John Henry vs. alcohol: St. Louis singer-songwriter lays his hammer down

John Henry
Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

John Henry, the St. Louis-based singer-songwriter who traffics in the sort of workingman’s Americana that’s fitting for an artist who bears his name, has enormous respect for those who battle an addiction to alcohol and drugs.

The Ties That Bind UsAs a guy who’s spent most of his adult life in a business where substances often cross a line from chemical augmentation to lifelong struggles of life and death, he’s also grateful that his own struggle with alcohol never led him to those dark places.

He doesn’t make that distinction to set himself on any sort of pedestal, or to proclaim any sort of enlightenment beyond his personal experience: that mental health issues led to using alcohol as a coping mechanism, but thanks to the gift of his own self-awareness, coupled with the loving encouragement of his wife and the recognition that everything he loved was in jeopardy because of alcohol, he was able to stop.

His is a cautionary tale, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and his sobriety has given him the same sort of clarity that it does to those who spiral much further down into the abyss.

“I had to strip myself down to the core of, ‘Who am I as a person? What do I want to do, and who do I want to be?’” he said. “Because it got to the point where it was not fun anymore. It used to be fun, but then the darkness was creeping in, and it was getting darker. And that’s when I realized, ‘If you don’t stop doing this and address the way you’re feeling on the inside, you’re not going to have a very happy life.’”

John Henry: Music as a lighthouse

Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

On the other side of his decision, Henry has made some of the most compelling music of his career. Released last October, “Out at Sea” is a searing portrait of dualities: pain and celebration, loss and redemption, anxiety — from both internal and external forces — and the stoic belief that together, we can help one another through the long night to the other side.

“For me, all of the songs that I write start from a personal standpoint, and I try to work from the inside out,” he said. “So for me, it was a feeling of, you get to a certain age where maybe some of the feeling of invincibility wears off, and you start to question: What type of man do I really want to be? What are the attributes that make you a good person? What are you looking to get out of your adult life?

“I had just come off a couple of years where, mentally, I had been struggling. I had been using alcohol as a crutch to help ease a lot of the feelings I had on the inside, and so I decided to stop drinking. And my mind became a lot clearer, and a lot of the burdens I was feeling, I was able to kind of shake off.”

The name John Henry is a familiar one to those who know their American folklore, but in St. Louis, fans of the city’s thriving music scene know that the musician works just as hard as that American archetype. When he’s not playing stages throughout the Midwest, he’s booking talent for the annual Open Highway Music Festival. For years, he led John Henry and the Engine, and for “Out at Sea,” he teamed up with a cadre of St. Louis heavy hitters: John Horton of the Bottle Rockets on lead guitar, El Monstero’s Jack Elking on keys, drummer Tony Barbata, guitarist Bryan Hoskins and bassist Kevin Bachmann.

Over the years, he’s toured or opened for artists such as Jason Isbell, Dwight Yoakam, Nathaniel Rateliff and more, and when he’s in the pocket of a full-throttle Saturday night, ripping through any number of originals off of his two full-lengths (2008’s “Under the Yellow Moon” and 2016’s “Dark City Dark Country”) and a handful of EPs, he’s a sight to behold: a blue-collar shaman with a unique ability to tap into personal darkness and the existential yearning to follow the better angels of our nature.

“This business, I love it,” he said. “I love rock ‘n’ roll with my whole heart. It’s been the centerpiece of my life since I was a child.”

And as an artist who’s never shied away from asking hard questions — of both himself and his listeners — the decision to get sober demanded something more than just an unspoken promise to put the bottle down. For himself, he wanted to understand why alcohol had become such a prominent fixture in his life, and why it had become the bane of existence for so many of his contemporaries. When a close friend and former bandmate, Nathan Jatcko, committed suicide in 2018 — a year before Henry quit drinking in October of the following year — the tragedy became the tipping point in Henry’s journey of self-discovery.

“It was a combination of mental health, of losing a friend to suicide and of realizing that my brain chemistry was changing — that I was just feeling different,” he said. “I do have a lot of self-confidence, and I knew that if I chose to stop behaving a certain way, I could get back to how I always felt like I was meant to be, but I also knew that I had to put in the work, and that it was going to be hard at first.

“I feel for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, because they have a hard time not being able to correct themselves or stay on a plan for their personal success for the long haul. I feel a great deal of empathy for people like that. And when I was struggling with my darkness, I could see how certain people chose to end their lives.”

A sensitive soul finds his footing

John Henry

Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

Empathy has been both a blessing and a curse in Henry’s life as far back as he can remember. In getting sober, he’s thought a lot about how that darkness first descended upon him as a child — not from external circumstances, he adds, because he was raised in a loving and supportive family. No doubt, it contributed to his deft ability to write songs that connect with the shadowy places all human beings dwell in from time to time, but it also set the stage for his future struggles.

“I think that a lot of who you are is very self-evident as a young kid, and as a young kid, I remember being extremely sensitive,” he said. “I almost felt guilty about it at times, because I would feel anxious over the littlest thing, especially about wanting to be successful and not wanting to fail. There wasn’t an external pressure on me to be that way, because I always felt very loved — it’s just how I was born. My mind was always very active.

