There aren’t a lot of live performances going on in the time of COVID-19, and that grieves the soul of William Russell Wallace.
Wallace — Billy to his friends and family, but who also might introduce himself as Will or Willie on an impish lark that’s a holdover from his desire to get a dopamine rush through any mean’s necessary — “I’ve been introducing myself around town with different forms of William wherever I go , because it’s this weird little thing where I need the dopamine rush of kind of lying to you, but not really,” he says with a laugh — lost 70 spring and summer tour dates when the pandemic shut down the music industry.
These days, he’s making bank through teaching and spending his spare time crafting songs that put him in a league with like-minded troubadours such as Dave Hause and and Ike Reilly, and he’s missing the stage, he tells The Ties That Bind Us recently. There’s a long-simmering novel he’s blowing the dust off of, and his work — a full-length album since he got sober in November 2017 (“Dirty Soul”) and a magnificent EP released in the spring — “Just a Little Joy (But It’s a Real Big Deal)” — but none of it feeds him like getting on stage and playing until his metaphorical guts are hanging from the ceiling beams.
But even then, he points out, there are some songs he often avoids playing live. Not because they’re too painful for him — there are few things that Wallace shies away from telling — but because a song like “Charlie’s Blues,” off of “Dirty Soul,” is too heavy for the roadhouse crowd that wants to forget troubles instead of marinating in them.
“It’s a very weird line to walk on tour,” says Wallace, standing on his porch in Columbia, Missouri, while his girlfriend teaches online classes in the house and a passing summer storm taps out a staccato rhythm on the surfaces of the world around him. “‘Charlie’s Blues’ is one of my favorite songs, but that ain’t a good-timing song. (Sample lyric: “So honey go on and yell at me / let that rage keep you warm all winter / I can’t be nobody’s daddy / laid up in a treatment center.”)”
“Some of the songs on that record are real rockers, and nobody hears the words anyway, but you’ve got to read the room, and songs like ‘Understanding,’ ‘Step 3 Blues’ and ‘Charlie’s Blues,’ I’m not always going to break them out.”
He pauses, reflecting on that first record under the William Russell Wallace moniker, written — all but a couple of the tracks, anyway — while he was in rehab, coming out of the fog of addiction. It’s not a record specifically for his fellow travelers on the road of recovery, but when they find his songs among the cacophony of music that saturates this hurling rock, it’s … well, it’s just a little joy. And that, sometimes, is a real big deal.
“Every now and then, someone comes up and says, ‘I see what you’re doing,’” he says. “‘Step 3 Blues’ has maybe my favorite lyric — ‘I know you get what you pay for, and these meetings are free’ — and that’s a weird one to play on tour and in bars, but every now and then, I’ll hear a big laugh in the room, and I’ll think, ‘There’s a friend of Bill Wilson over there,’ because nobody else understands what that lyric means. That one’s some real inside baseball.”
William Russell Wallace and the art of falling in love with music
Originally from Cincinnati, Wallace’s earliest memory is a musical one: Sitting on the front porch with his father, a suitcase record player, and the album “Sittin’ In” by Loggins and Messina spinning at 33 ½ rpm. “Danny’s Song” was one his pops used to sing as a lullaby, and even “House at Pooh Corner,” cheesy though it might have been, still evokes feelings of warm nostalgia when he thinks of those halcyon times. It made such am impression that when his dad died of colon cancer in 2015, Wallace played “Danny’s Song” at his funeral, making it through the first couple of verses before he broke down.
Alcoholism ran in the family, Wallace remembers, but his dad never touched it, mostly out of fear. His father, Wallace’s grandfather, was a raging alcoholic, and even though the kids remember the old man as a fun drunk who lived in Kentucky and made his own moonshine, his father’s memories were much darker. But even without substances, Wallace’s father had the manic energy of an addict or an alcoholic that he recognizes from his own sobriety.
