Fourteen years into sobriety, ‘keep coming back’ pays off for Trey Lewis

Trey Lewis

For country star Trey Lewis, there’s a particular sobriety cliché that’s served him well throughout his career.

The Ties That Bind Us“Keep coming back.”

It’s a familiar saying to anyone who’s attended a 12 Step meeting trying to get a handle on a drug or alcohol problem, and it’s usually followed by the refrain, “It works if you work it.” For Lewis, who’s got 14 years sober now, that applies as well, because that’s exactly what he’s done.

He's kept coming back, and he’s kept putting in the work, and now both of those efforts are paying big dividends in his career … even if it’s through the use of an unorthodox song called “Dicked Down in Dallas,” which has turned country music on its head, because even though it’s made him TikTok famous, its colorful lyrics guarantee it’ll never get played on mainstream country radio.

“I just kept showing up and kept showing up, and I made friends, and I never shied away from the fact that I’m a sober person,” Lewis told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I think that’s one of my greatest assets. The fact that I’m able to be exactly who I am in my own skin allows me to be the ‘Dicked Down in Dallas’ guy, and I’m able to sell the fact that there’s more to the story.

“I know there’s some people who only care about that song, and I’m OK with that, because I’m going to keep working and grinding and putting other stuff out there. If anything, what this song did for me was that it allowed me a chance for people to look at my other music, whereas before there was no chance.”

Trey Lewis: An unlikely hit

Courtesy of Trey Bonner

Let’s address the elephant in the room: That infamous song. To be fair, there are “clean audio” links floating around the internet, but the censorship job on the song — the lament of a heartbroken man’s assumptions of his ex-lover’s sexual activities in cities around the country — saps its Dr. Dirty-style energy and makes it virtually indistinguishable from most other country weepers.

And that, Lewis said, was the whole reason he cut the song in the first place. He didn’t actually write the song — credit for that goes to Brent Gafford, Drew Trosclair and Matt McKinney — but he had the audacity to record it.

“I met Matt two or three years ago, back when I was playing in the biggest bar in Auburn (Alabama),” said Lewis, who calls Nashville home but hails from Birmingham. “I made a living playing covers for six or seven years, and he was playing another gig up the street at Moe’s Original BBQ, and he walked into Skybar where I was playing, and I was singing Jason Aldean’s ‘Big Green Tractor,’ but I was changing the lyrics and making up funny ones like ‘take you for a ride on my big tallywacker.’

“When you play covers, it becomes muscle memory, and a lot of times at places like that, you’re just background music. So I would do that to catch people off guard, and Matt heard me and said, ‘I’ve got to shake this guy’s hand.’”

Fast forward to 2019, when Lewis moved to Nashville and ran into McKinney at a songwriting round. The pair struck up a friendship and writing partnership, and remembering how Lewis had a gift for wedding the profane with the genuine, he played him a demo of “Dicked Down in Dallas.”

“I’ve been putting out music since 2012, and nobody ever gave a shit, so I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Lewis said. “I thought it was going to be a funny friend’s song, maybe a Nashville song that people who knew me would listen to.”

In mid 2020, a video of Lewis playing the song started gaining online traction, and suddenly he was getting asked to play it on podcasts and at writer’s nights. It wasn’t long before that amateur video of a bonfire jam had fans at his shows singing along to every word, and Lewis knew he had something big on his hands. How big, he had no idea until he recorded a studio version of the song and uploaded it to social media while on his way back home to Alabama for a show, he said.

“I had been posting some videos on Facebook, and gaining some traction, and eventually when we decided we were going to record the song, I had my camera guy come out and do some video,” he said. “I was driving down to Huntsville to play a four-hour acoustic show and uploaded it to Facebook, and by the time I got finished playing it, it had 3 million views.”

Things were about to change drastically for Lewis, so he made two phone calls within relative quick succession. One was to his sponsor, his mentor in a 12 Step recovery program and a man whose spirituality was something that drew Lewis to him in the beginning.

“I just remember that he said, ‘God’s gonna use that song to help people in some funny ways,’” Lewis recalled. “And then I called my mom and said, ‘I know I played you this song, and I know you think it’s dirty, but I’m about to put it out, and I think it’s gonna change my life.’”

Mama’s reaction? Go for it, baby. Because like so many people who get to know Trey Lewis, that song may get the headlines, but it’s not the whole story.

Trey Lewis and alcohol: 'All gas, no brakes'

Courtesy of Trey Bonner

Like every addict and alcoholic who finds themselves sitting in a recovery meeting — if they’re lucky — Lewis didn’t plan on booze wrecking everything. In fact, he said, he looked at drugs as something best avoided, based on the problems it caused between his sister and his mother. But alcohol? Hey, that was legal. His parents drank, and so did a lot of other adults, so what could be so wrong with it?

