Singer-songwriter Luke Brogden finds simplicity in sobriety

luke brogden

Singer-songwriter Luke Brogden recently celebrated six years sober, but he still remembers keenly what it was like trying to make it through life as a struggling alcoholic.

The Ties That Bind UsMany of his memories are murky or cringe-worthy, and when he tries to recall them, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, a single metaphor comes to mind: tennis balls.

Specifically, balls shot from a launcher that’s been turbo-charged to rapid fire while he’s 50 feet away, wearing ice skates and trying to hit them with a racket that’s been run over with a lawn mower.

“They were just always whizzing by my head, all of these things that I couldn’t keep up with — my anniversary, my mom’s birthday, everything,” says Brogden, who’s found a side gig as a solo musician and in the Knoxville, Tennessee-based band Southern Cities when he’s not teaching. “One after another, they just kept hitting me in the head. But when I got sober, it was like suddenly I was on a regular tennis court instead of an ice rink.

“The machine slowed down, I had a good racket and suddenly I was able to keep up. Always before, everything felt too fast, too chaotic, too out of hand all the time because I was drunk a lot. It just exacerbated everything, until finally I had enough.”

These days, Brogden remains an alcohol-free musician, and the foundation he built for his sobriety in 12 Step recovery continues to serve him well. He doesn’t wear his sobriety like a badge of pride; if anything, he acknowledges that his path these days doesn’t look the same as that of others who embrace the term “recovery.” But it works for him, and even though it’s been a few years since he sat in a 12 Step meeting, knowing that they’re available at any point, should he need a mental or emotional tune up, is comforting.

“As I started getting confident in my own methods, I kind of weaned off, but I would go back tomorrow if I was really scared I was going to start drinking, or if I had a relapse,” he said.

Luke Brogden: 'Collabs' and more

Luke BrogdenNot that there’s danger on Brogden’s horizon. As a husband and a father, his life is incredibly rich these days, he said. Add to that his ongoing exploration of various musical interests, and alcohol doesn’t hold the appeal that it once did. With his best friend, Matt Montgomery, the band Southern Cities is continuing to work on a third album of cross-pollinated Americana and rock, and last month, he released a five-song EP titled “Collabs,” featuring compositions recorded with some of his favorite Knoxville-area musicians.

“It was really fun project, and I’ve always wanted to do that kind of thing, because people I like are always doing that kind of thing,” Brogden said. “Right now, it just seems to be a red-hot period of writing and recording, and because of the quarantine and coronavirus, I’ve had a lot more time to reflect. Matt and I have played music since early on, and he’s always been one of my staunchest allies, but I did disappoint him with some of my behaviors. When I got sober, he was always there to support me, and on the other side of that, I think our chemistry has gotten stronger.

“I have the raw energy of bringing the songs and telling people about it and getting people to shows, and he’s the musical director of our band. Right before I got sober, I was pretty insecure and thought a lot that Matt only stayed with me because he had to as my best friend, but over the years, after I got sober, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident in talking to and working with other musicians.”

In that regard, he feels more comfortable in his own skin, and the guys with whom he partnered for “Collabs” — Andrew Turner, Albert Murrian, Montgomery, George Middlebrooks and Zack Miles — are musicians he considers contemporaries. It's a beautifully eclectic collection of songs that range from the lo-fi earworm "I Guess That's Life" to the Middle Eastern-meets-'80s-synth-sounds-with-some-hip-hop-thrown-in-for-good-measure mood of "Electric Day." He’s exploring a new music-related business idea that some friends have launched that will give him an opportunity to put more of his marketing skills to work, and on the other side of COVID-19, he’s excited about the opportunities that may open up for guys like him.

“It’s kind of like when sports teams have a rebuilding year — for a lot of creative people, I think it’s a lot like that right now,” he said. “It’s time to explore these ideas they’ve had and talk about these projects they want to do. For me, I’ve had to stop and reevaluate how I do the ‘Living Room’ series (house concerts he put together with Knoxville-area artists), solo shows, Southern Cities, writing for BLANK (Newspaper, Knoxville’s alternative monthly) and everything else.”

What the future looks like is anyone’s guess, but his heart is leaning toward more intimate house shows or listening rooms where audiences are gathered for the specific purpose of absorbing music. Bars and clubs will always be a staple of the Southern Cities tour circuit, but for the purposes of sharing in the joyful communion of music, he’d rather play to a handful of attentive folks than a bar full of people for whom his songs are background noise.

And that, he pointed out, is another gift of sobriety. When he first started playing music in college as part of the band E.V.O, a rock/rap hybrid that billed itself as a torchbearer of bands like 311 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his goal was to make a living as a professional musician. Even after moving to Knoxville and going to work for AC Entertainment, that drive was always a part of his makeup, but in the end, it ended up taking more than it gave.

