Singer-songwriter Morgan Wade: ‘If I didn’t get sober, I wouldn’t be doing any of this’

morgan wade sobriety
Courtesy of Chelsa Yoder Photography

It was the mother of all drunks, singer-songwriter Morgan Wade remembers most about her final dance with the bottle.

The Ties That Bind UsA New York show turned into a bleary-eyed bender that left her feeling sicker than she ever had before; even after driving back to Virginia, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, she was still hurting.

Slowly, however, she began to realize that her pain was spiritual in nature as much as it was physical. The dread, the angst, the despair — all were a product of her dependence on alcohol more so than her latest hangover.

“It was like this mental hangover,” Wade said via phone from her hometown of Floyd, Virginia, where she takes a walk while she talks. She’s full of nervous energy, she explained, and walking is better than pacing. That energy serves her well on the stage these days, and on a fledgling music career that’s showing signs of turning into a full-on conflagration thanks to sobriety, but back during her light bulb moment, it had her climbing the walls, she added.

“I was like, ‘What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?’” she recalled. “I really started thinking, ‘What do you do besides drink? What do you do?’ And I literally could not shake that feeling for weeks. I thought I would take a month and not drink, because to me, I thought, I’m too young! If I tell people I’ve got a problem, they’re gonna laugh at me and say, ‘You’re in your 20s! That’s what you do!’

“But the more I got to looking at it, the more I realized, I don’t want to be in my 40s and doing the same stuff, if I even make it there. I just knew that if I kept on doing what I had been doing, my mental health couldn’t handle it.”

A sober 'Night'

morgan wade sobriety

Courtesy of Chelsa Yoder Photography

Wade marked two years sober earlier this year, and she’s working on a full-length album with Sadler Vaden, a member of Americana hotshot Jason Isbell’s vaunted backing band, the 400 Unit. After releasing one single, “The Night,” last spring, she’s looking to drop the next one this fall, and she’s taking meetings left and right to figure out when, where and how a full-length might land.

Two things are for certain, however: There will be a Morgan Wade record, and it’ll be because she’s sober, she said.

“It seems like every little thing that has happened has been a little chain reaction from me quitting drinking,” she said. “When I did that, I got healthier, and I started doing healthier things. You have to be in the moment for this to work, and by not drinking, I’m there. I build these connections and talk to people. It forces me to be more organized and real.

“There will be a full-length, but we just don’t know who it’s going to be with. I really like what I’m doing with Sadler, so we’re kind of hoping we’ll drop a single out in the next month or so, and if somebody picks (the record) up, there might be some changes. But we’re being tedious with it, which is great, because it’s helped us work on a different sound.”

Because that’s another benefit of sobriety, she added: She’s not afraid to get out of her comfort zone. And it’s not like that was a cognizant fear before, she added; it was just a part of her makeup, and it wasn’t until she put down the bottle that she recognized it came with unintended chains, holding her to a place, a sound and a way of thinking that felt limiting.

Some of that goes back to her childhood. She started writing songs when she was 6 or 7 years old, she said, but she was self-conscious about the way her voice sounded when she sang, so she spent a lot of years convinced she’d never go anywhere with it.

“I was a ’90s baby, ’90s and early 2000s, when these females had these really crystal clear voices — stuff like Shania Twain and Faith Hill and all that, and my voice didn’t sound like that,” she said. “My voice had a rasp, a different sound than that, and I just thought, ‘Well, it’ll be something you can do for yourself.’ It wasn’t anything I ever thought I could do.”

An old soul in a young body

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Courtesy of Sarah Cahill

Her muse, however, refused to be quieted. Her grandmother, she added, still finds scraps of paper with the songs she wrote as a child, and when she gets a chance to read them back again, one thing stands out: She’s always had an old soul.

“I’ve been writing about heartbreak since I was 7,” she said. “It was all very much adult-like stuff that I wrote about, even when I was 6 and 7. Even from a young age, I’ve connected with older people, and my best friends to this day are in their 60s and 70s. I’ve always felt like I had a lot more to learn from someone with a lot more experience, and I’ve always written about stuff that just came to me and popped up in my head.”

In her family, she added, alcohol was frowned upon. Her parents married young — her mother was only 17 when Wade was born, and they divorced when she was 5. While she spent time with both parents, she was often in the company of her grandparents, who took her to church each Sunday and Wednesday, she said.

