Phil Bogard’s beautiful sobriety: Ingram Hill guitarist helps others return from the brink of death by alcoholism

Phil Bogard sober musician Ingram Hill

Music aficionados would be hard pressed to put Ingram Hill side by side with The Doors in terms of rock ‘n’ roll similarities, but guitarist Phil Bogard, at the height of his alcoholism, nevertheless saw himself following the same life-and-death arc as Jim Morrison.

The Ties That Bind Us“I had definitely resigned myself to the fact of dying an alcoholic death, and I had this glorious imagery of an Oliver Stone movie, of falling asleep in a bathtub in Paris and not waking up,” he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “Unfortunately, that’s not how an alcoholic death works, and I found that out the hard way.”

At the height of its popularity, Ingram Hill was signed to Hollywood Records, getting airplay on MTV2, opening for bands like Maroon 5 and Hanson and playing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” As the business paradigm shifted, Hollywood began to focus more on grooming Disney stars as music acts, and funding for bands like Ingram Hill was reduced. Bogard and his bandmates, including vocalist and guitarist Justin Moore, had to downsize from a tour bus to a van, and the turning point for Bogard started with a 12-pack of beer for breakfast as the band was on the road.

“I hadn’t had a drink in 10 or 12 hours, and I started going into withdrawals and had a seizure,” Bogard said. “I bit through both sides of my tongue, and Justin had to pull the van over to the side of the road, hopped the barrier on the interstate and ran up screaming to a police officer who had someone pulled over, which freaked the officer out and caused him to pull a gun on Justin.

“I ended up having to go to the hospital, and that was the beginning of the realization: ‘Oh, crap. It’s not this sexy, Oliver Stone-esque storyline; it’s violent, painful, scary and awful, and you don’t go gently into that good night. You’re not going to look good, it’s not going to be cool, and it’s not going to look romantic.”

An Ingram Hill origin story

Today, Bogard is the Nashville program administrator for Rock to Recovery, the music therapy program that works with treatment centers to help patients unlock the therapeutic power of rock ‘n’ roll. Ingram Hill isn’t together in the sense of regular performances, but the Memphis-based ensemble — which draws on a template of Southern rock and jangle pop pioneered by R.E.M. and made famous in the 1990s by bands like Hootie and the Blowfish and Sister Hazel — still plays occasional shows under the name.

Moore is a solo artist, performing as J.R. Moore (to avoid confusion with the country star who shares his name), and the old friends often perform together. (On a recent weekend, they did an Atlantic City gig as Ingram Hill acoustic.) Bogard has been a Nashville resident for five years now, but after several years as a guitarist in the hip-hop and country worlds — primarily with Nashville’s JellyRoll and the band Walker McGuire — he decided to step down as a full-time touring musician about a year ago.

“I was doing the thing that everybody moves (to Nashville) to do and living the dream I’ve had since I was 8 years old, but one day I woke up and thought, ‘I think there’s something else,’” he said.

Born in the Jackson suburb of Brandon, Miss., Bogard’s family moved to Memphis when he was 4. A year later, he met Moore — “our grandmothers lived across the street from each other, and it turned out we were in the same kindergarten class,” he said — and when he was 11, the Bogards moved to York, Pa., until his senior year of high school, when he moved back to Jackson before returning to Memphis two years later.

He began playing guitar when he was 8, and before he and Moore ever got on a professional stage, Bogard remembers the two of them climbing on the family fireplace and singing along to the Aerosmith/Run DMC version of “Walk This Way.” While in high school, Moore started his own band, which built a respectable following on the fraternity circuit playing mostly covers and a smattering of originals. When the guitar player for that band left, Bogard was a natural replacement.

“We came from very different backgrounds in terms of musical tastes,” Bogard said. “I was into Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the classic rock side of things, and Justin’s favorite stuff was bands like Barenaked Ladies. We pulled on each other’s strengths: this very power-pop sound with a little more of my rock ‘n’ roll sound, and that was the zone in which we met in the middle.

“We really honed in on what I guess you’d call Americana, because we were doing stuff that sounded like country, and we had a pretty wide sound. But to me, when I look back and collectively place the whole thing, it was definitely a Southern-influenced brand of power-pop rock ‘n’ roll. In the late ’90s, all the bands killing it on the Hot (Adult Contemporary) radio format were coming out of the Southeast, and we were at the very last of that.”

A solution that becomes the problem

In 2002, Ingram Hill released “Until Now,” an EP featuring production work by Emerson Hart of Tonic, and the album caught the attention of Hollywood Records. The band’s full-length debut, “June’s Picture Show,” was released by Hollywood in 2004 and featured two modest radio singles, “Will I Ever Make It Home” and “Almost Perfect.” The videos were featured on MTV2, and the band was featured on the Fox morning show at Kimmel’s late-night program, and suddenly the door of rock ‘n’ roll possibilities seemed wide open.