The first time he got drunk, he and some friends split a couple of cases of beer and drunk-dialed their high school classmates. Lewis vaguely remembers polishing off nine of those cans, rolling around in a buddy’s vomit and calling his dad to come pick him up.

“They were like, ‘You can’t do that again,’ but in the back of my mind, I knew I was gonna do it again,” he said. “It was a full-on progression for me: All gas, no brakes, to just try and get fucked up and not exist.”

Things got worse as he got older. He sold drugs and wound up spending 30 days in a juvenile detention center. He was remanded to the custody of a mental institution for a short while. He was arrested for felony possession of weed and cocaine when he was 18 or 19, doing burnouts in Tuscaloosa. By that point, the few strands of stability in his life were unraveling fast.

“I remember I was just in jail, my bond was 500 bucks, and it was my turn to have my phone call,” he said. “This was big boy jail — my cellmate had been on the run for 10 years for capital murder — and I remember going to the phone to call somebody who might tell me I was at least a good person … and then I remember the terror, the bewilderment, the frustration and the despair when I was looking at that phone, realizing there was nobody to call because I’d screwed everybody over.”

That was the beginning of the end. He didn’t come out of jail a changed man: In fact, he started partying again that night, surrounded by the same old friends doing the same old things, and for the next three months, it only got worse. He would tremble when he woke up in the mornings until he got alcohol in his system. He threw up blood. He sold plasma to get enough money to buy a bottle. And finally, he said, he called his mama and begged her for help.

“I realized I had been making all these plans, but I hadn’t done any of them because I was getting messed up,” he said. “She just picked me up, and I had a neighbor who gave me some drugs, so I did those and then went to rehab. Still, in my mind I thought, ‘I’ll go to this rehab, take a break and learn to drink like a normal person.’ I still had no clue what this disease was about. Back then, I just thought I would settle down and be that guy who smoked pot for the rest of his life.”

At Bradford Health Services’ Warrior Lodge facility just north of Birmingham, he was a reluctant participant in his own sobriety, at first. The only thing he did right, he said, was agree to spend 30 days in a sober living facility after leaving treatment — but even then, he was planning on using his first pass to go back home and party with his buddies.

Fate, however, had other plans.

Honesty, openmindedness and willingness

Courtesy of Trey Bonner

Those plans didn’t sit right with a guy who was coming around to embracing honesty for the first time in a long while, and so Lewis went to the director of the facility and confessed: He wanted to get drunk. He was making an active plan to do so. And he was miserable.

“I was ready to do something different, and he told me, ‘Here’s the deal, Trey: You’re gonna either get your shit together or get the fuck out of here,’” Lewis said. “He wrote down a name and said, ‘This is your sponsor; go call him.’ I did, and he told me to read pages 86 through 88 of the Big Book every morning, hang out with the winners and go to a (recovery) meeting every day.”

Lewis took that suggestion to heart. At nine months sober, that sponsor relapsed, but rather than use it as an excuse to go back out, he doubled down, got a new sponsor and kept going. And it has been, he added, the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

“I had to reach a point, after I had been dry for a little while, where I realized, ‘What do I have to do? I’ve got to do something different, because this ain’t working,’” he said. “What it made me realize was, it ain’t just about the dope and the alcohol; it’s about the mind. Even to this day, I struggle with depression and anxiety, but I see a therapist. I still go to meetings.”

Learning to put in the work began to pay dividends in other areas of his life as well — particularly music. Although his uncles played guitar, and he remembers his mother owning a karaoke machine, he quickly set aside an acoustic guitar his stepfather bought him when he was 14.

“I realized it took work, and I was like, ‘Fuck that!’” he said with a chuckle. “Right before I went to treatment, I learned how to play ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd on guitar, and then after I got sober, I got a job making smoothies and sandwiches. I called my grandfather one day and said, ‘I think I’m going to buy me a guitar,’ and he told me he’d pay for half of it.

“We went to Guitar Center, and I bought one and took it home. I looked up some chords, learned some tabs and took a couple of lessons before I decided, I ain’t trying to do that shit. I want to make some noise and have fun with it! So that’s what I did. That’s probably why I still suck at guitar.”

Lewis is nothing if not charmingly self-deprecating, and that served him well once he determined that playing music was what he wanted to do. He was newly sober and 19, and when his sponsor asked him what his hopes and dreams were, he just shrugged. The guitar, he added, got him dreaming again.

“You just never know what one decision is going to lead to,” he said. “I just bought a guitar because I liked the way it made me feel, and I wanted to do something other than play video games. To think that that decision changed my life is crazy.

“But honestly, I don’t know where I would be without music. I love doing (Fourth Step) inventories as much as the next man, but like, dealing with my emotions in writing songs, I feel like it’s my best form of expression. It’s a healing thing, man. It’s kind of my way of crying.”

