Back in 1994, bluesman and music critic Tony Glover wrote a set of liner notes for “Tomorrow the Green Grass” by The Jayhawks that included a line that could just as easily be cut-and-pasted to describe the new self-titled full-length album by the band Soo Line Loons.
The songs, Glover wrote, “mostly come from Minnesota, land of Ten Thousand Lakes. The biggest and coldest is Superior, where they say the drowned dead never rise again, except in song.” That’s also true of the music by Soo Line Loons, with one exception: Grant Glad, the band’s frontman, was once one of those drowned dead, and he has most certainly risen.
That’s a figure of speech, of course: Glad’s battle with alcohol was spent on the north side of functional for most of his life, but just because he was able to keep it together didn’t mean he wasn’t drowning his soul in whatever he could pour down his throat. Like so many of his brothers and sisters in the rooms of recovery, the booze was a balm for the discomfort and vagaries of life, and combined with the cultural acceptance of knocking back a few beers to take the edge off that’s part and parcel of culture in the Upper Midwest, Glad was swept up in it long before he ever picked up a guitar, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“Absolutely it’s the cultural thing out here,” he said. “You go out for beers with your friends, because it’s just what you do. Everybody drank in high school, and even though I went to a Christian school, all the kids I went to school with drank. It was a culture of, it was normal to drink in your teens, and if you got caught you got a slap on the wrist from your parents, because they did it too, and that carries over into your 20s.
“But for me, it was about not being comfortable in my own skin and not knowing who I was and who I wanted to be. The things I was interested in — music and poetry, things like that — the people around me weren’t. I was a drama kid; they liked sports and going to bars, and I played that game of trying to fit in so badly, because I just wanted to be a part of that culture. At a certain point, I was doing it just because there was beer there. I mean, I’d go to (sporting events) I didn’t care about, all because I thought, ‘Well, I can get wasted, and it’ll be fine.’”
Bucket of rain, buckets of beers ...
As much as alcohol shaped his formative years, music made an even bigger impression. He was 12 or 13, he said, when he stumbled upon the online list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Ranked near the top was “Highway 61 Revisited,” by Minnesota native son Bob Dylan.
“Being raised in Minnesota, I had heard the name, but I couldn’t place whether I’d heard his music before,” Glad said. “I’m sure I maybe heard it somewhere in passing, but I didn’t remember it, and I was just like, ‘Who is this guy?’ That album cover was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and when I asked my dad, ‘Who is this guy?,’ I saw his eyes light up.
“That night, he took me down to the record store to buy the CD, and we put it on in his car going home, and as soon as it came on, I was like, ‘You can do that? That’s allowed? You can talk about Napoleon in a rock song?’ It was so eye-opening. I loved the attitude, and even though I didn’t know what the establishment was, it sucked me in, and down the rabbit hole I went.”
He had a lot of catching up to do, he acknowledged, starting with Dylan and following the lines of his influences over the ensuing 60 years. He found himself drawn to an old Yamaha guitar that his father and brother played occasionally, and eventually his pops acquiesced to Glad’s yearning and signed him up for lessons.
“I got distracted a little bit by the ’60s guitar gods thing and did my cheap Clapton imitation, but by 15 or 16, I realized I was never going to be Eric Clapton and that I didn’t want to be Eric Clapton — I wanted to be a songwriter guy,” he said. “So I started writing songs, and I ripped off Dylan for about four years because I didn’t know what I was doing! I was writing about the bum in the street with the cardboard sign and the diamond shoes, but I wasn’t saying anything.
“Then I discovered ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ and then his mid-1990s alt-country stuff, and that really opened me up. I started to find my own voice, but it took a fair share of time to stop ripping off Dylan.”
Around that time, he started drinking with his classmates — that “urban party lifestyle,” he said, that featured weekend gatherings of teenagers getting plastered on the weekends, waking up hungover and thinking the whole scene was much cooler than it was. He was never drawn to drugs — “I was always weirdly smart enough to know I couldn’t handle anything else, that if I liked this, I would definitely like anything harder, and that would be a problem,” he added.
Besides, like most of his peers, booze just didn’t seem like a big deal. His folks drank, and his brothers — 8 and 10 years older — made it seem like a natural part of adulthood. But for Glad, the older he got, the more it became a problem.
Grant Glad gets sober: Take one
In college, he partied his inaugural semester down the drain, he said, and eventually came back home, where drinking began to push music into the backseat.