“He got into buying and selling ancient Roman coins on eBay, all these weird hobbies, and looking back at it now that I’m in the program, I realize he was an addict — he just never drank,” Wallace says. “He was very obsessive and had that manic, sober energy that we all get when we get clean, he just never drank. He was a dentist, so he was very good with his hands and his eyes, and he loved to work on guitars. He would fix the neck, lower the bridge, file down everything, get it real good and sell it. So we had all of these really cool instruments around the house, but he wasn’t much of a player.”
His son, on the other hand, found that music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll, came natural. He just picked up a harmonica laying around the house when he was in his early teens, imitated the melodies of favorite songs and within six months, was a natural player. At 16, he started playing in bands — pop-punk groups that played youth centers and parties — and when the bass player of one quit, he nonchalantly decided to pick it up.
“I grabbed the bass and just watched the guitar player’s hands and tried to play what he did,” he says. “Today, I’ve been doing a lot of session work on bass — I’ve got a friend who sends me the work, which I love because I can’t do anything else — but I only know the numbers of the scale rather than the notes. If you tell me it’s in the key of A or something, I need you to give me the numbers, because I think about it scale-wise, not note-wise.”
Partying, however, wasn’t something that entered the picture until he left for college. Still, he concedes, his need for that dopamine fix was met through athletics. He was a basketball standout in high school at the same time he was playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands, and looking back, hustling opponents on the court gave him the same rush that dope did.
“I was really good at basketball, and beating somebody at something gave me a rush,” he says. “If I could cross you over and hit a 3 in your face, that was a really good feeling. It’s the same rush that playing pool gives me now. I was a good pool shooter when I was drunk, but now that I’m sober, get the fuck out!”
As soon as he got to college, however, the parental reins were removed, and when he started drinking heavily, he found his lane.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the best feeling ever,’” he says.
The Wading Girl: There and back again
Even before he started finding his musical footing in college, he romanticized the idea of the hard-bitten, hard-drinking, emotionally tortured artist. It was just recently that he heard the Brooks and Dunn hit “Neon Moon” and remembered loving it as a kid — so much that in the second or third grade, he actually wrote a short story by the same title.
“It was about growing up and going to the bar, so even in the second grade, the romanticism of it really appealed to me,” he says. “I romanticized it from the beginning, and I wanted to grow up and be alone and drink and be sad at the bar. So I think that genetic thing was there all along.”
He’d written songs for high school band, but even before that, making up sad country songs was something he did as a kid. Today, he still works “The Wurlitzer Prize” by Waylon Jennings into every set, and he’ll always be grateful for the time he spent covering songs by other artists. There was a period during graduate school that he played in a cover band in Missoula, Montana, and every night he peeled off chords and scream-sang lyrics by others, he learned something, he says.
“When you’re playing other people’s songs, you get great melodies drilled into your head,” he says. “You see how the Stones, how The Band, how Tom Petty did it, and you start thinking about it that way. Today, I teach fiction, and I tell students that you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader, and I feel like music is the same way. You kind of have to play other people’s songs to see how they did it.”
In college in Springfield, Ohio, he hooked up with some musicians from Roanoke, Virginia, and formed a band called The Wading Girl. That group began touring during his senior year, earning some indie buzz on the East Coast touring circuit and eventually moving to Roanoke as a home base. In a bright red van, they hit the road, playing a warm and exuberant mix of indie rock and country-tinged folk that earned the band a healthy following for a half-decade or so.
The road, though, accelerated Wallace’s love affair with alcohol.
“As soon as we went on the road, that’s when it really hit, because you’d load in to a bar or club at 5, and you don’t play until 9, so all you’re doing is hanging out in the bar, and they’re giving you free drinks,” he says. “Not long ago we went back and re-released some Wading Girl stuff to raise money for Black Lives Matter, and going back and listening to those songs, a lot of them were about trying to fight addiction, all the way back in 2007.
“I think deep down, I knew I had a problem all along, but we were romanticizing it. I think when I really realized it was after we broke up in 2009, Sarah (Garrison) and Josh (Eernisse) immediately stopped partying. We had a reputation as the drunk party band — that was our thing, and if The Wading Girl was coming to town, you knew it was going to be a party. But they immediately stopped that, and I kept going. That’s when I realized that I was the problem.”