“I still struggle with that today, with just getting myself into a position to just be. Where you’re not worrying about something. For me, that tremendous, overwhelming feeling of anxiousness and nervousness was present at such an early age that it would manifest itself in different ways, and as I turned into an adult, alcohol was a way to slow that down.”

And for the longest time, it didn’t interfere with a career that, in the words of writer Steve Leftridge, made Henry “one of St. Louis’s best-loved troubadours, whose heartland rock smolders and smokes with small-town dramas shot in cinematic widescreen. With his evocative storytelling, melodic craftsmanship, and sandstorm vocals, Henry has consistently captivated his spirited fanbase with his rousing live shows, full of musical vignettes and emotional travelogues, prompting his audiences to open up their hearts and tonsils to sing along to Henry’s songs.”

Throughout his time with The Engine, he added, “it was fun, it was light, it was happy” — booze, as it does for so many, served as a social lubricant, a celebratory libation for good times and an altar upon which to sacrifice sorrows. For a rocker who’s certainly at home on giant stages but taps into a landscape of sonic beauty when he plays roadhouses, taverns and small clubs where the audience is up front and riding shotgun, it was the communion wine that bound them together.

“The acceptance and condoning of alcohol is a very present thing,” he said. “I don’t view alcohol as this demon, as this devil. I view it as something that can be a positive thing for a lot of people, and it was very positive for me for a long time. But you have to take stock and realize the things you’re doing and the behaviors you’re engaging in are things that are not going to lead to long-term happiness and a happy life.”

For Henry, it all came to a head around the time he and his wife were expecting their second child. Music is the thing he loves almost as much as family, but it had become a harsh mistress, and more days than not, Henry found himself overwhelmed and disheartened.

“At the time, and throughout my life, I always made a living doing it, but there was never a great deal of security with it,” he said. “And I love that —I love the excitement of the things that could happen, but I think a lot of the fear of not knowing what may happen started to wear on me. I was very happy in my marriage, and I was very happy with my kids, but I was feeling this internal pressure on myself. I was allowing myself to slip into some bad habits with using alcohol as something to ease the tension and make the pain go away.”

John Henry: How a resurrection really feels

Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

In 2016, “Dark City Dark Country” was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews and earned him a main stagte slot at the LouFest and Roots N Blues festivals. Two years later, the din and darkness of the Trump years led to “American Pain,” a song about the flag’s fraying ends of the country he loves so much, but in retrospect, it was about his own internal deterioration as well.

“I think there’s no way to escape that a lot of Americans felt the last four years were really hard, and we found ourselves asking, ‘Who are we as people? How are we treating our fellow persons? How are we taking care of those who are the least among us? How are we looking at people who are marginalized in society?’” he said. “For me as a citizen, it was a shame to see a lot of people being treated that way.”

Combined with the uncertainty of the life’s work that had become his vocation, along with his internal anxiety, led to him to withdraw. Fortunately, he added, his wife stepped in and delivered some hard truths.

“She basically told me I was turning into a shell of the man she had fallen in love with,” he said. “My parents were hurt, and my bandmates and friends could tell I was not as good as I used to be. And so with all of their support and help, I was able to address a lot of the issues that were at the cause of it. A lot of it was mental health, and those issues can become a circle — you feel upset, so you do something to make yourself feel not upset, and you end up doing something worse.

“If you don’t stop that cycle, it just gets lower and lower, until you’re on the ground. From my perspective, I don’t have the innate addiction of being an alcoholic. I feel like I had learned some very bad behaviors, and I allowed myself to engage in those behaviors. I was never reckless with my children; for me, it was an isolating behavior. I used alcohol to ease my pain, and the lightbulb moment was my wife saying, ‘You’re not the person I fell in love with right now, and you need to get back to that, because I can’t live like this anymore.’”

It was a decision that brought about some measure of trepidation, because in living life on life’s terms, Henry came to understand that alcohol had served as a shortcut through negative emotions that are an unavoidable part of the human existence.

“You have to learn that you have to do it without it, and that can expose you,” he said. “You’re going to be feeling some good things and some tough things, and you’re going to feel it in a very naked way.”

However, the beautiful realization on the other side of that fear was that he had an opportunity: not just to get back to the person he once was, but to evolve into a better version of that man.

“I realized that for me, to be the best version of myself, I was going to have to learn how to live, and reset my behaviors to learn how to be present and to be myself without any type of substance at all, and that’s a scary thing,” he said. “You have to essentially relearn every element of your public and social life. For me, it was just an exercise in learning how to do all things over again while being totally sober. People would ask me, ‘What are your triggers?’ And I didn’t really have any, because it was everywhere.

“To get a handle on it, I had to evaluate it and what I knew, and the hardest thing was knowing that I had choices to make. Then, I made choices that were because it worked. Now, I can just as easily make choices because it doesn’t, but that’s where the work comes in.”

