying so hard to find healing,” he said. “I was working with a therapist and using my closest friends and family as accountability partners. We all have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves, and someone in my addictive past made the decision to protect my kids. I received a phone call from my wife, who was absolutely broken, informing me a representative from DHS had interviewed my kids at school. They requested an in-house interview with my family. It was at that moment I hit my low. I realized just how negatively my disease was impacting those three little mouths that depended on me. I was wrecking my family.

“I called my sister with a gun to my head. I was in the depths of despair. My sister called my dad, and he came over, and I ended up on 3E at Blount Memorial Hospital (the Blount Memorial Emotional Health and Recovery Center), where I stayed for about a week. I came home, and my family was staying with my in-laws, and I didn’t know what to do, so I drove up to Cade’s Cove. It was winter, so nobody was there, and I pulled off on this gravel road that connects the two sides of the Loop, and I remember staring up at the foggy mountains and getting on my knees in the middle of that gravel road.

“I remember praying, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore, and I need you to save me,’ and it was like a sword split me down the middle,” he added. “All of the sudden, I was able to see my demons on one side, and the truth the good and the ugly — on the other, and that would be the last time I ever drank.”

Jon Foulk and the reclamation of song

Ever since, sobriety hasn’t just allowed Foulk to reclaim his place as a dutiful father, husband and son; it’s given him a new outlook on the recovery process, and a new outlet through which to express the music that has been part of his life since childhood. In and out of 12 Step meetings throughout all of his previous attempts at sobriety, he heard, over and over again, a familiar refrain: “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.”

What happened in Cades Cove that day was the delivery of that miracle, he added.

“That experience was so powerful, and so real, there was no doubt in my mind what it was,” he said. “It was my Higher Power revealing Himself to me. I found my knees, and while there I experienced the love of God. One of my greatest gifts was finding sobriety in time to be present for the last years of my grandfather’s life. In one of our last conversations, my grandfather told me the story of my great-grandfather. He was a simple man from Sneedville and a well-known bluegrass musician. He was a real bad alcoholic. My grandfather told me that one day, he just realized my great-grandfather was different, and when he asked about it, my great-grandfather told him that the Lord appeared to him on a horse, in a holler, and said, ‘Put this down.’ He never drank again.

“I truly believe that God works in different ways for different people in an effort to experience what they’re supposed to experience to get the most out of recovery. For me, all of those efforts and meetings and detoxes and (intensive outpatient programs) were planting seeds. I wanted to get sober long before I ever took that last drink, and for me, it was all a gradual miracle ending in a big display of God’s grace. It was God’s way of saying, ‘I’ve got you; just believe it.’”

Faith is a integral part of the recovery process, and with the help of his Higher Power, along with the East Tennessee recovery community that he considers family, Foulk has found his way back to music as well. When his children were small, he released the record “View from The Back Seat” in 2013, inspired by drives around Johnson City, where he and his family lived at the time. When his son was an infant, those drives, accompanied by music by Jack Johnson and the Allman Brothers Band, soothed him, but until he got sober for good, making music was something he used to do.

In sobriety, it became something he does again — and rather prolifically. Early on, he hooked up with singer-songwriter Scott McMahan, and Foulk played keyboards in support of McMahan’s self-titled 2016 solo album, and doing so sparked the fires of hope that he could play music and maintain his sobriety at the same time.

“It was so powerful, because we played great Americana music and would have deep conversations about how broken we were,” Foulk said. “Scott showed me how to write and sing from the heart. He showed me you could do that sober, and he introduced me to Michael McClelland, another person who accepted me for who I was, and I started playing with his band, Stone Broke Saints. We opened up for Whiskey Myers at The Shed (Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville, Tennessee), and through them, I met (singer-songwriter) Monet Maddux and started playing for her.

“Once I met Monet, the way she was so powerful, I saw someone who had everything they could ever want or need to be happy. She had this gift as an artist, and she was hellbent on chasing it, and that gave me enough courage to write deeper, more personal and transparent songs. She invited me into this great studio to track, and we had so much fun. Monet and Scott introduced me to the professional side of music and trusted me as a keyboardist when they could have had far more skilled artists. I’m still grateful.”

