Singer-songwriter Leeann Atherton on sobriety: ‘Everything about my life is better’

Leeann Atherton

Leeann Atherton started partying at 14 years old, but it took the Texas-based singer-songwriter another four decades to see the unmanageability that had followed her from the beginning.

The Ties That Bind UsTo be fair, it didn’t destroy her life in the manner of some of the more colorful horror stories heard in the rooms that host recovery meetings. Although she was arrested once for drinking and spent a number of nights couch-surfing, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, the lack of grave consequences may have prolonged her drinking. Instead, her alcoholism became a part of her daily routine, settling into the grooves of a rocky existence that caused enough low-level discomfort, she added, that it eventually became a part of her.

“I swear I didn’t notice it until my 50s, and I think that’s from the culture I came from,” Atherton said. “I thought everybody fought, argued, got (messed) up, apologized for their terrible behavior and did it again the next day. I didn’t realize it was a problem until my son was in rehab, and I made an agreement with him that I wouldn’t get high for the first 30 days of his treatment. He came back after 30 days, and I said, ‘I haven’t gotten high!’ And he said, ‘Mom, you’re still drinking.’

“I never thought it was a problem until he said that, because I always thought I could stop. So I made a deal with myself that I would stop for two weeks, and if I couldn’t stop, I would go to a (12 Step) meeting … and I couldn’t stop. The very first night, I went into my favorite bar — the Continental Club in Austin — because I thought I could handle going there. And as soon as I walked in, someone said, ‘Hey, Leeann’s here! Let’s do shots!’ And I thought, ‘I’m not going to do shots, but OK, I’ll have a glass of wine.’ I was always making excuses for my using and drinking.

“I looked around after a while, and I realized I was loaded; I couldn’t keep my agreement; I felt like I was in a Fellini movie; and it wasn’t fun anymore,” she added. “I couldn’t control it anymore, and that’s when I decided I would start going to meetings.”

An 'Angel' finds her voice

From that point forward, Atherton has put together a life worth living instead of an existence that she once tolerated. Over the past decade she’s been in recovery, she’s released two albums — her “sober records,” as she affectionately refers to them: “Barefoot Fields,” released in 2015, and “Fallen Angel,” which was unveiled on Jan. 1.

The latter is a vibrant, colorful slice of blues-tinged Americana, anchored by her powerhouse vocals. There are a dozen points of reference the listener can make when Atherton sings — Bonnie Raitt on the bluesy shuffle of the opening track, “Smack Dab in a Miracle” to Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards on the bubbling “Joy” to the multi-tracked languid ache of the title track that calls to mind Pat Benatar at her most introspective. Atherton’s uncanny control makes each song an adventure in feminine independence and the blessings recovery has given her, even if they’re not outright sobriety anthems.

“I was in a band called Gypsy Heart for a while that was just a duo, and I loved the music, but we really drank a lot,” she said. “Then things really fell apart, and my life changed. I got sober and started working on my own record; I got a tour in Japan; I kept my impetus up. I realized, ‘It’s going to be OK, even if you are on your own now.’ It all started working for me, and I got stronger in my independence and my sobriety. I started figuring out who I am, and I feel like I’m still just waking up.”

Or perhaps reawakening — to the wonder and joy that music brought her as a teenage girl. Although she discovered harmony singing with her sisters, it was a moment when she was around 15 years old, washing dishes in the kitchen with her mother, when she declared her intentions.

“I was singing a James Taylor song, and my mom said, ‘I don’t know why you think you sing so good,’” Atherton recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t think I sing good — I just love to sing!’ That’s when I knew I was going to be a singer.’”

It wasn’t long after that when a friend picked her up while she was hitchhiking to the beach and suggested she drop by his studio to sing. It was there, singing Lenny Welch’s “Since I Fell For You,” that her dream was set in stone.

“I remember everything about that day in the studio, and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” she said. “And this is what I’ve done. I’ve had to do other things — I became a mother, and I’ve had to have a day job ever since I had a kid, but I just quit my day job.”

From Charleston to Nashville

leeann athertonShe and her friend put together a studio band, and once she got to college in Charleston, South Carolina, she began seeking opportunities to sing in public. A gig with a college band led to parties and other small gigs, but when the group auditioned at a local club, the managers hired her to join the house band. As a teenager, she was officially a part of the Charleston nightlife scene, singing five nights a week.

“I was kind of shy, and I would hang out in the bathroom during the breaks, but then I started getting into it, and that’s when I remember starting to drink,” she said. “I wasn’t even legal age, but I had a ton of fun. With the house band gig, they were older guys, so it was an older band with a young chick singer, and I loved that band. They were kick ass, and I learned a lot from them.”

It was eye-opening, she added: The keys player banged out notes on a Hammond B3, a Wurlitzer and an acoustic piano; the other vocalist sang like Stevie Wonder and played the congas. For the next five or six years, she entertained the tourists in one of the South’s most genteel cities, eventually joining a beach music group. That was, she added, “the era of Quaaludes,” and so she began to supplement her alcohol intake with the occasional drug.

