These days, with several years of sobriety under his belt, Jedd Hughes lives in the light.
There’s plenty of it to go around: Playing as part of country superstar Vince Gill’s band, for example, or his own career as a singer-songwriter that gets a bump when he releases a new solo album, “West,” on Aug. 30. The Nashville circle in which he lives these days includes such luminaries as Rodney Crowell and Sarah Jarosz and Emmylou Harris, icons who have, at one time or another, tapped Hughes’ talent to beef up their own records.
A wife, a son, a career … he’s a grateful man, and he holds fast to the reasons for that gratitude. Because he knows full well that the darkness he’s lived with all of his life is still out there, on the nebulous reaches of his universe, waiting for the light to dim so that it can gain a foothold.
“Even just the other day, I had this incredibly aggressive conversation with a complete stranger at the airport,” Hughes told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I just happened to get in his way, and I just got so angry, at my core, and I walked to the closest bar I could find and just stood there for a minute. And then I thought, ‘Nah, I’m not going to give up all this work I’ve done for this stranger.’
“I knew it wasn’t going to change anything. It wasn’t going to change how I felt, but it was an example of a situation where, every now and then, you get so intensely tested, and it would have been so easy just to go back.”
From a land Down Under
With almost four years sober, however, he’s come too far to give it all up. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he used music as a way out of the rural life that provided memories both charming and melancholy, he said.
“I grew up on the edge of a little farming town right on the outskirts of the South Australian desert,” Hughes said. “My parents were sharecrop farmers, and then my dad was also a local handyman guy who kind of scratched out a living with the farm and with building. He was also kind of a local music man, the guy you wanted to show up at the party with a guitar, so everybody would have a good time and he could get things going.”
Music was ever-present in his home, with his father’s collection of early American country blaring out of one side and his brother’s classic rock and metal out of the other. Hughes fell in love with both, but when he ruminated recently on his earliest memory, he realized that songs tapped into an inherent sadness that was a part of his young soul as well.
“I watched a Tony Robbins documentary a couple of days ago, and in it he asked people to remember the earliest memory they could recall, the first thing they could possibly remember as a kid,” he said. “The only thing I could pinpoint was sitting by a window in my parents’ bedroom, listening to a Beatles record by myself, sitting in the sun. I remember hearing the song ‘Yesterday,’ and I remember thinking that I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I felt sad when I heard that song. Maybe that’s where I get my melancholy from.”
If his father passed along a love of music, which tapped into Hughes’ inner darkness, he also indirectly taught his son about ways to make it go away for a little while as well.
“My dad was a pretty freewheeling, heavy-drinking Australian character, so I was around that heavy drinking and partying as far back as I could remember,” he said. “It was very environmental in my childhood, because I got it from my mom, too. So I was in it from the get-go. The first time I drank, I remember it was my brother’s 18th birthday party, and I figured out how to sneak some beers.
“I felt like such an outsider where I grew up, being so interested in music, having a real passion for it, but none of my friends did. I was really the only one, and I think the first time I drank, I felt like a part of the group. It made me feel included in what everybody was doing and what was going on.”
Coming to America
It was a refuge from the outset, but it paled in comparison to what music did for his tender heart. His parents recognized their son’s intrinsic talent and did what they could to put him in touch with other musicians, mostly traveling troubadours who passed through or at local festivals within a day’s drive. When he was 15, his parents sold the farm and moved to Tamworth, New South Wales, colloquially known as the “Country Music Capital of Australia.”
There, Hughes went to high school but dropped out “because I knew what I wanted to do,” he said: “Play music and go to America. Nothing else seemed to interest me.”
At 16, he was on the road with an Australian touring band and put away enough money for college. Enrolling in South Plains College, he landed in Levelland, Texas, with the wide-eyed optimism of a New World explorer who senses opportunity over the next horizon.
“It was an incredible launching off point in terms of an introduction to America and life here and making friends who were really into music,” he said. “I found a community of kids my age as passionate about music as I was.”
He also found a mentor in Terry McBride, who notched 10 singles on the country charts between 1989 and 1994 with his band, McBride and the Ride. He was friends with one of Hughes’ college instructors, and he took a shine to Hughes’ outside-the-box musical preferences.
“A lot of the other kids in school were into popular country music, but I was more into Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — more of the storytelling songwriters and that fringe style,” Hughes said. “He took a liking to me because of that and encouraged me to move up to Nashville and told me, ‘If you make your way to town, I’d love to help you in any way I can, maybe get you in with some writers and figure out how to get you a record deal.’”
That was all Hughes needed to hear. In 2002, after a year and a half in Levelland, he was on his way to Music City. McBride scooped him up from the airport, put him up in his home and began to knock on doors on Hughes’ behalf. He set up songwriting sessions with acclaimed artists like Kim Richey, and Hughes received a crash course in co-writing, among other things.
