Out of addiction’s flames, singer-songwriter Anders Osborne sets up a nationwide sober lifeline of ‘Friends’

Courtesy of J. Mimna Photography
Courtesy of J. Mimna Photography

The Ties That Bind UsThere’s a five-day period from his early 30s that singer-songwriter Anders Osborne will never get back.

He’s been told what happened during that particular alcoholic blackout, but hearing the stories are like watching a cringe-worthy film of someone else’s misfortune. Despite the success he had before and has experienced since, that block of time, lost to the darkness of an alcoholic fog, is a reminder of his own powerlessness.

“I remember that we went out (with friends), and I woke up five days later and didn’t remember a damn thing,” Osborne told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I realized that my two main guitars — the ones I played and made a career with, including one that was very valuable — were gone, and I didn’t know where they were. And I was wearing a pair of karate pants, but the whole mid-seam around the crotch had split wide open, so basically I was wearing two legs on a string.

“And I asked my girlfriend, ‘What the hell is this?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, you’ve been wearing this all weekend. You’ve been going around town with your junk hanging out, climbing in and out of cabs and everything. We were laughing our asses off.’ And that was the first time I really knew, I’m not like everybody else. Everybody else was kind of laughing at me over that. They weren’t laughing with me anymore.”

A subtle beginning

Courtesy of Darren Manzari

These days, Osborne does a lot more laughing than being laughed at. He’s one of the most respected singer-songwriters in the New Orleans pantheon, a transplant who found a home among the colorful Mardi Gras Indians and brass band second liners and Ninth Ward holdouts, the men and women who make the Big Easy a melting pot of cultures and sounds. He can put out an alt-folk gem like “Buddha and the Blues,” released earlier this year, and throw down on some foot-stomping hill country blues with his pals in the North Mississippi Allstars. He can peel off some blistering freight train boogie alongside Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and turn Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s classic “Ohio” into a thunderstorm of fury with the guys in Galactic. He’s a regular at New Orleans Jazz Fest and contributed a pre-festival playlist to USA Today before this year’s gathering.

None of that, he added, would be possible without sobriety. He’s one of the chosen few who can sit Zen-like in the eye of a party hurricane, contributing to the gale force winds of music without fueling himself with drugs and alcohol. At one time, he said, he didn’t think that would ever be possible.

Like most addicts and alcoholics, he didn’t go from zero to 100 overnight. As a teen, he learned to play guitar listening to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and other American icons. He released his first album in 1989, and while chemicals were a part of his rock ‘n’ roll experience, it wasn’t until his mid-20s, he said, that he began to feel like something wasn’t quite right.

“I remember going, ‘I’m not going to drink next weekend,’ or, ‘I’m not going to drink for a week,’ because I wasn’t really reflecting on the fact that it was a lifelong problem, but I knew I would end up being up too late, drinking too much, blacking out, getting too high, trying things I shouldn’t have tried and ending up in company I shouldn’t be with,” he said. “Not bad company, because when you talk about bad company, a lot of times, you are the bad company, but you don’t see it. Sometimes, you find yourself being the guy who shouldn’t be with this girl or this group of people, because they’re not suitable to this life. So I was getting other people in trouble.”

He managed to put on the brakes for a while, giving up drug and alcohol and even cigarettes. He took up running, worked out regularly and focused on music full time, and his 1995 record, “Which Way to Here,” featured a couple of minor radio hits: “Favorite Son” and “Pleasin’ You.” The deeply personal 1999 album “Living Room” even featured contributions by Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, among others.

“But then it snuck up again, and this time it wasn’t so pleasant,” he said.

A soul adrift

Although his drinking was limited mostly to beer, other substances quickly took alcohol’s place at the front of the line, he added.

“I was really into downers and hallucinogens,” he said. “Weed, mushrooms, acid, opiates, then a little toot to get me going. It was all about being sort of swimmy and cloudy and carefree and stoned and down. I had this whole vibe going on, and my hair grew super long again, and I always had this beard … it became this whole thing.

“I remember I loved it, because it was so comfortable. But as that went by, things started to get a little weird.”

His music career began to take off, and his record deals became a little more lucrative. He wasn’t driving Corvettes and eating caviar every night, but his shows would routinely draw more than 1,000 people, and with publishing royalties to supplement his touring income (he co-wrote country star Tim McGraw’s 2003 No. 1 hit, “Watch the Wind Blow By”), he was doing alright.