Introspection, reflection and the work of self-care

John Henry

Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

He's no stranger to hard work: He was raised with the ethos of, “to those who have been given much, much is expected,” and part of his anxiety, he added, stems from holding himself to those high standards. In a sense, sobriety has given him the ability to accept his own humanity — that being a good husband, a good son, a good father doesn’t mean being perfect.

After all, his songs celebrate the duality of human nature and human emotion — and if he can tell stories and create characters of such complexities, why couldn’t he accept it in himself?

“People are complicated,” he said. “We’re just innately born with good qualities and bad qualities, and the mental element, the idea of mental health, will manifest itself to people at different ages. For me, it got rougher in my early- and mid-30s. Things just got harder, and I don’t exactly know why, but to get on the other side of that, you have to dig deep.

“If you want to change how you’re feeling, you have to look at it as a spectrum of, am I taking care of myself? Am I looking after my physical well-being and my emotional well-being? It’s all part of a giant puzzle that you need all the pieces for to feel good, and I was missing some of those pieces. For me, I feel like I had to look deeper into myself to figure out what type of person I wanted to be, and whether I could put in the hard work of taking care of myself.”

Part of that self-care meant reevaluating the things he holds dear, and what he discovered is that many of the core values with which he was raised were indelibly embedded in his psyche. As a younger man, the changing ways of the world did little to dent his allegiance to those values, but as he got older, and the more responsibility he had to his wife and children, the more he held himself to exacting standards that became impossible to meet.

For Henry, sobriety has been a lesson in relaxing those standards while embracing those same values. It becomes a fine art of threading an emotional needle, and it takes patience and practice, he pointed out.

“As you get older and the world around you changes, whether it’s marriage or children or learning how to be an adult, you have to grow with those changes,” he said. “You have to become more reflective. You have to be your own best friend in a lot of ways, and you also have to be your toughest critic as a person and evaluate, why am I feeling this way? What is missing within me?

“For me, as I grew, I started to feel different from my core values, and in stopping drinking, I had to figure out what I needed to do to get back to those. That was crystallized for me when we lost Nathan, because you realize that if you don’t take stock of where you are and the darkness that’s creeping in, it can completely take you over as a person.”

In that regard, “Out at Sea” is the perfect soundtrack to his evolution, especially the closing song, “Time to Dance Again.” Because as his own darkness began to lift, he began to understand a completely new concept of freedom.

“You realize that when you’re struggling mentally, it’s not a victimless crime; you’re hurting the people around you that care about you,” he said. “In thinking about what I wanted to do in life, and how I wanted to be toward my wife and my children and my family, I realized that the struggles I was having were burdening them. And now that I was free from a lot of those, I wanted that song to reflect that. I wanted it to say that it’s been a hard period, and that period is coming to an end, and now it’s time to enjoy some easy years and some good times.”

John Henry: The future is what he makes of it

Courtesy of Tim Gebauer

“Out at Sea” taps into the same inspirational vein of hope as similar-sounding artists such as Springsteen, Brian Fallon and Dave Hause, except this time around Henry’s earnestness resonates even more deeply, because the shaft in which these songs were mined leads inward. He’s still a workingman’s rocker, but from the anthemic title track to the aforementioned closer, he reminds us all that in a year like 2020, the bottom can be a fine place upon which to build a better tomorrow: “When you have nothing, you’ve got a new place to begin,” he sings, and if anything has taught him that lesson well, it’s his newfound sobriety.

“I consider myself very lucky that I was able to recognize that,” he said. “There’s a line in ‘Time to Dance Again’ — ‘dying to live, or living to die?’ And that’s an element of, are you willing to make the sacrifices and put in the hard work to allow yourself to be the best that you can be? Because we’re surrounded, especially in the music industry, by tales of people who weren’t able to correct the path, and in some cases, it cost them their lives.

“It’s a terrible injustice, and it’s a sad loss, and it’s unexplainable in a way that people can get to that point and think that there’s no way out. But I saw that firsthand. I’ve seen somebody who seems totally happy and normal and operating at a high level, but on the inside, they were feeling so much pain, you have no idea.”

If he had continued to drink, might he have found himself in the same place? Maybe, but playing what-if games is pointless, and asking “why?” or “why not?” isn’t nearly as important to Henry as asking himself, “What are you going to do now?” He’s drawn on elements of various sobriety programs, he meditates regularly, he works as hard as he can in the middle of a pandemic to maintain his various musical endeavors.

But most importantly, he bares his soul — because doing so through song is what he’s always done. That authenticity is what his fans appreciate, and it’s what makes his art both genuine and true. But more importantly, it keeps him in this new place, working toward a better version of John Henry for the benefit of his followers, his family and himself.

“It’s like, you get to a point where you’re looking at the life you’re in, and the life you want to live down the road,” he said. “You don’t know what that life will bring, but for me, I knew I wanted to be in a position where I could be steady and a good partner and prepared to be at my best, and I was not there. I was a shell of a person that I wanted to be, and the hard work for me was, I needed to teach myself how to essentially live as a person that doesn’t need any type of substance to feel a certain way.”