“We had three placements in major motion pictures, two Top 40 singles at radio, two on network TV,” Bogard said. “We had a big ol’ pile of accolades and toured with some folks that we idolized and really got to bump elbows and run around with folks that were huge to us. We were always on the cusp of that tipping point between, ‘Oh yeah, I kind of remember that song!’ and a household name. We never made it to the household name stage, and that’s the unsexy side of the music business — the things behind the curtain that really go on.”

For Bogard, there was never a Plan B: Since he was 8 years old, rock ‘n’ roll was the only career he wanted. Given the logistical support that Moore’s college band had in place when Ingram Hill formed, the group was able to get a jump on many of their peers. He was, it seemed, in the perfect position to realize his dream, except for one problem:

“It turned out that not every time, but many times, when you put me on stage in front of a bunch of people, under certain circumstances, I suffered from stage fright,” he said. “All I had ever dreamed of my whole life, I was getting to do it, and then when I got up there, I felt this crippling fear and this panic. But I would drink three or four beers, and that was the solution to that problem. That was the moment, when that becomes the solution, that I walked through that doorway.”

It didn’t take long for two beers to become four, which became eight, when eventually escalated to a problem that quickly became a self-perpetuating cycle. The more his tolerance grew, the more he drank, and the more his inebriation led to those cringe-worthy moments of drunken behavior that caused him to feel guilt and shame when he sobered up, which led to a desire to drink in order to forget those things.

On top of that, alcohol seemed to be the miracle elixir for all that ailed him. It had, after all, solved his stage fright, which had threatened the most important thing in his life.

Or so he thought.

“I would stand on stage, and my hands would shake so bad from nervousness, so then I’d drink; eventually, I drank so much that my hands would shake because of withdrawal from alcohol, and I had to drink so that they wouldn’t shake,” he said. “It was in that 20th and 21st year of my life when I really started drinking. We had a lot of shows, and I figured out that if I was going to be Keith Richards or Slash, I had to have that presence on stage, that winner’s presence, and I thought I had to have that lubricant to be that person.”

The beginning of the end

By the time Bogard was 22, his hands shook every morning upon waking from alcohol withdrawal. He was drinking a 12-pack of beer nightly, and while his bandmates may have raised their eyebrows in concern, it was hard to separate what was a problem from what was just rock ‘n’ roll.

“Don’t get me wrong; with us, my problem was definitely at the forefront, but it was the music business,” he said. “I wasn’t the only one, because it was just that kind of lifestyle. It’s one of the few areas you can get away with it to the degree I got away with it. That’s why we end up losing people so young, and it’s why there’s also a certain level of productivity there even in those circumstances, but by no means is it running on all cylinders when you reach a certain point.

“There were a few years in there when I was able to run on that particular gas tank. There were arguments and fights and, ‘Oh my God, please stop drinking so much!’ But the show was being presented in the way we wanted to present it, I still fit in my clothes and to a degree, a lot of stuff was able to be pushed under the rug as long as the product kept moving forward.”

Eventually, however, it didn’t move so much as float on a river of booze. Although Bogard tried drugs (“to make sure I didn’t love them!” he said with a chuckle), alcohol was his first and biggest love. By the time he seized up on the Ingram Hill van, he was averaging two 750ml bottles of alcohol, or 40 beers, a day. After being released from the hospital, nothing was ever the same, he added.

“You’ve heard addicts talk about being dope sick? I spent the rest of my existence, the next few months, staying ahead of being drunk sick,” he said. “There was no such thing as a good buzz anymore. That window closed. I was either in a state of withdrawal, or you had to help me walk across the room to go to the bathroom. I was either shaking or I couldn’t walk, and there was no way to gauge it.

“I was anemic; if you touched me, I would bruise, and it would spread for months. I had jaundice. I threw up all the time. If I sneezed, sometimes I had to change my pants, because my stomach was that rotten. I was falling apart physically.”

Many addicts and alcoholics talk about a moment of clarity — the illumination of a mental, spiritual and emotional light bulb that unveils the stark reality of their existence — but for Bogard, it was like a string of lights slowly coming on, one after the other. One had to do with his grandmother, who suffered from dementia, he said.

“When you talked to her, it was basically the same conversation over and over, and I just had visions of my parents having to tell my grandmother, ‘He’s dead.’ And then, 5 minutes later, having to tell her again … and again,” he said. “I imagined how every time they saw her, they would have to relive that moment in a 5-minute loop. And I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, I can’t imagine a degree or torture worse to wish on any human being than that, to have to tell someone on a 5-minute loop, ‘My child is dead.’”