“I was just always kind of taught that alcohol and stuff like that was bad,” she said. “I knew a lot of people in my family had struggled with alcoholism, but it wasn’t something that was really talked about at all. They would sweep it under the rug or say things like, ‘That’s bad; don’t do it.’ So I had the mentality that it was just a horrible thing, that you couldn’t do anything worse than have an alcoholic beverage. When I would go to my dad’s and see a beer in the fridge, I would freak out.”

Things began to shift, however, when she started at the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke. Music was still a constant companion, and heartbreak led to her performing publicly for the first time. As a 19-year-old freshman, she turned a bad breakup into a song, thinking, “I’ll either tick him off really good or win him back,” she said with a laugh.

“I had written a song, and I got on Craigslist and formed a band that way,” she said. “I ended up getting him back, and then the band stuck. I played kind of like an open mic thing in Floyd, and people were like, ‘Oh. OK — you can sing!’ And I just started going with it.

“I always enjoyed music, but I didn’t know if anybody else would like how I would sound. I didn’t have the guts before, but once I got out there the first time, that was it. That first time was the only time I’ve ever been nervous before playing, and after that is when I started stepping out and doing more local stuff.”

The bottle becomes her

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Courtesy of Stephen Alsbrook

And that’s when she started drinking. She got a fake ID, she said, and booze helped take the edge of prior to those early performances. Plus, she pointed out, alcohol was a commodity: Local venues couldn’t afford to pay the talent, but they did offer free beer, and after shows, there was always an appreciative listener eager to buy her and her bandmates a few shots.

“I moved out on my own when I was 19, and all my friends were drinking and stuff like that, so that’s when I started picking it up,” she said. “I thought it was kind of fun, but I also started to realize I kind of had a tolerance for it. I was never in a ton of trouble or anything like that, but I was obviously drinking underage pretty heavily.”

It didn’t take long, she added, to cross that Rubicon from social drinking to obliteration.

“My problem was that I would get really drunk and just start to black out in a sense,” she said. “It was just really weird. Several times, friends would tell me I was almost hallucinating with the crazy stuff I was saying.”

It wasn’t a balls-to-the-wall booze cruise, by any means: She would go through phases, she described, mostly involved around playing shows. She would pre-game on the way, maintaining her edge so that the performances were always visceral, searing, poignant and raggedly beautiful. Afterward, however, it was game time, especially after she turned 21 and could drink legally.

It wasn’t a lucrative career; it still isn’t, but the band — Morgan Wade and the Stepbrothers — started venturing beyond Floyd, and it was on an ill-fated trip to New York that sobriety began to take root, as it often does, in that disastrous final bender.

“The whole damn trip, from getting everything prepared to getting there, was just downhill before we started,” she said. “As soon as we got there, I just wanted to go get a drink. We got to where we were staying, and I cracked open a beer; we had a show in the afternoon, and I normally had this thing where we would take a shot of something before we would play, and I think I had two or three that day.

“It wasn’t a long set, and it was great; nothing was wrong with the show, but when we got done, I kept drinking, and I drank and drank and drank. I drank more that night than I think I’ve ever drank, and I woke up the next morning, lying in bed and doing the same scramble — ‘Oh, crap! Where’s my wallet? Where’s my phone?’ — and just trying not to be super sick and throw up.”

A turning point

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Courtesy of Cloud Bobby Photography

That morning, however, something was different. Something felt off, and even though nothing disastrous had happened, she couldn’t shake the feeling that a terrible darkness had claimed her the night before.

“We were staying in an Airbnb, and I went and sat down in the kitchen floor. The drummer at the time — he didn’t drink, so he didn’t go out with us — said, ‘Are you OK?’ And all I could say was no,” she said. “I just remember, mentally, the suicidal ideations and everything just running through my head. ‘You’re a horrible person’ — I just couldn’t shake that feeling, that anxiety. I showered and got a cup of coffee, then met a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we went and got brunch. I got a mimosa, but I couldn’t even drink all of it.”

She tried to shrug off that sense of doom, and for the rest of the day, she did the New York tourist thing, ending up in Penn Station, where her boyfriend went to grab a drink. She asked for one, too, expecting a bottle of water. When he returned with a beer, her heart fluttered.

“I thought, ‘Oh, gosh,’ and I took two sips and said, ‘Man, I can’t do this,’” she said. “It was really weird, because it had been almost 24 hours since I was drinking heavy, and I still just didn’t feel right. We went out, and I didn’t have anything to say to anybody. I was a little rude and reclusive.”