“I didn’t know how to do that; I didn’t even know, really, what felt comfortable as my artistic voice,” he said. “I had no real home base artistically, so Nashville was a learning curve in how you do this and what can come out of this. I wrote so much in that first year.”
He shoulda been a contender
And it paid off: After entreaties to some of the big labels, Hughes found a kindred spirit at MCA: David Conrad, the head of the label’s A&R division. He had a gruff reputation, but Hughes made him grin when he started picking some Chet Atkins tunes.
“He and I sort of fell in love with each other from the get-go,” Hughes said. “I loved that he was no bullshit, and I think he appreciated the fact that I respected older music and revered people like Chet. So he gave me my first record deal.”
By that point, alcohol was a comfortable companion, but Hughes didn’t need it as a social lubricant like he once did. In high school, before music became his entire universe, it was one of the few ways he felt connected with people, he said.
“Music was a real way out of where I was and always has been kind of the vehicle to work my way out of environments,” he said. “Drinking for me in high school was a way to feel included in everybody else’s life. And it doesn’t seem like a problem if you’re getting your work done. It’s a reward, or however you want to categorize it. It allows you to let off steam, and it was like that for a long time. But then a lot of things kind of fell apart because of that, without me knowing.”
His debut album, “Transcontinental,” was released in 2004, but a couple of months after its release, MCA merged with Dreamworks, and Conrad lost his job. The new label subsequently lost interest in Hughes, and despite a couple of jangly, upbeat singles that showed chart potential, he was released from his contract. Of course he turned to booze, but again, youth and determination made for effective blinders.
“I was drinking a lot, but as a younger, 20-something kind of guy, you just bounce back so much quicker,” he said. “You can hit it hard and still show up the next day and be on your game. Looking back on the music business, the social aspect and the drinking were so hand-in-hand that there really was no division between the two. It didn’t seem like it at the time, and I certainly never thought about that you could be involved socially in the industry and not have to drink.”
A friend at Capitol stepped in and offered Hughes a deal at that label; he enthusiastically agreed and was given a budget to make a new album. They wanted him to take his time and dabble in some different sounds, but Hughes was eager: He went in and cut eight new songs in three days, and while pleased with the results, it wasn’t what the label wanted.
“From the get-go, I think I kind of pissed off a bunch of people, but I worked really hard on that music, and I thought I had a record,” he said. “I didn’t think I was doing the wrong thing, and I didn’t know what to do other than to keep writing songs to appease them and get the record off the ground.”
'One long s--- show'
For the next year and a half, he wrote and recorded, but the label could never decide on what to do with his material. After 2 ½ years, his manager talked label executives into cutting Hughes loose.
“I was pretty disheartened with my solo aspirations at that point,” he said. “My first record never really got a shot, and my second record never even came out, so I started thinking, maybe this path wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I’m a sideman. So I threw myself into that role for 10 years or so.”
Freshly arrived in Nashville, he had found work with Patty Loveless; his reputation as an ace picker put his name at the top of the lists of preferred guitarists, and he found work with both Crowell and Harris relatively quickly. As good as he was, however, his heart wasn’t into it.
“Basically, I was just staying as medicated as I could to get the job done,” he said. “Everything had fallen into place, and then it fell out of place just as easily, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was on such an incredible trajectory for a long time, and everything was working out, and then it was just like hitting a brick wall and everything falling apart.
“Having no idea what to do or how to cope, and having no family over here, I just didn’t know how to deal with it. That kind of amped up all of my addiction issues — girls and drinking and taking any drug I could find. It got pretty wild there for about 10 years in my 20s. It was just one long shit show.”
There were moments of clarity along the way: He remembers a particular tour with Crowell and Harris in which he was posted up in a bar with another band member, both of them lamenting that their drinking was interfering with their performance and their general sense of well-being.
“But here we were, sitting there taking shots and getting (messed) up,” he said. “Honestly, I did that for two or three years before I hit my crossroads.”
That came when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Their relationship was rocky because of his drinking, and fatherhood was not on Hughes’ agenda.
“I wasn’t dealing with anything at all, and my drinking and whatever drug I could take was at its height,” he said. “I was waking up daily looking for the bar, and we were on tour and I just hoped it would all go away.”
Out of the bottle, into the dark
It didn’t, and two weeks before their son was due (the couple, now married, had moved to Los Angeles for a brief period), Hughes went on a bender during a baby shower that still makes him audibly cringe to recall.
“I got so (messed) up, it was like somebody hired a clown to come to the party,” he said. “That was it, man. I drank so much more than anybody else, and it was so obvious that I was just out of my mind. At the end of the night, I remember my wife’s dad and her sister were there, and we were all in the living room, and I was just kind of holding the wall up, listening to a record in the corner by myself.
