Sobriety gives singer-songwriter Travis Shallow ‘a pure sense of peace’

Travis Shallow

There may be other musicians who showed up to drug and alcohol rehab sporting their own name on a T-shirt, but singer-songwriter Travis Shallow still gets a chuckle when he recalls how unprepared he was for the beginning of his sobriety journey.

The Ties That Bind UsShallow, whose called the coast of North Carolina home for almost two decades now, hit rock bottom back in 2015, when he called Wilmington Treatment Center and asked for help. They had a single bed, the admissions counselors told him; how fast could he get there?

“I was like, ‘Look, I’m in Wilmington, and I can be there in 10 minutes,’” Shallow told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “So I get up off the couch, and when I was thinking about packing a bag, I thought I was going away for the weekend. I had no idea how many of this worked, and I was always trying to detox constantly and never could, so I thought if I could be somewhere and be monitored for three or four days, I’d have this thing licked.”

He hurriedly packed some things — he even remembers doing so, he added with a laugh — and hustled across town, calling his girlfriend during the drive to surprise her with the news that he was going to rehab.

“She was kind of blindsided, because I was phenomenal at hiding things from everybody,” he said. “I remember I pulled in the parking lot, taking up two spaces, just barely getting there. And after a few days of detox and being in bed, I went to my bag to get a chance of clothes and shower, and I pulled out everything I brought: one white T-shirt, one pair of boxers, and one sock.

“I remember packing the bag and thinking, ‘Alright, I think I’m good.’ I really felt like I nailed it, like I was good for the weekend. So one of the counselors let me walk out to the van to get my own band merchandise shirts so I could have something to wear.”

Travis Shallow: 'When at the end of the road ...'

It's the sort of story he can laugh about now, and to be fair, a quick phone call to his girlfriend got him squared away a few days later. But the fact that he rolled into addiction treatment, with a grocery bag of hastily thrown together and mismatched clothes, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots that he had to put on every time he shuffled to the window of medical detox to get his medication, was emblematic of just how bad everything had gotten, Shallow said.

“As foggy as you are in those moments, I remember that so clearly, man, and even now it gives me chills,” he said. “You just have those moments, and for so many years leading up to it, you make the wrong decision. You go the other way, take the path of least resistance, which in that scenario would have been just closing your eyes and saying, ‘Dude, fuck it.’

“When you reach that moment, you finally realize there’s something bigger here. I don’t know what it was; I’m not as spiritual as I’ve been at times in my life, and I still don’t know if that was it, but there was something greater at work that day. I wouldn’t say it came over me, but every time I had tried to do things my way, I ended up in the same messed-up position. In asking, ‘Let me just blindly believe there’s a bigger purpose for me than this,’ I picked up the phone and Googled a rehab.”

His salvation took place at the perfect time as well. Before he got sober, he had recorded his self-titled debut album at Tweed Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi, and while it’s a solid debut, he can also hear the desperation in those songs that turned out to be the soundtrack of a man drowning in self-doubt, he added.

“I was self-medicating to cushion the overwhelming notion that I had no self-worth, and that without drugs and alcohol, everybody would see that,” he said. “Self-worth is a tricky motherfucker. Anybody who claims they have that one licked is fooling themselves, in my opinion. For me, it seems to now be more predominantly on the side of things where I feel like I am worth it, and the things I do have, I do deserve.

“None of it was given to me — I was able to work and get these things because I did put in the work. I became clear-headed, sober and was able to have authentic relationships with people. The people in my band can trust me. My family can trust me. They actually enjoy talking to me now.”

That wasn’t always the case before sobriety, he added. Lying on that couch, approaching the decision that would change his life, he wasn’t sure he wanted to even be in the same room as himself. He was, after all, the guy for whom substances had begun to take everything, from plenty of guitars and gear to the pawnshop to a career that was teetering on the edge of ruination.

Whatever force prompted him to pick up the phone that day, he’s still grateful for it.

Finding a new way to live

Travis ShallowTo be clear, it wasn’t outright deliverance. He could barely move from the damage he’d done, and in that moment he could feel the end was close.

“My closest dealer was three hours out, and I remember just laying there on the couch and thinking I might have a seizure, that something was close,” he said. “As unclear as I was, there was a moment of clarity where I realized that if I don’t pick up the phone and do something myself, I could close my eyes, and that would be it.”

For eight or nine days, he went through detox in rehab, eventually getting the clothes his girl dropped off and slowly allowing himself to be nursed back to health. He took part in the treatment process, including 12 Step meetings that were open to other recovering addicts and alcoholics in the greater Wilmington community. After one, he heard a familiar voice.

“I see this girl running toward me, and I realize it’s my friend, Britt, whom I had lost touch with,” he said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing here?,’ and she was asking the same thing about me. She had gotten sober six months earlier, and it was so good to see her. She owned some land in Western North Carolina and put on a festival there that my band and I played for three or four years in a row, and I had lost touch with her.”

Britt returned with an Eric Clapton biography, himself a recovering addict and alcoholic, and she filled the book with words of affirmation and encouragement. It was, he said, life-changing.

“I remember opening that and was so overwhelmed with the idea that another human did something so selflessly for me,” he said. “I remember being overwhelmed and just sitting in the cafeteria, bawling in the corner.”