“I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had just enough,” he said. “My publishing money went into the bank, I was playing gigs, and I was still functioning. There were still plenty of people hanging around, I had a place to stay, and my overhead was really low. Everything was rolling a little bit, but I wasn’t present at all.

“I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I was shuffling, always moving around; I’d wake up somewhere and not know where I was, have to go to a radio interview or something, and the whole time, I couldn’t wait to go home so I could get loaded with my friends in New Orleans.”

Funny thing about that, however: Many of those friends seemed to have their lives together in a way Osborne couldn’t. After his five-day blackout, he began to notice those differences keenly.

“They would get up in the morning, go to work, do certain things, and I realized that I don’t do any of those things,” he said. “I could barely pay the bills. Everybody said, ‘You should go to (Alcoholics Anonymous) or (Narcotics Anonymous), and I just said, ‘No, man, that’s like a cult. I’m different. I know I’ve got to stop, but that’s not me at all. That’s just stupid.’”

The bottom falls out

Courtesy of Darren Manzari

And he did stop, for the next two or three years … but abstinence doesn’t equal recovery, and those days were a white-knuckle trudge that included the occasional nip of champagne at weddings or celebrations. He stuck to occasional sips and even became something of a wine connoisseur, joining a Thursday night tasting group but always spitting out the vino instead of swallowing it. It was, he said, rather cosmopolitan … until the beast decided it had endured enough niceties.

“It was a full-on relapse after my mother died, and that was a whole different process,” he said. “I remember the night very, very specifically when I started doing drugs again, and it was just on. The next morning, I went to score some more, and that was it. That continued until the final crash in January 2009, when some friends and family got together and scooped me up.”

By that point, his house was in foreclosure; he was facing bankruptcy; his wife had kicked him out; and he spent most of his days on a New Orleans park bench or couch-surfing with friends who would eventually show him the door.

“I had no money, no friends, I couldn’t go to work, and nothing was working anymore,” he said. “I spent a few years living like that.”

Eventually, his friends in the Crescent City music community decided to intervene. The late Dr. John, along with Ivan Neville and Royal Southern Brotherhood veteran Mike Zito, contacted MusiCares, a nonprofit arm of the Recording Academy that offers medical assistance to struggling members of the music industry, and arranged for Osborne to get a bed at a California-based drug and alcohol treatment center. Looking back, he laughs at some of the chicanery his pals used to get past the obfuscation of his addiction.

“Mike was really clever, because he was on the phone with my manager at the time, Reuben Williams, who was going off about how everybody was putting their energy into trying to save my ass, and Mike would say, ‘Listen — what do you have to lose? Just give it a shot!’” Osborne said. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Mike. If I get a first-class ticket, I’ll go.’ My manager was on the other end of the phone like, ‘F--- that dude!’

“But Mike was smart, and he said, ‘We’ll get you a first-class ticket, no problem!’ Well, I got on the flight, and of course I was in the middle seat, in coach … and we had two stops before we got to L.A.!”

Seeds get planted

Courtesy of Dwight Marshall Photography

Over the course of inpatient addiction treatment, he grabbed hold of the lifeline that recovery offers. As he prepared to return home to New Orleans, however, he faced a dilemma.

“When I left rehab, all the counselors and therapists said, ‘No. 1, you need to be here another year. You’re not ready,’” he said. “Well, I couldn’t afford to do that. And then they said, ‘You should not go back to music. You should take a year off and find other work, because it’s too risky,’ and they were suggesting I follow models like one of the guys in Jane’s Addiction — but they were talking about people who had money saved up!

“I barely had a high school diploma. I couldn’t just start something different in my mid-40s. Well, I could, but I wasn’t going to be able to save the home and the family and take care of everybody.”

Back home, he threw himself into 12 Step meetings and began to take tentative steps back into the city’s vibrant music scene. He was dealing with both addiction and mental health issues, but being out in bars was still unsettling at times. Shortly before he celebrated a year clean and sober, he had a New Year’s Eve show scheduled, and some fellow recovering guys offered to serve as his wingmen.

“They said, ‘Do you want us to come sit with you?’ And I asked, ‘What do you mean?’” Osborne said. “They said, ‘We don’t mean anything. Do you want us to come sit with you while you play?’ I said okay, and they both showed up, and both were really big, burly guys — one was a major fighter — but they were two sweet, sweet men. And they sat to the left of the stage, and they just sat there.

