Light, life and music: Singer-songwriter Eric Stracener thrives in sobriety

Eric Stracener

The first thing Eric Stracener heard when he pulled open the door to his first 12 Step meeting wasn’t what he expected.

The Ties That Bind UsFor the singer-songwriter, who last fall released the stellar indie-folk record “Ocean Springs,” the trip up those stairs seemed like the shuffle of a condemned man to the chair. He remembers vividly, he told The Ties That Bind Us, steeling himself for what awaited on the other side of those nondescript walls, just a short drive from the Jackson, Mississippi, home that had become a place of turmoil because of his drinking.

“I thought when I drove up to that meeting, ‘Now I’ve got to grow up. It’s not going to be a lot of fun, and I’m going to lose a lot, but it’ll be worth it, because I want to be a better person, and I want to be a better dad,’” Stracener recalled. “But the first thing I heard before I even opened the door was uproarious laughter. In fact, there was so much laughter going on in there that I almost thought, ‘You’re in the wrong place!’

“But I was not in the wrong place. I was in the right place, and a few of the guys took me out for coffee that night, and one of them is my sponsor to this day. That was 10 years ago and change, and for me, having had the expectation that I was just going to do this to be better and forego things to get there, it’s been a constant surprise and delight that the opposite is true.”

Instead, Stracener could start at dawn writing down a list of all that he’s gained in sobriety and still not be finished by the time the sun went down. Friendships, for one — those are huge, he added. But more than anything else, he found a way to “deal with things that go wrong,” he added.

In recovery, they call that learning to handle “life on life’s terms,” something that Stracener — not alone, by any stretch of the imagination — couldn’t seem to do before without turning to the bottle.

“Early on in a meeting, the phrase ‘right-sized’ kept coming back up — ‘look at your problems in a right-sized way,’ and I learned to do that,” he said. “I don’t blow them off, and I don’t exaggerate them, either. I started doing a better job of seeing the world as it was. And even though it took me a while to figure it out, I finally did: that if I am not the problem, then there is no solution.”

Eric Stracener: A fan first

In recovery, those who have strung together a few 24 hours sober tell newcomers to “keep it simple.” For Stracener, an attorney by trade, that was difficult at first: “I’m a lawyer, I like to read fiction, I like complicated lyrics, so at first, I kept thinking, ‘Let’s explicate it!” he said. “But there is no explication.”

In other words, trying to figure out how the process works amounts to the sort of wheel-spinning that prevents an individual from making spiritual progress in the fight against alcoholism. And as the son of a recovering alcoholic who grew up in Mobile, Alabama — a town that doesn’t have New Orleans’ reputation for hedonism but does a damn fine job of embracing it under the radar — there was a lot of baggage to unpack when he first came to the rooms.

However, there was also a lot of potential — for both personal and artistic improvement. Despite his love of the law, music has always had a piece of his heart, as far back as he can remember.

“My father played guitar, and I remember him playing songs for us when we were little,” he said. “We had a room that we called our study, where a lot of books and the stereo were, and I was just always fascinated with records — and the first records that really blew me away were by Elton John. And really, you could have a much worse first start, as far as someone who was actually a really good songwriter.

“He was not just a pop star — I mean, he certainly was that, but the lyrics got me, and the playing got me, and the way the records sounded, and I just remember being all in. Some of the songs were cinematic, and I remember a lot of the lyrics required some work — ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ for example — but that was probably my first memory of music, hearing Elton John on FM radio and riding around in the car and then saving up money and going to the Record Bar, or wherever it was, in the mall.”

His brother’s love of music influenced his own, and together they went on sonic adventures that led to the discovery of the Ramones (“What the Ramones were to me were like a doo-wop rock ‘n’ roll group that played a lot louder!” Stracener said), Dream Syndicate and, on one particularly bountiful record store trip, copies of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and The Clash’s “London Calling.” As his tastes grew more refined, he found himself drawn to melody and lyrics more than anything else, and one of his oldest friends — Nashville sideman, producer and session musician Will Kimbrough, who’s worked on a number of Stracener’s releases — played a big role in shaping both the music he loved and what he would eventually play.

“He went to my high school, and we played Little League football together. Our parents were friends, and I’ve known him since I was 5 and he was 6,” Stracener said. “He had a band as early as a middle school talent show, actually. He could play his ass off when he was 12 years old, and he was a record freak, too, and still is. His band in high school played covers by all kinds of people. He was always writing good songs, but they played songs by The Jam, by NRBQ, by Big Star.