“I was just one of those burnouts who bummed around his hometown, worked a retail job and wasn’t really doing much besides partying with my high school friends,” he said. “I wanted to be Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and that was the other part of it — when you’re 18, you think it’s better to burn out than to fade away, and that whole mentality is just a dangerous thing.”
Looking back, he added, he fell into the mistaken belief that his musical idols made good music because they drank and used heavily. What he came to realize after he got sober, he said, was that substances robbed the world of their greatness.
“These were real people who died from their struggles, but we put them on this god-like level,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that the drugs and alcohol killed them, because they were such brilliant musicians, and that was an appealing thing to a teenage kid who had a little bit of a depression thing going on.”
He never made it a goal to go out in similar fashion, but he certainly bought into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll mythos that made playing music part and parcel with overindulgence. Eventually, however, his own consumption made for a rude awakening.
He was working for a coffee company, he said, assigned to selling the product to various restaurants in the Upper Midwest, and during one stretch in which he was assigned to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he posted up every evening in the motel bar.
“Every night after work, I would go down to the bar and just drink and drink and drink, and I was OK for a while, until I had a panic attack in my hotel room,” he said. “It came out of the blue, and I didn’t know what it was. That’s the first time I thought, ‘This might not be normal,’ but it wasn’t enough to make me change my behavior. It took another three or four more years until I decided to cut it out.”
In 2016, he managed to put it down for a good nine months, and his roommate at the time pushed his to use sobriety to his advantage.
“He said, ‘Now that you’re not drinking, you need to focus on this music thing you’ve been talking about for so long,’” Glad said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to listen to you talk about moving to Nashville and becoming a songwriter when you haven’t written a song.’”
Soo Line Loons: The early days
During that nine-month period, he discovered that his songwriting chops needed serious work. He’d spent a lot of years at the craft, but not a lot of time during those years putting in the actual work, and so his weekends were spent with a pot of coffee, a couple of cans of Copenhagen, his guitar and a notepad. That first year, he wrote the songs that would become the first Soo Line Loons album, “A Place No One Belongs.”
In the beginning, he added, the band was formed under a different name: Grant Glad and the Trumpeteers, but as the nucleus of the group began to gel, he came to understand that it was truly a group effort rather than an assembled collective of sidemen and women whose sole contributions were designed to elevate him alone.
“It’s a cohesive unit. I’m not Tom Petty, and these guys aren’t the Heartbreakers,” he said. “I remember we were at a rehearsal talking about the name, and I was wearing a Soo Line short that I got from my grandpa, who worked there for 50 years, and we were throwing names at the wall.”
The Soo Line was a regional railroad that ran through southeast Minnesota out of Minneapolis, the band’s hometown, and at first, they considered calling themselves the Soo Line 5. By that point, Glad and Robin Hatterschide had been joined by bassist Matthew Fox, Kristi Hatterschide (Robin’s mother and a former folk violinst) and mandolin player and songwriter Erik Loftsgaarden. Instead, they decided to “double down on the Minnesota thing,” Glad said, and go all in with the home state loyalty by adding the state bird to the moniker.
That was 2 ½ years ago, give or take, and while “A Place No One Belongs” earned Soo Line Loons regional acclaim, Glad’s drinking struggles weren’t done.
“I got to a point where I thought, ‘Hey, I can go have a drink now,’ so I did, and it started off slow again, just having a beer or two, and I thought, ‘This is great! I’m fine!’” he said. “But like it always does for a lot of us, it amped up quickly, and pretty soon I was going out, getting wasted and getting drunk on the weeknights. And when I started dating my girlfriend who’s in recovery, that was kind of the game-changer for me, because she wasn’t going to put up with my shit. I’ve learned that I need some external force who’s not going to put up with my shit, because left to my own devices, I’ll implode.”
One of the turning points took place in 2019, when at a Mandolin Orange concert, he got blackout drunk, didn’t respond to her texts and the next morning received her ultimatum: Get it together. Figure it out.
The booze, he added, wasn’t worth sacrificing his relationship. The next day, he went to his first 12 Step recovery meeting, and was welcomed with open arms.
Soo Line Loons: Grant gets sober, take two
Like a lot of addicts and alcoholics, he didn’t pick up a single white chip and never look back. It took roughly a year, he said, to finally put the bottle down, and on March 7, he celebrated 365 days clean and sober. A COVID scare last March provided the impetus to ultimately surrender, and while he tested negative, he used the down time to recommit to his sobriety.
At the same time, he began writing the songs that make up the band’s new self-titled album, scheduled for a May 14 release on Don’t Quit Your Day Job Records, their own label. It’s a record with nods, both direct and indirect, to recovery shot throughout the eclectic collection of North Country blues, punk-tinged Americana, backcountry folk and heartland rock, all of it a quilt of disparate patterns sewn together as a group effort into a beautifully arcane design that feels both fresh and lived-in.