From counselor to full-time musician

Trey Lewis

Courtesy of Trey Bonner

Nine months turned into a year, and then two, and before Lewis knew it, he was working as a drug and alcohol counselor at the same treatment center that helped him get sober. He began playing out in the Birmingham music scene, and while it was awkward and a little uncomfortable at first, his foundation in 12 Step recovery was the anchor that always held him steady, he said.

“Everything I did in 12 Step fellowships prepared me for anything in life,” he said. “When I first moved to Nashville, I knew there would be nights when I went out to the bar and probably shake one or two hands. I felt so alone at first, because I moved up here when I was 29 or 30, and I just gone through a divorce, and I just wanted to see what would happen.

“I would go to the bar and hear a song that would bring up some pain in my past, and I would think, ‘Tonight’s not my night. I’m just going to go home.’ And I would, because there’s no time limit on figuring this out. And then other nights, I would go to the bar and run into somebody I’d already met five times, and we would get to talking.”

In other words, he kept coming back. And he got to meet others struggling to make it in Music City just as he was. And then he and the three writers of that crazy-fun song managed to capture lightning in a bottle. It’s funny, in a way, because the song’s content makes a lot of fans think he’s as wild as the lyrics might imply.

“People come to my show, and they’re expecting me to go get drunk with them, but then mid-show, I’ll break it down and tell this story about my grandfather, and how I got sober on June 11, 2007, and bought my first guitar when I was 19 years old,” he said. “People start to realize, ‘Oh, shit, this guy doesn’t even drink, and that’s cool to me. I started playing music when I was 19, and I’m 33 now. It took what it took for me to finally make it, and now I’m doing something.

“I think it just proves for that person that’s 90 days sober, or that person who’s 6 months sober, or even two years sober, that if you never give up, and you show up, and you suit up, and you keep doing the next right thing, then it all works out. It’s a message of hope, because as funny as the song is, it also shows that you can get sober, be sober and don’t have to be a holy roller or a prude.”

And that, strange as it may seem, is one way that Lewis continues to give back. He’s done plenty during his sobriety, because that’s what it takes for all addicts and alcoholics in recovery to keep what they have: give away some experience, strength and hope to inspire others who similarly suffer that they, too, might find a new way to live.

“When I worked at the treatment center, I would play shows on the weekends, and I would play my music for the patients, and I’ve gotten so many messages since that song came out,” he added. “Someone who used to be in treatment will write and tell me, ‘You played for me in treatment, and I’m glad to see you’re still doing it.’ It’s just a message of hope, man.”

Trey Lewis: More will be revealed

Trey Lewis

Courtesy of Trey Bonner

And if hope can be mined from “Dicked Down in Dallas,” then Lewis is just getting started.

There’s no doubt the song has opened professional and financial doors — for one thing, he can pay the guys in his band now, and he’s grateful to do so, given that their loyalty goes back to the days when they were all playing for tips at area restaurants.

“It’s pretty cool these guys have been loyal to me this long, when nobody else believed in me,” he said. “Now, I get to be more to them than just a cover band to play in. We’re getting to do some shows with huge artists. We just announced one with Morgan Wallen, and another with Parker McCollum. It’s crazy to be branded with some of those guys you’ve listened to for so long.”

He's not rich, by any means, he emphasized — but he was able to buy himself a bass boat, and he helped out some members of his family. And every time he’s able to splurge, for others or himself, he never fails to offer a little gratitude to his Higher Power.

“Even if I wasn’t making money, I would still be eating scraps and doing it for free, because I love this shit,” he said.

Earlier this year, he released the five-song EP “Shut the Door,” and Aaron Ryan, reviewing it for the website Whiskey Riff, admits that like so many others, he initially dismissed Lewis as a Ray Stevens novelty knock-off … except “Shut the Door” proves those cynics wrong, Ryan added, calling Lewis the real deal: “The whole EP has a much more serious tone, full of heartbreak and reflection, making it clear that Trey wants to be known as more than the ‘Dicked Down in Dallas’ guy.”

And Lewis is just getting started. He’s signed a publishing deal with Sony, and his new single, “Little Tired,” is scheduled for release later on this month. A co-write with Nick Haynes, Lewis calls it one of his personal favorites, and when he uploaded a rough cut of it to TikTok a week or so ago after a poorly attended show (“This shit still ain’t easy!” he added), it garnered 300,000 views in a the course of a few days.

“It’s crazy, man, because you never know what’s going to happen, and I kick myself a lot for questioning God,” he said. “I’m blessed to gain fans anywhere I go, and I take pride in the fact that I can go play a show and have people come in as a ‘Dicked Down in Dallas’ fan and leave a Trey Lewis fan.

“I believe everything builds off the next, and I can’t ever doubt God, or put him in a box. A lot of times, you can call the shots, but when it comes to life and sobriety, you just don’t know. You’ve just got to be along for the ride, and sometimes I have to be reminded of that.”