The next day, they drove upstate for another show, which was a bust; no one knew the band, so attendance was bare bones. The venue was hot, the pay was meager, and after all was said and done, they headed south for Virginia, driving nine hours overnight. The only thing Wade craved was her own bed.

“I was like, ‘I’ll be better when I get home,’ and I wasn’t,” she said. “It was days.”

During that time, she began to take stock of her drinking habits and, more importantly, the reasons she kept returning to the bottle. Anxiety and depression played a huge role, she began to understand, but while alcohol offered immediate relief, it exacerbated both in the harsh light of day.

“That’s when I decided, I’m not touching that stuff anymore,” she said. “I was slightly nervous about talking about it, because what if I wanted to drink again? But I decided, alright, I’m going to talk about it, even though I was slightly nervous about it.  And as soon as I stopped drinking, everything got better.”

A program that works for her

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Courtesy of Chelsa Yoder Photography

Speaking up and putting her sobriety out into the world helped to maintain it, she said. Fans, peers and others in the industry were gracious and supportive, replacing alcohol on her tour rider with sparkling water and refraining from buying her rounds after a show. She joined a sober movement group on Facebook, devoured actor and comedian Russell Brand’s recovery book and began putting her efforts into living life instead of drinking it away, she said.

And things began to improve.

“It was like, ‘OK, now I know I can own my actions if I act up — it’s not because I’m drunk, it’s just because I’m being a jerk!’” she said with a laugh. “Mentally, it’s helped me so much. I apologized to people for how I’d acted, and I just started to change. I started getting healthier, and things really got a lot better after that. That’s when stuff started happening.”

An album with the Stepbrothers, “Puppets With My Heart,” was released in 2018, and while it got some traction, the single “Carry Me Home” was a document of her sober journey that resonated on a deeper level. That led to more shows, including the hometown music festival FloydFest, which booked her for the first time in 2017. In 2018, Vaden was in the audience, and the two hit it off.

“It was just kind of like one of those things; we wrote with each other and stuff like that, and I put out ‘The Night,’ just talking about people struggling, and people really connected with that,” she said. “After I wrote it, I called Sadler and said, ‘I want to record this.’ He listened to it and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve gotta do something with that.’ That song, for sure, has done a lot.”

Additional material recorded with Vaden has allowed her to dip her toes into waters that might seem unexpected to her fans. With time, she’s grown more confident in her voice, and bolder in her musical decision-making.

“Some of it sounds way different than the stuff I’ve done in the past, and I’m excited about that,” she said. “Sadler’s not forcing me into a box. He sees what I want to do — stuff that’s more rock and not super-country — and it’s going really good. I’m as impatient as anyone — people ask me all the time when I’m putting something out, and I just tell them that as soon as I know, you’ll know. But hopefully there will be something soon.”

A more permanent peace of mind

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Courtesy of Alissa Mahon

Impatience, of course, is the least of her character defects these days. As a sober woman, she’s found a peace of mind that long eluded her, and all of the buzz about the next phase of her career is something she attributes to sobriety 100 percent, she said.

“If I didn’t get sober, I wouldn’t be doing any of this — I can 110 percent guarantee that,” she said. “I was doing alright before, show-wise, but I don’t think it would have been a career until I got sober. After I stopped drinking, I worried about what kind of material I was going to have, but I found that by not drinking, I could be super honest and talk about it.

“When I realized there are other things I can talk about, that’s when I started being as honest as possible about everything, and that’s when people started to connect with things. I think with being real, people are tired of the fake stuff. Working on my music and being as honest as possible has helped me, and I think it’s helped other people. It’s certainly when I started to get people looking at me.”

Her sobriety has caused something of a ripple effect, it seems. She can name “at least 10 close friends” who have either stopped drinking or slowed down considerably, and she often gets fans reaching out on social media asking for advice or encouragement. She can’t respond to everyone, and even when she does, her advice is as raw-to-the-bone as her music can be:

“What works for me is not necessarily going to work for you, because we’re all wired completely different,” she said. “But it really works. I’ve really found how to enjoy cities for different reasons other than, ‘That’s a really cool bar.’ Now it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, that coffee shop looks awesome!’

“I’ve just found that helping people a little bit helps me. I can’t do a lot, but I feel that if I’m honest about what’s going on in my life, people connect with it, and the majority of everything has been great. If I can just continue to be honest and work on myself and help somebody else in the process, maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do.”