“I grew up in a military family, so partying was definitely part of the whole culture,” she said. “I thought everybody drank, because we all did. My dad did; my mother died of alcoholic dementia; my brother’s an alcoholic; and I drank and got high all the time. And I thought it was really part of everything, because I had been managing it. I could keep a job, I hadn’t been arrested for DUI, so I thought, ‘This is what everybody does.’”

Other projects followed, and eventually she found herself in a band with her husband at the time, on the verge of it falling apart. The work she’s done in sobriety has taught her that the tendency of addicts and alcoholics to run is known as a “geographical cure” — a relocation that seldom works, because the individual carries the problems with them. At the time, however, she saw it as a way out.

“Instead of trying to fix it, I would just run away, and I thought, ‘I’ll go to Nashville and pursue a career in singing. Nobody has to know it’s because my marriage is destroyed — I’ll be doing it for a career move,’” she said.

From Nashville to Austin

Nashville was fun, but it also opened the doors to more substances — cocaine and alcohol, mostly, but there were opportunities to be found there as well.

“I had a publishing deal, and I got a job as a backup singer for Lee Greenwood for a time on his ‘God Bless the USA’ tour,” she said. “I was always looking for the underdog’s way, so I hooked up with an underdog, this heavy duty pot smoker, and I did my first recording out in Los Angeles at Brian Ahern’s studio — he was Emmylou Harris’ husband at the time. We did a great record, and it’s a great recording that’s never been released, because we were so sloppy high and underdogging it.”

A falling out with her partner led to the need for another geographical cure, however, and she remembered Austin, Texas, as a happening little Lone Star State town full of Old World charm and cutting edge talent … in addition to plenty of folks like herself, who indulged often in mind- and mood-altering substances.

“So I left my apartment in Nashville and left everything behind,” she said. “I thought I could be more free to be me, but then I got pregnant, so that kind of set my roots down. But things worked out well for me here, in a way. I won an Austin Songwriters Group contest when I was pregnant, and that got me into South By Southwest and the Kerrville Folk Festival. Things started working out the way that it did in Nashville, but here it’s more songwriter-oriented.”

Slowly and steadily, she began to make a name for herself as a solid songwriter with a voice that’s steeped in Southern gospel and soul traditions, given a country makeover courtesy of Music City and dusted with windblown Texas hardpan from her time in Austin. And once she discovered she couldn’t stay sober on her own and went looking for help in the rooms of recovery, she’s found the freedom to be wholly and completely herself.

More importantly, she added, she’s begun to untangle herself from the twisted spider web that addiction has woven across generations of her family.

“I didn’t listen, even after the doctor told me when my mom was first diagnosed that it runs in families and that I should watch out for it,” she said. “The ravages of addiction and alcoholism are undeniable in my family, and I see it in so many families that I’m OK with sharing about it. I don’t proselytize, but I don’t care anymore, either. There was a period there when my son was falling apart and I couldn’t do anything about it, and my mother wanted to drink every time I went and saw her in the nursing home — and I just kept getting high, thinking everything was fine.

“Making a commitment to connect with a higher power, I was able to recognize these things in my life, and it’s made my life richer and simpler at the same time. Me being sober makes me be more sane, and even lately, with some problems my son is having and the little bit of insanity that’s been coming out, I’ve been going to a lot more meetings and doing more self-care. I’m more conscious of it, and I’m not ashamed of it, because I know that I need help and that I cannot control this.”

Trudging the road of happy destiny

leeann athertonThat, she pointed out, is the very definition of serenity — the very thing so many addicts and alcoholics pray for in recovery meetings around the world. Turning her troubles over brings her peace, and turning her fears over has made her a better musician.

“I used to think I always had to be high before a gig, and once I quit getting high, my range got better,” she said. “I used to think I had to get high to feel the music more and be more creative, but I actually became more skilled at everything when I let it go. I thought I needed it as a crutch, that I could be more in touch with the audience or my bandmates when I drank. What a lie! Addiction takes our power and our life force.”

The promises of sobriety removed not only the desire to do that, but the obsession to do it, the overwhelming need that she had to drink or use in order to be more connected. Her songwriting deepened, and even the paths her songs take now are more complex — more solutions-oriented, as it were.

“I feel like I definitely have more of a spiritual connection in my songs, but that could be because I’m always looking for it,” she said.

And, like most addicts and alcoholics in the room, Atherton looks for ways to be of service — to herself, to others trudging the same road and to the music community of which she’s an integral part. Occasionally, fans or peers will reach out for her experience, strength and hope, and her goal in those conversations is singular: to let them know that she’s on their side, that the goal is progress instead of perfection, and that there’s no shame in admitting drugs and alcohol have become a problem.

“I’ve been there, too! I just invite them to come talk to me, or maybe come to a meeting, but even that can scare people off real fast,” she said. “I mostly just kind of align myself with them and let them know that if they’ll make some moves, things will get better. Because it does — everything about my life is better. Everything. It’s more fun, I look better … I’m kind of like a living testimony for it.

“You don’t get it until you get it, and all I can do is stay open and let them know I’m available to them, and that it’s going to get better. It has for me, because I’ve been freed.”