“And while I was playing, I wasn’t thinking it was right or wrong or good or bad; I was just baffled by how comfortable I was to see my two guys. They weren’t close friends; just acquaintances from the meetings, but I remember feeling so comfortable and so weird, because I felt accountable but safe at the same time.”

That planted a seed, and Osborne began to consider all of the other newly sober musicians in similar situations: Bourbon Street trumpeters who play five or six sets a night because that’s what pays the bills, or the hand-to-mouth singer-songwriters like himself who string together tours that pay enough gas money to get to the next city and hopefully a little extra to end a multi-city run in the black.

“And I got to thinking — how do you help those people?” he said. “That idea, it just stayed with me.”

Send Me a Friend is born

A year or so later, he approached another recovering addict with whom he used to party, a guy with some background in nonprofit and foundation work. He pitched his idea of a sober network of support for musicians, and the organization Send Me a Friend was born of their collaboration.

“I thought, what if there’s a network, a collection of names and people who are willing to come out and sit with the artist so they can get back to work? What if there’s a network, maybe international or just national or just, at first, in the city of New Orleans?” Osborne said. “And then we thought, what if we designed something that specifically catered to all music industry people — the crew, the dancers, the lighting guys, the engineers, the musicians, whatever, so they can go back and start working again after they get newly sober?

“Now, it’s expanded to anybody, whether they’re new or have 28 years. If they’re feeling squirmy, they can get someone to come sit with them. We have thousands of people we call ‘Friends’ who are signed up all over the country, and we have a vetting process for each of them. It started on a grassroots organic level, and it’s grown into this industry standard. Anytime someone in recovery has, like, 30 dates on a tour, they can get someone to come out 30 minutes before a show and stay for 30 minutes after to keep you company, and keep you sane.”

An arm of the Positive Vibrations Foundation, Send Me a Friend has become a nationwide network of support for sober musicians of all genres. In 2017, NPR featured Osborne and the organization, leading to greater visibility, and it’s become a lifeline for peers of Osborne who are trudging the same road of happy destiny that he himself walks.

Recovery doesn’t guarantee that life will be easy, and like all those who choose a new way to live, Osborne has his share of bad days from time to time. But his program also guarantees that they don’t have to stay bad, and the longer he stays clean and continues to write and record music, the more he appreciates the things he has rather than mourning the things he lost.

“Buddha and the Blues,” he added, is the realization of finding himself in the sweet spot between the pain of the past and the contentment of the present.

Hope, freedom and a new way to live

Courtesy of Brandt Vicknair

“What I was noticing is that while all of these songs were pretty, they were repeating the same thing, so I felt like I was regurgitating and re-manifesting the same emotional state,” Osborne said. “I was living in an almost endless cycle of this darkness — ‘I’m an addict, I’m a junkie, I’m this, I’m that, I’m not happy.’ And when I realized it, I went, ‘Oh my God. This has to stop. I have to start having songs that sing about the beautiful life I have and the brightness and the choice I have between happiness and serenity and better lifestyle choices, and spending time in melancholy and sadness and introspective somberness.”

Celebration isn’t always a natural state for an addict, using or recovering, but Osborne finds that when he acknowledges that internal division, he can better direct his thoughts toward more positive things. In that sense, “Buddha” became a metaphor for serenity in the moment, and the “Blues” turned into a mirror of his dissatisfaction.

“The original idea was to start manifesting something more positive,” he said. “I play 150 dates a year, and if you keep saying the same thing, it becomes a mantra of the same thing, and I wanted to start singing a different mantra.”

While the blues still takes center stage on occasion — “my feet are sinking and my mind is soft / all I can think about is all I lost / I got lucky and I got out, but this staying sober is hard to think about,” he sings on “Fields of Honey,” the album’s second track — there’s a lot more hanging with the Buddha than perhaps ever before. It’s a gentle record that grooves and shines, showcasing the complexities of life and celebrating the sun that dispels the darkness at the coming of the dawn. That light comes from a program of recovery and the network of “Friends” he’s made along the way, and it’s something he enjoys sharing with the folks who come to see him play, he added.

I wanted to have my old fans and my new fans attached to something that feels less voyeuristic and less of a car wreck on the road that you’re observing, and more of a celebratory record,” he said. “Every record is a snapshot, and the next one, even though it’s going to be rougher around the edges and a little grittier, is going even further.”