“I was trying to fill that hole, thinking that I needed to do music as my job in order to be happy,” he said. “I started making it where music was becoming too much work. It was too much pressure, and I was doing things for the wrong reasons, but when my wife and I realized we were going to have a daughter, and I accepted that I probably won’t be someone who’s well known or tours or makes a living at it, I’ve been so much happier.

“Now, if there’s something I want to do, I just do it. If I want to release super lo-fi recordings I make on my phone, I’ll do that. If I want to make a rap song, I will. If I want to make a folk song, I will. There’s no pressure since I’m not trying to make sure I’ve got the perfect genre for the moment. That’s one of the good offshoots of sobriety — learning to accept yourself, and now I can do things for intrinsic reasons instead of trying to do everything extrinsic reasons.”

Growing up Brogden

For all intents and purposes, Brogden’s childhood was an idyllic one. He grew up in Kingsport, where he and Montgomery were childhood pals; their parents were friends as well, and the families would go on annual camping trips to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. The Brogden family, Luke said, was made up of community leaders in the Kingsport area, and both his grandfather and father worked for the Eastman Chemical Company for the entirety of their careers.

“There were a lot of lawyers and doctors in the family, and the vibe of our family growing up was one of a very can-do spirit — just very positive and friendly,” he said. “We would go around the room and press the flesh of everybody at a party, and we were the ones always asking if anybody’s drink needed to be refilled. The only thing — and I don’t blame anyone in my family for this — is that we didn’t talk about bad things.

“If you were in a bad mood, or something happened, everyone pushed it down or let it go or tended to let it work itself out. And most of the time, I still think that’s a good philosophy to have. But sometimes, you need to vent. You need therapy, or medicine or outside help. It wasn’t like my family viewed those things as a weakness — it just wasn’t what we did. The loss of a family member, though, really opened our eyes to the need to better communicate, and I think we’ve gotten closer as a result.”

At the time, though, Brogden grew up in the shadow of family expectations — all of them self-imposed, none of them pushed upon him, he hastened to add. He was a self-described “hotshot” as a kid to whom school came easily, as did athletics. He was popular with friends and with girls … but there was always an underlying feeling of discontent simmering beneath the surface, and it wasn’t until he was 25, after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that he began to understand why. As a teen, however, he couldn’t seem to find the right frequency for his mind or his body.

“There was always a moody side of me that I didn’t understand,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel right at Thanksgiving or at Christmas or at a party, or I would have way too much energy when other people didn’t, and that would cause me a lot of anxiety. Then, in the spring of my senior year as all of those activities were slowing down, for the first time in my whole life, my calendar wasn’t filled with obligations that kept me busy. And that’s when I started partying with friends.”

And alcohol, he said, became his most trusted and favorite party favor.

Luke Brogden: Down the rabbit hole

Luke Brogden“All of the sudden, the witticisms came right to my lips, or I could look at a girl straight in the eye the way I always wanted to and say the things I always wanted to,” he said. “For the first three hours, I was cool and confident and super-fun to be around … but even early on, I couldn’t moderate.”

In college, he turned to the music he had always loved: His father played guitar and had turned his son on to everything from John Prine to the Grateful Dead, and he and Montgomery had been in and out of bands together since they were old enough to pick up instruments. In college, they were roommates and started a band called Luke9 and The Rude Boys, inspired by ska-punk, which played around Knoxville some but never really broke into the scene.

It’s probably just as well, he added, because alcohol quickly became his first love.

“A lot of times, I would drink 30 drinks in a day or a night, and then the entire next day, it might be Christmas or something going on, and I would go still drunk, or having to throw up,” he said. “There was a lot of extreme self-loathing and fear and anxiety, and I would have to do the hair of the dog to get back to calm.”

It wasn’t a daily problem — he could go days or even weeks without ever picking up. But once the top was popped, he had no off button, and the more he drank, the more erratic his behavior grew.

“I would propel myself into a bender that pissed people off, or I would be inconsiderate,” he said. “I remember sitting beside guys at a party that I thought, ‘I could be better friends with this person, but I’m so drunk I’m asking him the same questions over and over, and I’m never going to get to know them better because I’m a mess every time I’m around them.’”

Like most alcoholics, it was easy in the early days to dismiss the aftereffects of excessive partying as the penance of wild youth, but as he got older, it became harder and harder to leave the habit behind. He and his wife, Lauren, have been together since high school, going through all the usual phases of childhood sweetheartdom from youthful innocence to hedonistic young adulthood. But when she grew up and grew out of it, he lagged behind, he said.

“She’s been my mentor and leader through trying to become an adult, because she became one quicker than I did, and I had to catch up with her,” he said. “When I was 25, I finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started working on that, and she would talk to me about how some people with these issues will self-medicate. She convinced me I had an emotional attachment to it.”