Jon Foulk: A lifelong love

As the son of a radio broadcaster, Knoxville legend Dave Foulk (honored in 2015 by the Tennessee General Assembly for his journalistic contributions), Jon grew up with a keen ear for music. His father was from the Knoxville area, although Jon was born while dad was working in radio in the Atlanta area. When Jon was 13, the Foulks moved to Seymour, where he went to high school while his father carved out a niche as on local radio. In 1998, the younger Foulk received a vocal music scholarship to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, the culmination of a lifelong love of music, he said.

“I was 3 years old, and my Aunt Thelma was babysitting me, and she had this old upright piano,” he said. “I remember that I sat down and started plinking with it, and I picked up ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ pretty quickly. When my parents picked me up, I hashed out a version of it, and at that moment, I think they all knew that I had a gift.”

A cheap Casio keyboard came next, and while Jon played soccer and got involved in a number of other teenage activities, music was the thing that always reeled him back in. That Casio became a therapist and a means of emotional expression, he said, and when he eventually received a Roland synthesizer, his dad gave him a few lessons before handing him off to a piano teacher.

“I was so stubborn to play by ear that she finally passed me off,” Foulk said with a chuckle. “She said, ‘I can’t do anything with him, but my husband in the studio next door can,’ and he helped me learn how to read guitar chord charts while playing the piano. He taught me different key signatures. And once I had someone believe in me and believe in a different type of ability and started tapping into that, my passion really grew. And once I got good enough, I could sit down and play anything with enough time.”

It wasn’t long until playing music became his entire identity, but like many who put their souls and authentic selves into their art, fear paralyzed him, at least until he found sobriety, he said.

“I’m 41 years old, and I’ve ran from it most of my life,” he said. “The world and your own innate fear mechanisms tell you that you can’t face it, that you can’t do it, so I went through life doing other things. I got a degree in business and a master’s in elementary education, and I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for 10 or 12 years. It’s really who I am — a dad. I thank God every day that despite my addictions, I was still a loving dad.

“Although absent mentally, I was there with love. I was trying. Despite degrees, jobs and different road, though, music was always haunting the back of my mind, telling me that I should be playing. And once the fog began to clear, I saw those thoughts were healthy, and they gave me attainable goals.”

Eventually, he found the encouragement and the courage to step out beyond his role as a sideman. His songwriting struck a more authentic chord as he began to explore his own battles, and he began to write about his struggles with drinking, with addiction, with depression — “and about how I was saved through grace, and how through recovery, there is a different life,” he said.

Working East Tennessee-based, Grammy-nominated producer Travis Wyrick, Foulk recorded the five-song EP “A New Song,” released earlier this year. It’s a tender collection built on an emotional groundswell of hope, riding that sweet spot between Foulk’s instrumental work and his soothing baritone. He paints from a varied palate — the Christian contemporary sounds of the title track to the bluesy reggae shuffle of “Just Two” to the country balladry of “Back to Knoxville,” it’s a showcase of a broad range but a laser-like focus.

“Working with Travis felt like a big shift,” Foulk said. “He was so stern and so hard but so motivating in getting me to accept myself. He taught me to believe in it, and to appreciate how all of that pain and all of that struggle has led me to this place in life where I can help people avoid some of that. I can remember him getting so frustrated in the early days of vocal tracking. In retrospect, Travis just wanted me to be one thing: myself. And he’s helped me be comfortable there.”

Addiction's tendrils take hold

Jon Foulk (far right) with Stone Broke Saints.

The pain that drugs and alcohol helped him avoid didn’t start out that way — but then again, it never does. Like most addicts and alcoholics, Foulk picked up for the first time thinking it was all in good fun, and it was … at least in the beginning.

“I was 16, and I was working as a lifeguard at a water park in Pigeon Forge, and there was a late-night party after work one night with me and a couple of other 16-year-olds and a bunch of college kids,” he said. “I remember somebody handed me a Smirnoff red label and a Sunny Delight, and I mixed it together. I remember the burning warm feeling of that alcohol going down, and I loved it from that first taste, and it was like a light went off.

“I felt like a college kid instead of a 16-year-old, just staying in a hotel and getting drunk for the first time. I even remember asking one of the older guys, ‘Are you proud of me?’ The next morning, I did not lifeguard. I was so sick that I sat behind the wave pool until my shift was over.”