Free to be Phil, for real

The second strand lit up when Moore paid a visit to Bogard’s house. It was an intervention, but not in the conventional sense. He didn’t berate his old friend for jeopardizing the band’s career or interfering with Moore’s own dreams, Bogard remembers.

“He just said something like, ‘How dare you? How dare you do this in front of me? I wouldn’t come to you and sit in your living room and kill myself in front of you, because I love you too much,’” Bogard said. “I barely needed a nudge at that point, and he gave me a glorious uppercut that knocked me off that cliff. It was the perfect collision, the perfect storm, and I’ve thanked him multiple times since, because he really played a part in saving my life.

“He threw himself on the line in a way that I don’t think was comfortable or natural for him. He went above and beyond the call of duty and brought it to me from a very real language-of-the-heart kind of place. After he walked out of my house, I made the phone call to my family that I needed to go to treatment.”

On Aug. 1, 2008, Bogard entered an alcoholism treatment facility in Nashville, and he’s been sober ever since. He gained 28 pounds in 28 days, and doctors told him that at 28 years old, he was in the top 10 percentile of liver damage because of his alcoholism. More importantly, he added, he discovered his tribe — a group of sober peers with whom he could identify, bond and recover alongside.

“I found a circle of friends who cropped up around me with a common problem and a common solution,” he said. “Those people are out there, if you’re looking, and they’re not hard to find. It was all about a lifestyle change, and even though that’s been a buzzword of the last 15 or 20 years, it’s not about a fad diet, as it were. I had to rearrange the ideas of principles by which I had run my life up to that point, and more important, I had to really focus on being available to help others, which is not a natural inclination of an alcoholic. But the key to it is helping others.”

At five years sober, Ingram Hill came to the end of its run — or at least the end of a trajectory that would allow its members to survive financially on Ingram Hill alone. Bogard moved to Nashville planning to break into country music, but instead found himself courted by Jason DeFord, the rapper known as JellyRoll.

“I didn’t land my gig with him in spite of being clean and sober; I got it because of it,” Bogard said. “When he found out I was, he reeled me in, because he wanted someone with him around the clock who was going to be chemical free and have a clean mind. He wanted someone who not only was clean and sober, he wanted someone who could act as the filtration system of the daily grind. That was a huge thing to him.”

From Juggalo gatherings to country arenas to treatment centers

Phil Bogard (left), with Wes Geer of Rock to Recovery.

As JellyRoll’s touring and studio guitarist, Bogard toured with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, like Cypress Hill, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Yelawolf and Insane Clown Posse. He played the “Gathering of the Juggalos” completely sober — twice.

“I got to do incredible things I never thought I’d get to do,” he said.

Eventually, Walker McGuire, which had made overtures toward Bogard when he first landed in Nashville, stole him away, and he went from playing hip-hop shows to country music arenas, touring with bigger names like Lee Brice, Kane Brown and Jake Owen, playing to as many as 10,000 to 20,000 people a night. When he made the decision to leave the road, however, it wasn’t a difficult one.

“There are so many bizarre things in the universe, all of this connective tissue by the way all of this stuff happens,” he said. “I had gotten some incredible experience as far as being a touring musician, I was an accomplished musician and songwriter, and I was closing in on a decade of sobriety. So what does that equal? What do I qualify for?”

He called Erica Krusen, whom he’d met at Stagecoach Festival, after remembering she served as a senior director for MusicCares, the nonprofit organization that gives charitable aid to working musicians. She mentioned Rock to Recovery, called founder Wes Geer to put in a good word and a year ago, Geer asked Bogard to start up a Nashville chapter of his foundation.

“So much of what I’ve done is what enables me to go in and run these sessions with Rock to Recovery,” he said. “We go in and work with non-musicians. We get people who have never played instruments or sang to play and write an original song, and it’s a huge thing. It’s a game changer for some people, and for some of them, it’s the only thing that pulls them out of the dumps.

“Landing this gig has made all the elements of my life come together and make sense, 90 minutes at a time. Every struggle, every failure, every success — the whole spectrum. I’ll go into these state-run facilities and work with these low-bottom guys, and they think I’m just another guy until I point out that they’ve got the lyrics to a song I wrote the music for tattooed on them.

“When they first see me, they think I’m not their guy, but when I leave, they usually say, ‘I don’t know what you just did, but you made me forget I was dope sick and made me feel naturally good for the first time in forever.’ What they don’t always understand is that I’m lucky to be sitting there talking to them, because I could have died multiple times.”