In some ways, he began to understand, his reputation as the life of any party he attended only fed his propensity to drink. Eventually, however, happy-go-lucky drunk Luke gave way to a guy with “edgy, creepy, sad energy,” and the last five years of his drinking were tug-of-war matches between a desire to self-regulate and alcoholism’s insistence that it be quenched, regardless of the costs.

Back out into the light

Courtesy of Bill Foster

He would count bottle caps to keep track of his beer intake, intentionally losing or throwing away some to lessen the number. He would sneak off to the bar and by shots with cash, so his bar tab didn’t show any extra expenditure for alcohol. Eventually, he said, his social life revolved around alcohol.

“I wasn’t going to any event for the purpose the event was made for,” he said. “I wasn’t enjoying the show or at a birthday party to watch the kids — it was, ‘Who can I find here to sneak into the alley and do shots with?’”

Eventually, an out-of-town trip was the final straw. As was often the case, Brogden got drunk and wound up embarrassing himself, he said, this time even more than usual. The next morning, Lauren decided to put together a photo collage that vividly demonstrated the arc of his drinking over the years:

The beginning of the night, sober and smiling and happy, with a beautiful wife and seemingly living a charmed life.

A few hours later, one drink over the line, making an ass of himself.

Outside in the parking lot, in an argument with her.

It always, he realized, got worse.

“We had a real come-to-Jesus talk, and we drove home talking that night and all the next day, and that’s when I decided I had to stop,” he said. “We had tickets to Bonnaroo, but I sold them, and I started going to (12 Step meetings). I got really serious and read the Big Book a couple of times and tried to find as much stuff as I could about guys like me, musicians and people in the counter-culture, who stopped drinking and got sober.”

He had gone to meetings in the past but had found it difficult to relate: Everyone there seemed court-ordered to attend or were older men and women with nicotine-stained fingers who sat around drinking bad coffee and giving one another pep talks. When he came back in after the wedding, chastened and humbled, those folks were still there … but they also turned out to be exactly the support group he needed.

“I was definitely humbled, and I realized that I had ended up outsmarting myself,” he said. “I came ready to seriously approach it. After we sold out Bonnaroo tickets, we bought a beach trip to focus on our marriage and each other, and every day at the beach, I found a group down there and would go to the meetings and just listen. I stopped, for the first time in my life.”

Luke Brogden: Freedom and growth outside of the bottle

Luke Brogden

The Brogden family: Luke with his daughter, Violet (right) and his wife, Lauren (left).

It turned into a summer of rebirth: On break from his teaching job, he focused on himself, his mental health and his sobriety. His routine was a simple one: exercise, plenty of books and a lot of 12 Step meetings.

“It just recalibrated my whole brain,” he said. “I had never had any big failures before that, and I didn’t cope well, but I realized, ‘This is a pause you’ve needed for a long time.’ I went back and reevaluated other parts of myself and tried to work all the steps, including my resentments and the amends I needed to make.

“Some people who deserved my apology the most never wanted to hear from me again, but a lot of people I knew appreciated it. That process was humbling, and what I found was that it was most magical and effective when you’re able to give it away and help everybody else.”

These days, he tried to live his life based on those principles, even though he’s moved on to another season and another leg of his journey. Life still comes at him like those tennis balls — but his return is quicker, because he’s constantly practicing his “form,” so to speak.

“Over time, I found a lot more purpose, and I’ve been much more productive,” he said. “I never even put out an album until I got sober. I was never accomplishing anything, even though I had way more free time back then. Now, I’m very focused and methodical. I’m better at working with people, and I don’t lose my temper as quickly.

“It’s just easier to control yourself and achieve the objectives you want. I had this one therapist who gave me a great piece of advice: ‘Leave people wanting more, not wishing they’d had less,’ and that’s what I try to do.”

When he goes to shows, he’s there to listen to a band. When he’s taking his daughter to a birthday party, he’s there to soak up the joy of the children in attendance. When he’s playing music, he’s sharing a connection with others who are there to hear his words. It’s not the life of prestige and glamour that he once envisioned when he harbored rock star dreams — but in many ways, it’s even better, he said.

“That whole process made me realize that I needed to stop, to reflect, to be humble, to be okay with being wrong,” he said. “I needed to become a student of life more. When I was working at AC, right before a lot of stuff happened, I had a dream job and thought I was one of the coolest people in town because I partied with rock stars, but I let it affect my mind.

“A lot of times, if something happened before, I would think that drinking would take the edge off rather than just solving the problem. Now, I would rather solve the problem, to handle and deal with different scenarios in healthy, respectful ways that gets it off my chest and my back. I’ve been happier since I have less prestige, ironically, and today, I’m able to achieve creative goals in a more specific, targeted way.”

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