HOLIDAY BREAK: A song’s hope lights a candle during addiction’s dark days

Jason Ringenberg (courtesy of Gregg Roth)
Jason Ringenberg (courtesy of Gregg Roth)

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we celebrate the holiday season, we’re taking a two-week hiatus from interviews here at The Ties That Bind Us, returning on Jan. 6 with our feature on the incredible Joe Nester, but I didn’t want to let this blog sit idle over the break.

Jason Ringenberg is not an addict or an alcoholic, but he’s a friend and supporter of many. You may recall that, as the frontman for the seminal Nashville cow-punk outfit Jason and the Scorchers, he’s played for almost four decades alongside guitarist Warner E. Hodges, whom we profiled a few weeks ago. This year, he released the solo record “Stand Tall,” but I’ve been a fan of his for far longer. In fact, I wrote a column for the newspaper about this particular song — “Merry Christmas My Darling,” from 2000’s “A Pocketful of Soul” album — back in 2016, and every year, I keep coming back to it.

It’s a beautiful, plaintive lament of tradition from a front-line soldier, as well as the searing hope that he’ll get to return home soon. Last week, after much thought, I figured out why it means so much to me … and it’s directly tied to my addiction recovery. I can think of no fitting blog post during the week of Christmas than to reprint a letter I wrote to Jason, thanking him for it. Merry Christmas, to all of you.

— Steve Wildsmith


Dear Jason,

The Ties That Bind UsI hope this finds you well. You've been on my mind this holiday season, and "Merry Christmas My Darling" is on my playlist, as always. My 2-year-old daughter loves it when I sing it to her, and she's started asking Alexa to play it whenever we're in the kitchen together.

I've been thinking a lot about that song and why I feel such an affinity for it, and I think I've figured it out. I revisited it this week in a Facebook post, and I'm writing another piece on a favorite holiday song by one of your old compadres, Mr. R.B. Morris. ("A Winter's Tale," from his 1999 record "Zeke and the Wheel.") Both of those songs resonate because of the earnestness ... the reverence and respect for tradition, and the longing for those traditions that we so often take for granted when they're a part of our lives every holiday season.

I think you and I might have spoken in the past about my history, but there was a time in the late '90s and early '00s when I was lost and broken, a slave to the needle and existing as a ghost propped up solely by heroin. My addiction always took a darker, harder turn during the holiday season, and I don't think there's anything more lonely or full of anguish than being consumed by that soul-gnawing need for dope while the rest of the world goes about its holiday revelry. You feel like a shadow on the wall, watching the people around you pass you by, unable to do anything but scream into the eternal abyss with the wounded howl of a desperate animal starving from a lack of connection and grace.

That, I think, is why your song means so much to me. I would never, in a million years, compare myself to a combat veteran like the narrator of your song, but in a sense, I was in the trenches of my own war ... one for my soul, where the absence of all those things he sings about becomes a palpable, burning beacon of hope that I could see and smell and taste and feel but was unable to be a part of. I can remember one particular Christmas Eve, copping a bag of dope and shooting up before going to a party with close friends, none of whom had any idea. It was such a bizarre juxtaposition — riding the euphoric bliss of a narcotized haze, in a room full of people I loved and who loved me back, and feeling so absolutely, completely alone and lost.

The next morning, I did the rest of the bag and called my family, pretending that everything was OK, and thought long and hard about climbing into the bathtub and slitting my wrists. I didn't, not that day, but that dark place was coming, and I could see it over the horizon like the fat, pulsating clouds of an approaching storm. I don't think I've ever felt a deeper ache than remembering the boy I was, surrounded by family and presents and love and food and joy and comfort on Christmas mornings of old, and feeling like that magic and solace was lost to me forever.

I've been clean and sober now for almost 18 years, and I'm still active in recovery. Those dark times seem like another life, but I hold fast to the memories, because in the madcap hustle of this new life I have with a wife and kids and jobs and all the trappings of material blessings, it's easy, man ... so damn easy to lose gratitude and take it all for granted and let the trivial annoyances of traffic and shopping and crowds and busy schedules rob me of a few moments beside the Christmas tree in the darkened living room, holding my daughter and singing along softly to this song.

I don't mean to spill my guts to you like this, brother, and I certainly don't want you to feel like you're a substitute sounding board for a therapist, LOL. I've been more than open about my addiction and my journey in all areas of my life, including the newspaper, and I know it can feel a little strange to get an email like this — effusive thanks commingled with a confessional that's probably waaaay too real and raw for a Tuesday morning.

But I believe, with all that I am, that music is the thread that connects us all, and your music has always been one of the strongest. This song, in this season, is a blessing, and I didn't want to let this Christmas go by without thanking you again for birthing it and sharing it and letting the rest of us have a little piece of it. Speaking for myself, it's a powerful reminder and a signpost — that the light of hope I saw burning in the spiritual distance all those years ago is not only tangible, but a destination to which I've arrived, stumbling and staggering through the years and the challenges and the tragedies.

"Merry Christmas my darling, don't you give into doubt ..."

Indeed, my friend. Thank you. Much love, and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Your friend,

Steve

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