“The next day, my wife was like, ‘I just don’t know how this is going to go. You’ve got a problem, and you know you’ve got a problem, and you’ve been talking about it for years.’ I knew that I couldn’t keep going and that I just had to stop, so that first day, instead of going to the fridge and cracking a Modelo at 10 in the morning, I went for a walk.”
He did it again the next day, and the day after that, and two weeks later, when his son was born, he renewed his vow to stay sober. He threw himself into his work, doing a little bit of everything while on tour with Jarosz, and because of that schedule, sobriety wasn’t difficult. But then the couple moved back to Nashville, and work slowed down, and depression set in.
The darkness enveloped him, he said. More than that, it consumed him.
“I spent months in bed; I couldn’t even get up off the floor for a few months,” he said. “I really wasn’t processing why I was drinking so heavily when I was drinking so heavily, and finally my wife, who had been working with Music Health Alliance, told me about this program.”
By that point, he was suicidal, he added. He had gotten a job as Gill’s guitarist, pulling himself together enough to play sporadically, but when he wasn’t on stage, he was emotionally detached from everything.
“I was basically planning my way out of all of it,” he said. “There were these weird, lingering questions about things that happened when I was a kid, but it was so blurry. I really couldn’t see anything; all I could do was feel everything, and all the things I had been suppressing were coming back up.”
When his wife suggested Onsite Workshops, a therapeutic community outside of Nashville, he acquiesced.
The return of light and life
There, he said, everything changed.
“I was able to do so much work in such a short amount of time, and doing it the way I did in a group, through experiential therapy, I was able to process a handful of events that happened when I was a kid that I sort of questioned for a long time,” he said. “That place saved my life. That was a real turning point to me.”
It also introduced him to 12 Step recovery, a way of life he hadn’t fully investigated when he first got sober. Back home, he started going to meetings, where he found a tribe of like-minded peers on a similar journey.
“The first meetings I went to, I didn’t say anything or speak up, but for the first time, I felt like I was in a room with people who were on the same road I was on,” he said. “Just hearing other people’s stories and the harrowing things of what they had been through just started to lighten the mental load. It let me know, ‘Other people are going through this. I’m not the only one fighting this battle or going through this war.’”
As the darkness began to ebb, he began thinking with some clarity that had eluded him for a long time. Music felt fresh and new and exciting again, and he even felt the stirrings of a long-dormant muse. One of his first songs written for “West” was inspired by an early morning phone call years earlier from Crowell, he said.
“He called me up and asked what I was doing, and I told him, ‘I’m just crawling out of the morning,’ and he said, ‘Hey — that’s a line in a song,’” Hughes said. “So I wrote it down, and I just chipped away at that song and wrote and rewrote it. And when it was finished, I just felt like I had something that I liked, which I hadn’t had in 10 years or longer.
“Once I had one, I started digging back through some other ideas and slowly chipping away. I wasn’t convinced I had or wanted to make a record, but I was interested in my own writing voice again.”
It was Gill, actually, who nudged him to make a new album. During a conversation last year, Gill asked Hughes what he wanted to do with his music, and he confessed that he was slowly working on an album.
“He really encouraged me and was really happy for me, and he told me, ‘That’s what you should be doing. You’re an artist, so you should be making your own music. That’s why you came (to Nashville),’” Hughes said. “So when I finished the album, I called him up and said, ‘Hey man, you’re the one who said I should be doing this! Would you give me 20 minutes to open up for you? And to his credit, he said, ‘Absolutely. Get out there.’”
An attitude of gratitude
Hughes is currently on tour with Gill, where he pulls double duty: as the show’s opener, and as part of the star’s backing band. “West” is stirring up stellar reviews, and for good reason: The twang of “Transcontinental” has been replaced by an atmospheric patina of longing, regret and simple acoustic beauty that showcases just how deft Hughes is as both a singer and a guitarist. His voice is a lilting, lovely thing that channels hope and that familiar melancholy in equal measure, filling the songs with a gorgeous ache that resonates with the life he’s lived and the future to which he looks forward.
Gratitude, he said, is the key. That, and the fellow travelers along a road that’s sometimes rough and unforgiving, but inevitably smooths out and stretches toward a sun-kissed horizon filled with promise.
“One of my really good friends came to me once, and I had no idea that he was struggling with drinking at all, because he seemed like a really highly functioning guy,” Hughes said. “The first thing I kind of ask is, ‘Do you feel like it’s something you can’t control? Does it have control of you?’ And if so, I always just say, ‘Try a meeting.’
“‘Come with me if you want to, or don’t. Get online, where there are meetings at all hours of the day.’ Because it’s an incredible support system, and a meeting would probably be really, really beneficial for anyone who feels like there’s a deeper issue going on. I feel like that for anybody who can get to a meeting, that can change everything right off the bat.”