William Russell Wallace: High-er learning
For the next couple of years, Wallace lived something of a vagabond existence out of his van, managing to keep on the functional side of his addiction, for the most part. For a few months, he landed back in Cincy and released an EP under the name Billy Wallace. There was a brief period in Brooklyn, and another in Los Angeles where he was selling drugs, and in 2009, he even got sober for 14 days, just to see if he could do it.
“That was when I went to my first (12 Step) meeting, too,” he says. “I went off and on for a lot of years, trying to get it under wraps, but that time, I wanted to see if I could do it, and then I said, ‘Cool; it’s been 14 days. Let’s get back to it.’”
He eventually wound up in Missoula, where he enrolled in a master’s program and applied his evolving writing style into short- and long-form fiction. He found work as a bartender, and during the last semester, which coincided with his father’s cancer battle, things took a dark turn.
“I missed a lot of time because I went home when he was sick, so I had some work to make up for,” he says. “I was editor-in-chief of the literary magazine; I was still bartending; and I had to double up on classes for that last semester. If it was not for cocaine, I would not have made it. I was keeping bags of blow in the office on campus, and I’d go in, do two rails real quick and keep going.
“I was getting in bar fights — and I was a bartender. I break up fights; I don’t do that shit, but there were multiple times I knocked a dude out. I knew I had a problem, but I wasn’t ready to quit.”
After grad school, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, where he threw himself into writing. He developed a ritual that seems built around those by writers like Hemingway and Raymond Chandler: Wake up, go to The Ole Barn, order a pitcher of beer, smoke and write and work on his novel. Then he’d retire to Lillian’s Music Store — a haunt frequented by Tom Petty back in the day, he points out — order whiskey, chase it with water. Maybe hit a few lines to power through, be at work at 6 p.m. and tend bar, where he was encouraged to drink in order to bond with the customers, until 4 in the morning.
“It was very measured, and it turned into this ritualistic routine where I could keep it going all day long,” he says. “There were certainly some blackouts in there, but it was incredibly manageable.”
At least until it wasn’t. He eventually shelved his novel because he and his editor disagreed on its direction, but he’s dusted it off in recent months thanks to the extra time due to COVID, and there are some passages he doesn’t remember writing. In 2017, however, things came to a head.
“I couldn’t finish songs on the stage; I’d forget where I was; I would lose the words; I would just get up and leave,” he says. “Also, I was just being unkind to people. I wasn’t treating my girl right. I loved her so much, but I was out all night, and I’d leave early in the day. I had a whole separate life, and I left her alone in that town. She wasn’t a big drinker, she didn’t do any drugs, and I had this whole separate thing going on.”
It was, he adds, a “very slow rock bottom,” but it was a bottom nonetheless.
'Easy does it,' they tell him
Plenty of recovering addicts and alcoholics get clean and sober without going to rehab, but Wallace is an experiential individual. It’s why Instagram and Facebook Live performances in the current pandemic can’t feed his soul like a public show does, and it’s why he needed the therapeutic environment of a drug and alcohol treatment center.
“(A 12 Step program) didn’t work until rehab, when I was programmed,” he says. “I didn’t know the lingo; I didn’t know the (literature). For me, I needed rehab. I got to understand it. I was able to understand that when they say, ‘Are these extravagant promises?,’ you say back, ‘We think not!’ It’s like going to church — if you’re in mass, and you know the call-and-response, you’re part of it. If you don’t, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’
“I think a lot of us are always looking for an excuse not to do it, and I needed to be reprogrammed. I’m also a firm believer in that the first time you’re in a room and say, ‘I’m Billy, and I’m an alcoholic,’ then the party is over. You can always go back to drinking, but it’s never going to be the same. That’s why, when people ask me how I did it, I tell them to go to a (12 Step) meeting and sit back for a minute, just to observe, because once you say that, everything changes.”
For Wallace, things started to change almost immediately. He’d worked on his novel, but he hadn’t written a song in years, he says — and in rehab, he wrote almost the entirety of “Dirty Soul.” “Understanding,” in fact, is built off of a bathroom recording he made on his cell phone, posted up in the treatment center with a guitar and that warbling, distinctive voice of his that sounds like a cross between Langhorne Slim and Wayne Coyne.