But he wasn’t so sick that he wasn’t willing to do it again. In the beginning, he was able to function, partying throughout college and graduate school and marrying Brooke and having kids. Her career was a successful one, and to save money on daycare costs, they decided that Jon would be a stay-at-home father. In theory, it seemed like an ideal plan, but the couple had recently moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the isolation became a mind killer.

“I was miserable, being away from friends and family, and thinking about my musical aspirations and having to push those way, way down to function as a good dad,” he said. “That really fueled things. I really didn’t have a drinking schedule, but the the only responsibilities I had were to my family. It’s not something I talk about lightly, and I consider it such a blessing that God allowed me to stay present enough to not get a DUI or wreck a car.”

For the next decade, he drank daily, going from a 12-pack to 18 beers a day to a half-pint of whiskey on top of it, he said. Toward the end of his drinking, he even had to switch to hard cider, because his stomach was a wreck.

“When I would start throwing up, I would stop drinking,” he said. “I drove around with an empty cup to vomit in. I knew where to find an endless supply of a prescription benzos that were unused, and I would help myself from time to time, self-medicating the withdrawals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was going in and out of acute pancreatitis attacks. I was permanently damaging my pancreas and playing it off as a hangover.”

The entire time, he was consumed with guilt but felt unable to ask for help out of the fear of letting his family down. Finally, about six years ago, he was working as a whitewater raft guide when a sober friend gave him a copy of the Big Book.

“I read it and realized, ‘OK, this is me,’ and that’s when I went to my first (12 Step) meeting,” he said. “I was kind of shaky, and I’m sure anybody who looked around could see, ‘He’s a newbie.’ But that was the first time I said, ‘My name’s Jon, this is my first meeting, and I’m an alcoholic.’”

Eventually, he wound up in drug and alcohol treatment at Cornerstone of Recovery, but he relapsed shortly afterward while on a beach trip with family. A return to Cornerstone didn’t take, and he relapsed again; this time, the police were waiting at home, informing him that he had a choice: rehab or jail. He headed to a 30-day intensive program in Florida, but again, it didn’t take.

It was shortly after that he made that fateful phone call to his sister, gun in hand. And after a week in a psychiatric ward, found himself born again, in a sense, on a gravel road in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A new way to live

Jon Foulk

Jon Foulk (left) with his family.

This time, Foulk didn’t just give lip service to the 12 Steps; he actually began applying them — and as a result, he’s seen his life change. His sponsor acts as a guide, but Foulk does the work, and over the years, it’s ceased to be work and has instead become the way in which he lives.

“I work them daily, and the results are instantaneous,” he said. “If I mess up, I immediately have to apologize. If I’m worried about something, I have to talk about it. I have my sponsor, who’s my accountability partner, and it all goes back to the 12 Steps, and remembering that if you’re not careful, you’re going to come off the rails. That, and I give God thanks for helping me, so I can go out and find someone else to help.”

Although “A New Song” was only released a couple of months ago, he’s already back into the studio, and he continues to mine his experience, strength and hope — for both the songs he writes, the life he lives and the recovery that keeps those things anchored in gratitude and serenity. He’s active in the Celebrate Recovery program at Shoreline Church in Knoxville, and he continues to perform as a sideman for East Tennessee bands like The Dirty Gospel and Stone Broke Saints.

And he’s always looking for opportunities to perform his own material.

“I love playing in church, and I’ve always felt a calling to both humble myself and seek God. I love the community we find in church,” he said. “Churches are part of who I am, but the bars and the nightlife are also part of who I am.”

And, he added, those are the places he occasionally meets those who struggle as he once did.

“I feel called there, and I love being in bars, picking out people there who might be drunk and struggling with it, and singing to them,” he said. “I see them, because I see myself in them. I’m a humble person. I struggle with self-confidence more than anyone. But I’m really focused on getting the most out of this record and maximizing where I go from here.

“It’s a beautiful thing, mostly because I didn’t think creativity was possible in recovery. What I’ve found is that as the fog has gone, I’ve gotten more creative, and now I have the wherewithal to let it out appropriately. I lost some years off my life. I want to make the most out of the gift of recovery… and if I can, help some others along the way. That’s why I’m here now.”