Before he met his musical partner Malarie McConaha with whom he founded the roots music group The FBR, Tim Hunter was in a relationship that almost cost him his sanity.
In many ways, he told The Ties That Bind Us this week, it felt like being a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, except that the woman he attempted to pull from the turbulent waters of trauma and alcoholism didn’t want to be saved. He spent a number of years trying to figure out what he might have done differently, but with McConaha’s help and the hindsight of time and understanding, he came to realize that alcoholism’s hold was akin to the inexorable pull of a riptide.
And try as he might, his impassioned entreaties and efforts were no match for a disease that consumed his partner and his relationship.
“It was the first time I’d ever dated somebody who was a full-blown alcoholic, and I didn’t even know it until I was committed in the relationship,” Hunter said. “She was high-functioning during the day, and she was cute, sweet, bubbly and happy … and seemed really with it, but pretty much at 7 every night, the darkness from her childhood would creep back in, and she had to numb that somehow. And the way she did it was to start drinking until she drank herself to sleep every night.”
The powerless, the hopelessness and the frustration he felt weren’t unique to that particular coupling. It’s a dynamic all too familiar to those who find themselves in love with addicts or alcoholics, but few manage to turn that pain into art. In April, to commemorate Alcohol Awareness Month, The FBR released the searing and haunting new song “Before I Drown,” in which the duo flips the script and sings from the perspective of the afflicted:
“Sometimes faith just ain’t enough / the pain is deep and I need my crutch / I know that you are lying near / even you can’t ease my fears …”
She may never hear it, Hunter acknowledged, and he’s gone to great lengths to make the protagonist of the song as generic as possible to save her and her family from any additional pain. But through the lens of “Before I Drown,” he’s come to understand the true nature of addiction: It’s a sickness that infects so many more people than just the individual addict or alcoholic, and that love, sometimes, isn’t enough to snatch them from its grasp.
“I tried to be a good partner, and I really wanted to help her, but I wasn’t equipped,” he said. “It hits you before you even know there’ a problem. It rushes up on you, and when you’re in the middle of this thing, you don’t know what to do with it. You want to help, but you see your own life degrading when you’re trying to help somebody else whom you see wasting away.”
The FBR: Leiper's Fork proud
The FBR was born in the hipster-meets-rural community of Leiper’s Fork, technically a part of Franklin, Tennessee, and located near Nashville. It’s a bohemian little community in which generations of salt-of-the-Earth Tennesseans live side-by-side with musicians and artists drawn to the picturesque hamlet, and while Hunter and McConaha definitely qualify as the latter, they’re not nearly as well known as power couple Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, who also call the community home.
McConaha had drifted to the area from rural Ohio, and one night at an open mic at Puckett’s — a former small-town grocery store that’s since become something of a legendary watering hole and music venue — she got on stage to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song more familiar as a standout on Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” but a Cohen classic nevertheless.
Hunter happened to be in the crowd, however, and when McConaha sang some of the more obscure lyrics that are conveniently left out when church choirs adapt the song for worship, he knew he had to introduce himself.
“He came up to me afterward and said, ‘I don’t think you learned that in church, did you?’” she recalled. “We talked about Leonard Cohen, and we eventually talked about getting together to write some songs, and that led to him asking me to join his band.”
That group — The Big South Band — lasted almost a year before the other members drifted out of state, but rather than call it quits and go their separate ways, Hunter and McConaha decided to press on as a duo. That was in 2016, and the following spring — again, outside of Puckett’s — they ran into Matt Sepanic, a producer and audio engineer, although they didn’t know it at the time. Then, Hunter and Sepanic bonded over the Mickey Thompson tires that were on Sepanic’s Jeep.
“We all went to a get-together that night, and a couple of weeks later, we ran into each other in Walmart in Fairview, and we ended up exchanging numbers,” McConaha said. “He told us he taught audio engineering, but I like to Google people, so when I got home I looked him up and looked at his resume and his discography, and our minds were blown.”