“He was how I got turned on to Richard Thompson. All of these people who wound up being my favorites, Will knew about them, because a lot of times, I thought the songs were his! ‘Shake Some Action,’ by the Flamin’ Groovies — I thought that was Will’s! He had such good taste and such broad taste, and that influenced me greatly. And then my younger brother had a band in high school, and I remember thinking, ‘God I wish I could do that.’”

Eric Stracener: Marinated in Mobile

Eric StracenerIt's hard to describe, Stracener said, just how much alcohol was a part of the culture of Mobile while he was growing up. Mardi Gras in New Orleans gets a lot of attention, but it’s a tradition that started in the Alabama city back in 1703, when it was the capital of Louisiana. Over the past three centuries, it’s grown into a celebration that infuses all aspects of the city’s way of life, and it wasn’t a big deal to be a 14-year-old teen going to keg parties thrown by older teens.

“I tell people that, and if they’re not from there or from New Orleans, they don’t believe me,” Stracener said. “There would be 200 kids there and 40 kegs of beer, and there would be 20 parents there watching the whole thing, chaperoning and drunk off their asses, too. These huge parties with alcohol weren’t just part of the thing; it was the thing, and so everybody in the scene drank.”

Except, he added, his own parents. His father was a recovering alcoholic for the last 20 years of his life, but he was also sage enough to let his son make his own choices. Stracener marvels at the fact that his father never imposed his own values onto his children, but by the time he made it to Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, after high school, he was already a veteran partier.

“I never saw my parents drunk, ever, but every time I went out and every time I did anything, everybody around me was drunk, always,” he said. “It was a crazy Jekyll and Hyde thing, and the alcohol, it always worked. I was probably a little anxious, like most teenagers, and it was good medicine for that in the short term. And then when I got to college as a freshman, I was legally able to drink in Mississippi, and I immediately joined the single wildest fraternity.”

Like most men and women who eventually find themselves sitting in a 12 Step meeting, however, Stracener didn’t turn into a raging alcoholic all at once. In college, he was able to compartmentalize, dedicating himself to his studies and then cutting loose on the weekends. He took pride in his academic achievements, he said, and he picked up the guitar for the first time as a senior.

“I had an honors paper I was writing, and I was very stressed out, and I thought it would be a good way to kill time and get away from it,” he said. “That’s when I figured out, ‘You can kind of do this.’ It was inspiring to have my brother and my friend in great bands, but it was also a little intimidating, because until that point, I though it was something they could do, but not me.”

After graduating from Millsaps, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama, and while pursuing a master’s degree was a dead end — “I was terrible at it, and I hated it. I thought I was going to be an English teacher, and I failed,” he said with a chuckle — his musical horizons expanded. He joined a band as a rhythm guitar player, and watching his old bandmate’s songwriting process gave him ideas and prompts that he would file away for later on.

After a year and a half, however, he left school and started drinking more, working dead-end jobs that freed up his evenings but ultimately left him feeling purposeless.

“I think maybe that’s when I noticed that I should slow down or stop (drinking), and I did stop for about a year, when I was in my 20s, because I noticed I didn’t have an off switch,” he said. “Then, I sort of had a goal in mind: I was going to work for two years, save up some money, take the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), which is what I did. And when I got into law school, I decided I could start back (drinking) and be OK.”

A love of law and guitar

Courtesy of Chad Edwards/MCE Photography

And he was, for a while. He graduated with a law degree, moved from Oxford to Jackson, Mississippi, and embraced a new job, a new wife and a new life. Music was still a big part of his life, but after law school, the floodgates of creativity opened wide, he said.

“In law school, I got an acoustic guitar, and even though there wasn’t a whole lot of time for being in a band, I started thinking, ‘I’ll see if I can write songs,’” he said. “I started writing, including a few bad ones, and played a few little solo things in Oxford. But then when I moved to Jackson, I started really writing songs, and they just kept coming. I was real lucky; I had good musicians all around me that were my friends, and I would up working with Nielson Hubbard on my first record.