After leaving treatment, he and his girl moved back to Cincy, where they moved into the vacant apartment above his father’s old dental office. An old friend was managing a local bar that booked shows, and for his first public show in sobriety, she offered him an opening slot for singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, an indie artist of some renown. He was a few months sober at the time, had a bunch of songs that would wind up on “Dirty Soul” and figured a Sunday evening show would be a nice way to ease back in.
Except he didn’t realize what kind of a following Devine had, and when he showed up to play, the place was packed. Sold out. But he’d tagged Devine in a Twitter post, and in the green room, the headliner came up to him.
“He told me, ‘Dude, I’m 10 years sober, and I’m really proud of you, and I really believe this was supposed to happen. This was supposed to be your first show back,’” Wallace remembers. “I was shaky, man. I had never gotten nervous, not even at 16 when we played to 5,000 people on time, but this was my first sober show, and I was losing it. But here was Kevin, this big touring act, and he stood at the side of the stage during my set and watched.
“Every time I looked over, he would give me a thumbs-up. And after I watched his show, I was packing up my gear to get out, and runs over and gave me his phone number and said, ‘If you ever need anything, hit me up.’ If that hadn’t been my first show, I don’t know if I would have kept doing it, but when he said it was meant to be, I think, yeah — it was.”
William Russell Wallace washes his 'Dirty Soul' clean
That particular show, he adds, gave him the courage to record “Dirty Soul” and mount a tour to support it. He hadn’t been on the road since 2014, but between Devine’s encouragement — and a Twitter conversation with multi-decade sober keyboard god Benmont Tench, who also offered advice and support — he pushed fear aside and found that recovery means so much more than simply putting down drugs and alcohol.
It means discovering the true nature of self. Putting it on like a new coat that may feel a little strange at first but quickly transforms into familiar flannel, the most comfortable drapery that the soul has ever felt. Along the way, he found himself visiting familiar places — like a 12 Step meeting in Missoula, where he occasionally darkened the doorway before he was ready to commit.
“We go to meetings on the road every day — you kind of have to if you’re playing in bars every night — and at that one in Missoula, the chair of the meeting remembered me when I came in every once in a while when I lived there,” he says. “When she saw me, she said, ‘I’m so happy that it finally stuck.’”
And stuck it has. He’s coming up on three years sober, and he and his girlfriend recently moved to Columbia to be closer to home and for her to go to school. He’s bartending again — a strange experience for someone in sobriety, and not something he’d recommend to everyone, but he enjoys it even more now that he’s not knocking them back in equal measure with the customers. Besides, he holds himself accountable — to the people in his life, and even to his peers in the music community.
“It’s wild, the people who reach out,” he says. “Once I got out of rehab, I think I posted to Instagram with my six-month token, and I was in Gainesville at the time. Everybody in Gainesville knew, because I quit my job and disappeared for a month to go to rehab, but my wider friends, the people in the touring community, their initial reaction was, ‘You were always the life of the party! You bought everybody drinks and made sure everybody got home safe!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I shouldn’t have been driving you guys home — you’re lucky to be alive!’”
His laughter is infectious, that of a man who finds the joy in the smallest of things. It’s little wonder that such a trait because the title track of the EP he released in March — a last-minute scrapping of a planned summer full-length. With no touring possible because of COVID-19, it didn’t make sense, but he wanted to release new music — and what a warm collection it is. There’s an authenticity, a lived-in gravitas that’s both buoyantly hopeful and nostalgically melancholy, to Wallace’s voice, and “Just a Little Joy” is the perfect panacea for troubled times.
Since then, he’s been writing steadily, and he’s hoping to go back into the studio next month to track new music with a full band. There’s a public relations agent involved, and while touring may not be possible until 2021, there’s also renewed attention to his novel … a deepening relationship with his partner … a new town … and a wide open future.
It’s a good life, even if he can’t play live.
“It’s weird not to have that to work toward, but it’s really nice to have all the time in the world to work on the songs and really flesh them out,” he says.