Sepanic, it turns out, had worked with some of the heaviest names in metal, bands like Slipknot, Murderdolls and Stone Sour among them. He’s also an audio engineer instructor at Dark Horse Studios in Franklin, a huge fan of Americana and roots music, and asked if McConaha and Hunter wanted to cut a few tracks with him, which led to the beginning of a partnership that would bear fruit over the next several years.
Regroup, rebrand and recommit: A band is born
Those initial sessions established the chemistry upon which the three would eventually build The FBR sound, but McConaha and Hunter opted to pursue other options at first. After their studio sessions with Sepanic in 2016, they remained friends and put together another band that demonstrated promise but started taking on another sound.
“We loved the guys we were playing with, but we were losing that roots sound, and that felt like a really important part of what we did,” Hunter said. “We don’t always tell a dark story in every song, but storytelling is what we like to do, with a lot of imagery and a lot of rough topics in our music. But the way it was being treated, it sounded almost too happy, and we felt like we needed to get back to a sound that paralleled the lyrics.”
“It was just a sound that moved in a direction we didn’t want to go, so we went back to Matt and said, ‘What’s it going to take to do this full on?’” McConaha added. “He had those original demos sitting on the shelf, and we just knew that was our sound.”
That was in 2019, and by that point, Hunter and McConaha had settled on a name as well as a musical ethos, and it was a full-circle return to the songwriter who penned the tune over which they bonded in the first place: Leonard Cohen.
An important but little-known connection between The FBR and Cohen: The latter also spent some time in Leiper’s Fork. After his 1967 debut album, he retreated to Tennessee, disillusioned but hungry to connect with his muse. There, in an isolated cabin on East Big Fork Road, he became something of a local oddity, recording a handful of records in nearby Nashville — including 1971’s “Songs of Love and Hate,” on which was the song “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
“There were always connections in our love for Leonard and our love for his writing, which is why we decided to call ourselves The Famous Blue Raincoat before we decided that was too long and said, ‘Let’s just shorten it to The FBR,’” Hunter said.
A drive to the former site of Cohen’s cabin, where rumor has it he answered the door naked and kept company with a rodeo rider and a moonshiner, cemented their union as acolytes of Cohen’s musical philosophy, filtered through their own experiences and love of roots rock.
“He went out there, from what we understand it, and kind of found himself — and this is where we have kind of found ourselves, too,” Hunter added.
'Before I Drown': The making of a song
In 2019, with a renewed commitment to the stark and spiritual ruminations that are the foundation stones of their lyrics, they gathered with Sepanic once more. By that time, Dark Horse had become a popular recording spot for some of the biggest names in Nashville, but over the course of the next couple of years, he made time for late-night recording sessions with McConaha and Hunter. It was a period of deconstruction: taking the songs the pair had developed during their time away, stripping away the material that didn’t fit The FBR narrative and honing in on the visceral bone carvings that evoke primitive spirits of pain and beauty.
“You can hear an evolution in my vocals, because Matt has this unparalleled studio manner,” McConanha said. “I thought I was going to be a writer; I never thought I was going to be a performer, but he helped me figure out that singing was more about the emotions.”
For Hunter, who started writing when he was 8 years old, the studio became the place where incantations of guitar, bass and drums brought his vividly penned stories to life. “Before I Drown,” however, was one that took a while to develop, because the story upon which it’s based was so personal and so painful, even after several years, that it never felt complete until he met McConaha.
“I wanted to write a bridge about a part of the story she told me about her childhood, these things that just pierced my heart that an innocent child would have to go through stuff like that,” he said. “She told me about how her mom was an addict and would bring home random strangers who would come in and sexually abuse her when she was young. She told me about how she tried to wedge herself between the bathtub and the door to keep them from coming in for her, and I hadn’t really figured out a way to tell that story in a song where it would make sense.”
As their friendship blossomed, Hunter eventually opened up to McConaha. The story unfolded in bits and pieces at first — how Hunter’s ex would get annoyed if they went out to eat and he ordered a soda instead of drinking with her, or about how the first time he cooked a nice meal and poured them both glasses of expensive wine, she wide-mouthed the goblet and guzzled it like her body needed it.