It was the first, and perhaps the most poignant, example of one of the principle tenets of recovery, and one reason he speaks so openly about his own journey: Those who have found a new way to live can only keep it by giving it away. The act didn’t convince him to stay in treatment — he was determined to do that anyway — but it did open his eyes to the idea that a new way of life, one in which he could also live for others instead of just himself, was possible.

“They’re all stepping stones that arrive on time — right when you’re about to take a left, they’re these little shiny voices that say, ‘How about taking a right today?’” he said.

Travis Shallow: Understanding and application

After he left treatment, Britt took him under her wing and introduced him around local 12 Step meetings. He did outpatient treatment and he found a home group, went to recovery meetings, got a sponsor and started seeking outside help, working with a therapist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to sort through issues that were at the heart of his addiction. As things got better, he and Britt stayed in touch but not as often, and shortly afterward she fell off the wagon. He reached out to her to offer support as she had done to him, but it wasn’t long after that he got the news that she had lost her life.

Losing a friend, especially one who had served as his first sponsor, rocked his world, and while playing music for her wake was profoundly difficult, it felt like the ideal way to honor a woman who did so much for him as a musician and as a recovering addict.

“Britt was always buying my CDs from me to give to other people, and even though I lost a couple of friends I was in rehab with, that one just really hit home,” he said. “She was the first one I had a lot of history with, and I’m not sure I would have been able to stay sober early on without her. During that time, she was such a positive anchor for keeping me sober and letting me know that this is the way things work.”

For every tragic moment, there were beautiful ones as well — the release of his self-titled album, for example. It’s a powerfully recorded document, made at the same studio where his old band, A Few Good Liars, holed up to make their 2011 high-water mark, “Battered Wooden Body.” (That period also saw the band meet and launch a friendship with fellow North Carolinians in the band American Aquarium, whose frontman, B.J. Barham, has been a long-time acquaintance and sobriety inspiration for Shallow.)

Listening back to it, however, it’s difficult not to pick out songs and arrangements he would have done differently. And that, he added, was reason enough to keep pushing forward and assemble a new band — The Deep End — with whom he recorded another album, “The Great Divide,” released in 2017.

“That was the first sober record,” he said. “I had about six months clean time, and I hadn’t gone back to playing shows yet — at least not the 150 to 200 shows a year I was doing. But I said, ‘Look, I need a project. Being sober is great, but I can’t just be sober. I need to get back to work, and I need some purpose here.’”

The first song he ever wrote sober, he added, became the title track, and whatever trepidation he felt about undertaking such a clear-minded endeavor was lifted when the song was complete. At 7 ½ minutes, it hums on a gossamer engine of hope, cut through with some throwback ’80s guitar licks and Shallow’s wavering, world-weary vocals that give the lyrics both poignancy and gravitas.

Finding beauty in the now

Travis ShallowIt's a voice that becomes the anchor for his most recent single, “Let It Pass,” released last year on Cavity Search Records. An acoustic, dreamy ballad, it showcases just how much Shallow has evolved as a songwriter and an artist over the course of his sobriety.

His work ethic has improved as well, he added: Since COVID-19 shut down live performances, he started livestreaming performances twice weekly and doing it on a regular basis.

“Every Wednesday and Saturday since last March, that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s a consistency thing. I keep it loose, I play some songs, and I tell some stories, and tomorrow will be episode 95 (that number is higher now, given that this interview took place last month). It’s kind of shocking to me, because I would never have had the resiliency and consistency to do anything 95 times except be out running on the other side of sobriety.”

He and his long-time musical compadre, Bob Russell, are also working on a live duo record, and alongside that, he’s sifting through the multi-track recordings of all of his livestream performances to put together a live album. Despite COVID, his musical future looks to be a busy one, and he owes it all to his decision to get sober.

And just as his music has evolved, so has his recovery. As much as 12 Step recovery changed him, he eventually decided to pursue deeper work that’s ongoing. Solo therapy and group therapy unrelated to 12 Step recovery are more his wheelhouse these days, but he doesn’t hesitate to advise those who may ask his advice on how to find a life on the other side of a drug and alcohol problem to keep it simple.

In other words, seize help, in whatever form or fashion it takes. That he’s able to offer any suggestions, he added, is a humbling opportunity.

“My recovery started to be a currency and a value to other people around me who saw me and wanted to know what I did,” he said. “A lot of them weren’t people who were strung out or hitting it hard, but maybe hitting it heavier than they should. Honestly, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to some friends about it, and to see the ones who are inquiring dial it back, and maybe then dial it back even more, and now I have a growing number of friends who just stopped. They didn’t need to go to rehab; they just saw that drinking is a handicap.”

Not drinking or using has allowed him to more fully embrace his calling as a musician, but doing the work to address the reasons he fell prey to addiction has allowed him to elevate his art. He’s in touch with a side of himself that for so long was missing, and it’s something he wouldn’t trade these days for a warehouse full of drugs.

“It’s a pure sense of peace,” he said. “It’s not always constant, but it was definitely nonexistent back then. Now, it’s like every now and then, things just line up. My girl comes home from work, and the dog’s here, and we’re cooking dinner, and I’m sober.

“Before, I would have thought that’s my nightmare, but now, it’s how I recharge and stay anchored. It’s one of those moments that, every now and again, gives me this flash of, ‘This feels really connected to whatever the definition of purpose is in this world.’”