The Ties That Bind Us, a weekly interview blog with musicians in recovery from addiction and alcoholism, marks two years of sharing experience, strength and hope this week.
The blog, sponsored by the Knoxville, Tennessee-based drug and alcohol treatment center Cornerstone of Recovery, features weekly interviews with artists from a broad cross section of genres. Regardless of their musical disparities, however, they share a single commonality: Drugs and alcohol once crippled their lives and nearly destroyed their careers, but through recovery — often taking many different forms — they’ve found renewal.
The blog launched in June 2018 as the brainchild of Cornerstone content developer Steve Wildsmith, who served as a music journalist for publications in South Carolina and East Tennessee before leaving print journalism after 25 years. At Cornerstone, he produces website and blog content, manages the social media of the facility — which celebrated 30 years of providing drug and alcohol treatment last year — and works as an auxiliary member of the clinical team.
“As someone in recovery from addiction myself, it’s been an honor to contribute to a legacy like that of Cornerstone’s,” Wildsmith says. “Our growth is a sign that we’ve done something right for the past three decades: We’ve grown from 18 beds and 22 staff members in 1989 to 172 beds and more than 250 staff members, all of whom feel like working here is a calling as much as it is a job.”
As a journalist, Wildsmith began documenting his own journey from addiction to recovery in 2003, a year after finally getting sober. His personal columns were as well-received as his music journalism, which over the years included interviews with everyone from regional artists around East Tennessee to superstars like Taylor Swift, Merle Haggard, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and more. Throughout those conversations, however, a shared connection was forged with certain artists.
“When you’re in recovery, you tend to recognize your own ‘kind,’ so to speak, in the language that they use,” Wildsmith says. “There were numerous times when I would pick up on little phrases or clichés that I know by heart, because I’ve seen them on the walls and in the readings of 12 Step meetings since I got clean and sober in 2002.”
With that in mind, once he went to work full-time at Cornerstone, Wildsmith conceived of a blog that spotlighted musicians who have found a way out of their own addiction, but more importantly helped to dispel the myth that drugs and alcohol are prerequisites for stardom or the creative process.
“It’s not an anti-drug or anti-alcohol blog, because a lot of people use and drink responsibly, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Wildsmith says. “But for some of us, it becomes a problem that costs us relationships and opportunities. And for some artists — Amy Winehouse, Scott Weiland and Mac Miller, just to use some examples from the last few years — it costs them their lives. The goal of The Ties That Bind Us is to show those who might struggle with a drug or alcohol problem that there’s a way out, and a way to get better.”
For the artists who have agreed to tell their stories, it’s a unique opportunity to share something extremely personal with a writer who has an intimate understanding of addiction and alcoholism.
“I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Steve,” says singer-songwriter Kyle LaLone, whose story was published April 27. “I instantly felt comfortable and that special kind of connection folks in recovery have. It was a wonderful, cathartic experience to talk about my journey with music and sobriety. I feel very honored to have my story included among the immensely talented artists who have also been interviewed for The Ties That Bind Us.”
LaLone is one of numerous musicians who shared their respective redemption arcs with The Ties That Bind Us over the past year. There’s no prerequisite for those interested in sharing their story: From the beginning, Wildsmith understood that “recovery” isn’t a one-size-fits-all path. The linchpin is that each featured artist once struggled with drugs and alcohol but found a way out of darkness and pain that could have cost them their lives.
"Being a part of Steve's vision for The Ties That Bind Us made me grateful for community that supports each other and stands alongside each other through the hard times,” says pop star and Tony Award winner Levi Kreis, whose interview was published in March. “I love how he presented my story, and reading the stories of others reminds me that I am not alone in my sobriety.”
After launching in early June 2018, The Ties That Bind Us continued to grow in its second year, both in scope and diversity. Hip-hop artists B-RAiN, REM ONE and Philo Reitzel were part of the past year’s slate of interviewees, as were representatives of many other genres: rock (Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley, singer-songwriter Dave Hause, The JAB), country (Rachel Stacy, Terry McBride), blues (Mike Zito, Janiva Magness), Americana (The Lumineers, Kevin Bowe), alternative (Art Alexakis, Christopher Tait of Electric Six) and more.
“It was great talking with Steve because he walks that same tightrope as I do, straddling the worlds of music and sobriety,” Bowe says. “It’s rare that I get to meet someone who gets it like he does."
“This was one of the most wonderful experiences in my interview career,” adds Stacy. “Being in the music business, I can sometimes get caught up in keeping everything surface but in this situation, the honesty and the laughs I shared with Steve will be forever imprinted in my brain.”
Wildsmith, however, is reluctant to take credit. It is, after all, a blog meant to share experience, strength and hope by those whose music has already touched lives and changed hearts. That their personal stories of addiction recovery can, too, is what makes a difference, Wildsmith says.
“I’m just a messenger, but I’m honored to carry that message,” he says. “Part of 12 Step recovery, which is my personal path, is all about carrying the message of hope to those who still suffer. In a sense, every single musician I’ve interviewed does that when they honor me with the opportunity to tell their stories.
“And, I admit, it’s a little selfish on my part — because as much as they help a reader of The Ties That Bind Us, they certainly help me as well. One of the mantras of the recovery program I attend is that we can only keep what we have by giving it away — and all of these amazing musicians who took the time to share their journeys with Ties That Bind Us readers have certainly done so.
“I look forward to telling more stories in year three,” he adds. “Recovery is more common than people think, but because addiction and alcoholism continue to claim so many lives, the voices of those who have found it are needed more than ever.”