That his bandmates stuck by his side during his sobriety journey makes the end result even more meaningful, he added.
“You get more stubborn when you’re drinking, and less likely to listen, and me and the band like to joke that I was Roger Waters for a little bit — kind of running the show and thinking I could do everything on my own, when the reality is that this album would not have existed without the collaborative effort of the band,” he said. “Left to my own devices, I’m going to write ‘Desolation Row’ 10 times in a row, and throughout this process, I had to learn to lean on them, to trust their musical instincts and know that they’re going to bring the best to the forefront.”
It was a 180-degree creative process compared to the previous two albums, so seamless that a song like “Hope” — a skittering shuffle of a charmer that starts off with the lyrics “last spring I quit drinking, I spent my Friday nights with the other addicts at the rec center off Highway 5” — was actually written by Loftsgaarden, whose personal and second-hand experiences as a friend of Glad’s gave him an intimate understanding of the recovery process.
“Before, I wrote songs, brought them to the band, and they fleshed them out, filling in what the could and doing a great job,” Glad said. “This time, we wrote songs in the room, and I quickly realized is that I’m probably the least musically talented in the group! I would go to write lyrics and think, ‘All I need to do is not screw this up!’ All they had to do was fit the vibe and make sure the lyrics didn’t detract the listeners from the music, so having their talent was a huge thing to lean on.”
It's a powerful union of creative souls, made evident right out of the gate with the ominously weary sounds of “Old Mill,” cut through with Kristi Hatterschide’s haunting violin and lyrics that evoke the deep woods spirits of Minnesota forests surrounding those lakes of cobalt blue. Perhaps the most personal set of Glad’s lyrics are laid out in the somber “What They Don’t Tell You,” built off the relapse he experienced after first entering the rooms of recovery.
“I ended up going back to that motel in Eau Claire for a weekend, and a storm hit,” he said. “I wasn’t going to work the next day, and the mini-bar was stocked, and I sat there looking at it, asking, ‘Is my life really that much better now that I quit drinking?’ And the answer was no … because I hadn’t done any other work on myself. All I had done was take the booze away, and I still had these problems I hadn’t dealt with in any way, shape or form.”
Soo Line Loons: Brighter days ahead
It was album by another Ties That Bind Us alumnus — B.J. Barham, whose band, American Aquarium, released “Lamentations” last year — that gave Glad the courage to put it all out there and talk about his own story so openly … including the side of recovery that’s not always easy to talk about.
“So, I learned every line from every pamphlet in AA, but what they don’t tell you is that some things still won’t change,” he sings, and that’s exactly what happened: He got sober, but he was still broke, still unemployed and still filled with a profound loneliness, despite being surrounded by recovering brothers and sisters and having a solid relationship.
“I never got that pink cloud, and what I came to understand is that it’s not always easy, because you’ve got to put in the work,” he said. “Subtracting the substance doesn’t always do the trick.”
Last March, he found the willingness to start putting in the work … and things have gotten better. As a certain recovery passage stages, “lost dreams awaken and new possibilities arise,” and nowhere is that more evident than in the conception and impending birth of “Soo Line Loons,” the album.
Before, he added, he would have looked at the COVID pandemic — which sidelined the band right as it was about to mount a tour to take the members out of Minneapolis for the first time — as just another excuse to get loaded. Instead, he and his bandmates counted their blessings: They still had their day jobs, and they still had each other … and with Glad’s sobriety another item on their combined gratitude list, they had an opportunity to make a new album that might potentially change their collective fortunes.
“I look at it this way: We played just as many shows as Jason Isbell last year, and because of what we’ve been through, there’s a lot of people that probably wouldn’t have given us the time of day had this not happened,” he said. “We’re trying to make the most of the situation and make the best music we can. We’re looking forward to putting it out and giving it the old college try, and if people aren’t feeling it, we can sleep at night knowing we did this.”
And regardless, he added, he’ll sleep either way knowing that going to bed sober is a much better way to end the day — good, bad or somewhere in between — than passing out and coming to, stuck in a vicious cycle of rinse and repeat, with little to show for it other than some scribbled lyrics that hardly make sense in the light of day.
“I would pick up a guitar, plays some chords in C and G, write a few words and think I’d written a masterpiece — then not understand why people didn’t ‘get’ me,” he said. “I didn’t want to put in the work; I just wanted to have a good time.”