For McConaha, whose rural Ohio upbringing had made her all too familiar with addiction and mental illness, the song may have been about a specific individual, but it spoke to her experiences as well, she added.
“I’m pretty fortunate in that in my immediate family, there hasn’t been any addiction, but I’ve probably had 20 or 30 or maybe even 40 kids from my four years in high school of who died of overdoses,” she said. “I’ve struggled with mental health issues, and I have a similar backstory to the girl in the song, and for so many years, I tried to shove it down and pretend it didn’t happen. I remember the day I told Tim, I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. My parents had tried their hardest to protect me, and unfortunately, members of the community they should have been able to trust, broke that trust.
“I hadn’t believed what had happened to me was abuse. I was so little, and those memories were so distant, but when you start to open up, you realize how much an abuse situation like that can shape your life. And the woman we’re singing about is a perfect example: She was a strong warrior, a little girl who picked up weapons to protect herself but forgot to put them back down when she no longer needed them.”
The FBR: Gaining traction and moving forward
Hunter played a fledgling version of the song for McConaha early on in their relationship, but it wasn’t until they were sitting around a bonfire one night, jamming and singing, that she began rapping the lyrics to TLC’s “Waterfalls,” just for fun.
“That’s when I realized what I needed to do, so I wrote a spoken word bridge to it,” Hunter said. “The woman in the song was also a big Eminem fan, so it was another way of just honoring her.”
They sang a version of “Before I Drown” with The Big South Band, but it wasn’t until 2019, when a prospective manager and friend asked them to play some obscure songs from their catalog for him, that they resurrected it. They hadn’t played it in years, but in that moment, McConaha said, the subject matter, her work with Sepanic and her own history turned it into an incendiary and evocative spur-of-the-moment creation.
“I think in coming to reckon with everything I had been through, something came over me, because when I got to the rap section, tears were almost going down my face,” McConaha said. “He said, ‘that’s your next song, and you’re crazy if you don’t record it.’”
They started tracking the song in late 2019, but like many acts, COVID-19 delayed their plans, and they didn’t finish the vocals until last summer. A profile in the publication American Songwriter unveiled the newly recorded version, and while the pair was nervous about its reception, it works exactly as intended: as a touchstone for others whose lives have been impacted and affected by addiction in some form or fashion.
“I had all sorts of dark thought, especially wondering if people were going to think I’m crazy for doing a rap, but now we’ve had people reaching out and saying, ‘I can’t tell you how much I needed this,’” McConaha said.
“It’s amazing how many doors this has opened up,” Hunter added. “We had a delivery driver the other day who told us his story, and it turns out he’s a war vet and the head of a sober living facility. We’re friends now, and he’s shared the song, because he felt like it resonated with him.”
Not every song by The FBR from this point forward will cut like a knife — the next single, “Still on the Run,” will be lighter, Hunter said, and the plan is to have a full-length album complete by the end of the year, so that 2022 can be spent on the road and introducing The FBR to the American festival circuit. Ideally, they’d like to eventually build a band dynamic that resembles the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, with the two of them out front like Derek and Susan, but with a cast of players who can take their songs and give them a stratospheric lift.
“My mindset of the band has always been that garage band template — the band you grow up with in high school, where you’re all learning your instruments at home and you all play the prom and you all had a creative say in what happens,” Hunter said. “In my mind, that’s kind of the way I’ve looked at it, and I do want to create that, but it does take it down a different path, and we want to keep it locked in on the sound we’ve found for ourselves.”
Because that sound … those lyrics … that vision … it resonates. They hear it all the time. Just the other night, Hunter added, a fan heard “Before I Drown” and had to tell them how it had been delivered at a time she needed to hear it.
“We’ve got a few musicians in mind that we’re talking to about coming out with us, and we’ve got a PR agent. We’re looking at booking agents and management types and trying to take care of the business side,” McConaha said. “But really, we just want to play. At this point, we are the band, and we love it when people come up and want to talk about something we’ve written.”