“He and I would get together on nights and weekends, doing these recording sessions after I made sure my baby boy was in bed and that it was cool with my wife to leave the house. It was kind of what I did for a hobby, and we got this record done — Nielson produced it — and it was fun. When you actually make a record and the CDs show up, it’s a trip. It’s like, ‘Holy shit, this is real! This is how people do this!’”

That album, “Sockeye,” was released in 2003, and even though it was a do-it-yourself project, it opened the doors for everything that would follow. The next couple of years revolved around family and the law and slowly putting aside songs and funds for his next record, “The Trickbag,” which came out in 2006 and represents a more fully fleshed out sound and credited to Stracener and a backing band, The Frustrations. Writing for the Jackson Free Press, Lynette Hanson described “Trickbag” as “infectious, in a way that makes me see visions with some songs.”

Life, it seemed, was good.

“One would think, everything would have been easy and great, but looking back, I think I let my guard down,” he said.  “My family history of drinking was there, and I tried to stop a few times — not because anybody was telling me to, because everybody around me was still drinking like a fish. It was all internal for me. But I went through some big shifts in my early 40s.

“I had two beautiful little kids but a failing marriage, and I figured some things were going to be changing. On top of that, my law firm was coming to a point where we were going to probably wind up separating because of some differences and the different directions some of us wanted to go.”

It all came to a head on that fateful night when he drove to the nearest recovery meeting, steeled himself for the change that was to come and walked through the door.

“I was just ready. I don’t know how else to say it,” he said. “I had good friends who were sober, and I have some good friends who had never drank in their life, and then there was my dad. I had some examples around me of people who were happy, joyous and free, and then when I got into the meeting, I saw people I knew and liked, who I had no idea were sober.

“But the main reason I wanted to stop was that I think I had the sense that there were about to be some big shifts, and I did not want to be impaired. And as it turned out, I underestimated how big the shifts were. Getting divorced with little kids was extremely difficult, and the firm breakup was extremely hard for all involved. And then me and another guy split off and started our own firm with nothing but optimism and a credit line.

“All this stuff kind of happened, and I was pretty vulnerable, and I was pretty ready,” he added. “That’s how the stars aligned.”

The road to 'Ocean Springs'

Eric Stracener

Courtesy of Chad Edwards/MCE Photography

He spent the next 10 years working on his sobriety and finding his footing in the world without the crutch of alcohol. He and his new partner built up their fledgling practice, and he found love again, eventually remarrying and establishing a blended family. Eventually, the guitar started whispering again, and with old friend Steve Deaton in the producer’s chair, he released “Levee” in 2018.

“That was fun, and I got back on schedule and started cranking out songs, and ‘Ocean Springs’ is kind of the result of that,” he said. “My idea was that the acoustic guitar is really my main instrument, and I wanted to write some folky songs around an acoustic, but instead of the DIY approach, I wanted to schedule a bunch of sessions stretched out over God-knows-how-long.

“So I booked some time with Nielson and Will at a studio of their choosing, and we went in last July. We started at 9 a.m. and worked until about 4, and we made it in three days. The way professional people make music has nothing to do with drugs and alcohol!”

It was, he added, a far cry from the sessions for “Sockeye,” which started around noon, included a great deal of beer and some weed and Hubbard reaching his limit with the lackadaisical approach to making a record.

“I remember he was getting a little grouchy, and one of the guys said, ‘What do you want to do next?,’ and Nielson said, ‘I don’t know, man, why don’t you just go get some more beers?’” Stracener said. “Of course, we didn’t use any of those sessions. It didn’t sound good, because that stuff doesn’t help anything.”

And “Ocean Springs” is more than enough evidence to show that great art doesn’t require it, either. There’s a soft-spoken cadence to his vocals that serves as another instrument alongside the guitar, and the introspective nature of the lyrics serve as both a nostalgia to simpler times and the ruminations of a man taking stock of a life that, despite its challenges, has turned out relatively well.

And looking around at the company he’s in as a recovering musician makes Stracener more appreciative of the gifts that sobriety has given him.

“The more I find out about the people whose music I admire, so many of them are sober,” he said. “It just makes your chance of producing good stuff better. I mean, why would alcohol be bad for parenting a child, but good for producing music? It’s not!

“My dad always used to say, ‘If you like what you’re doing, then keep doing it … but if not, change it.’ It’s pretty simple. The shortcut is just knowing that there is no shortcut — but there is a really good map.”