Three chords & the truth: In recovery, Tim Easton gets more real than ever

Tim Easton
Courtesy of Michael Weintrob

Like a hungry dog drawn to the assurances of warmth and sustenance, singer-songwriter Tim Easton circled the fires of sobriety for a while before he finally found the fortitude to emerge from the shadows.

The Ties That Bind UsFor roughly a decade, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he was able to avoid his drug of choice, but his dalliances with other substances made forward progress difficult.

“I’m a missionary style drinker — alcohol is my main squeeze, and whatever else I’m doing, whether it be the herbs or the dry goods, I’m really just working my way back to the sauce,” he said. “It’s pretty basic and pretty simple, but it led to me doing foolish, foolish things, like getting behind the wheel of a very dangerous and heavy piece of metal. To this day, I’m really grateful I didn’t hurt anybody else or myself behind the wheel of a car.”

Five years ago, he claimed his seat in the rooms of recovery and has stayed put, but like a lot of his peers, he quickly discovered that abstinence wasn’t so hard. The heavy lifting came from taking an unflinching look at the reasons alcohol had been such a security blanket for most of his life, and working through the fear and defeat that kept him going back to it in spite of the consequences.

“Basically, stopping drinking was the easy part. It was learning to live life with my own character defects and my attitudes and my self-centered fear that was the difficult part,” he said. “That took a lot of work, and a lot of amends-making, and a lot of helping others — which turned out to me to be the main secret of happiness, working with others in helping them out of their self-centered fears.

“You’ve got to accept help when it’s offered to you, and you’ve got to listen to people when they’re talking to you as well. I think a big part of recovery is listening; that, and telling the truth no matter what, and being of service to people. That’s what really changes your day, because when you’re having a shitty day, and you call someone else and ask them how they’re doing and mean it, suddenly you’re outside of yourself.

“And the next thing you know, they might ask you how you’re doing, and at that point, you might start talking about what’s going on with you — and a lot of times, you start to see that you’re really doing pretty damn good,” he added. “Sometimes, that’s all it takes.”

How Well Do You 'Really Know' Tim Easton?

It's a simple concept, really, one that’s a pillar of most self-help groups, especially those dedicated to recovery from addiction or alcoholism. By reaching out to others, those individuals dial down the noise within their own heads, and in opening up when the opportunity allows, they find respite from the din. Pain shared is pain lessened, in other words, and Easton has been using his music as a way to do just that for more than two decades now, going back to his 1998 release “Special 20.”

Time, experience and the courage afforded him by sobriety, however, make his contemporary work that much more compelling.

“Certainly, being a songwriter can be a cathartic experience, and we songwriters are lucky that we can journal our true thoughts down and sing them out to the world,” he said. “I don’t know if journal entries themselves make good songs, but your experiences and how you react to your experiences can perhaps be interesting song subject matter. I feel lucky that we can dump our anger, our fear, our joy, our excesses, our shortcomings in a song, because some people have to hold onto them and sit on them and die from not being able to let anybody know how they’re feeling.

“For me, what I’ve figured out is that whatever that feeling is in your gut, that probably is what you should write about — whatever it is you’re most afraid of. I’m not saying you have to make a song or an album about it, but it does help to write it down.”

And during the pandemic, write it down he did. Although he turned over “a large batch,” he said, to his producers — Brad Jones and Robin Eaton, who were at the helm of “Special 20” all those years ago — the 10 winnowed down for his most recent record, “You Don’t Really Know Me,” are among the most starkly vulnerable of his entire catalog.

Sure, there are his tender ruminations and observations, including a couple dedicated to fellow artists lost in the past year: “Voice on the Radio,” a lovely elegy to the late John Prine, and the bluesy country shuffle of “River Where Time Was Born,” a lament for Justin Townes Earle, who died in August 2020 due to an accidental overdose. As a self-described “campfire propagandist,” Easton’s steady delivery has always served to steer his songs in similar fashion to the kindly narrator of films like “Stand By Me.” He’s in the thick of it, but he also serves as something of a spirit guide to songs that ask for an emotional investment.

On “You Don’t Really Know Me,” that investment focuses on healing. It’s been billed as a “recovery record,” and for good reason: the lyrics are striking for anyone who travels the same roads he does but are broad enough to offer solace to casual listeners as well. “When the pain of staying the same outweighs the strain of making change,” a line from “Speed Limit,” is a universal concept, and a personal declaration from the acoustic urgency of “Real Revolution” — “tired of backsliding, living in the past, tired of going absolutely nowhere fast … I had a problem that needed solution” — is one that applies to anyone who struggles with life on life’s terms.

“Major credit to Brad and Robin for taking the songs that were angry, or divorce songs, or whatever, and putting them aside and saying, ‘We’d like to focus on this batch of songs that’s positive and uplifting and have a little bit of hope in them, because right now the world is suffering, and the last thing it wants is for you to add to the bitch pile,’” Easton said. “I didn’t set out to write songs about recovery, but if you’re in recovery and actively helping others and just writing about your life as a confessional singer-songwriter, it’s going to come up. The main thing I’d like anybody to take from this album is to remain teachable, and that it’s not a shameful thing to reach out for help when you need it.”

Experience, strength and hope through song

Tim Easton

Courtesy of Michael Weintrob

To be fair, Easton has long mined his personal experiences for songwriting material. As a kid, his brother Bob taught him how to play “Deep River Blues” on the guitar around the time he was in the sixth grade, and because Tim was already a budding poet who received favorable marks in school for his rhymes, Bob told him something that would inform the rest of his life.

“He said, ‘If you play guitar and write poetry, you can be a songwriter,’ and I started right then,” he said. “That’s a daily thing to this day. I never really had a Plan B. I just went for it, because it didn’t occur to me to do anything else. After high school, I thought I would just go overseas to Europe and be a street musician for a while, because I thought I maybe needed to live the life that led to the songs.

“I didn’t have any songwriting material when I was 15, 16 or 17, so I decided to go travel Woody Guthrie-style and get some stories.”

One of his earliest: “Duct Tape Shoes” was born from a hitchhiking trek up the spine of Ireland, when he literally kept his fraying shoes together with duct tape. A native of New York State who grew up in Akron, Ohio, he was a stranger in a strange land and soaked up every moment of it. He ran with the artist known as Beck; he cut his first rudimentary songs in Prague.

It was on the streets of Europe that he started busking, and upon returning to the States, he joined a rock band called The Haynes Boys, releasing one album before striking out on his own in 1998. “Special 20” gained him some notoriety, and in 2001, New West Records released “The Truth About Us,” which featured members of Wilco in a back-up role. Critics held it up as a masterpiece, and when “Break Your Mother’s Heart” came out a year later, it earned him a solid place among roots-centric singer-songwriters.

He's continued to churn out one album after another, but at the same time, life on the road as a musician with a penchant for a stiff drink took its toll over the years, he said.

“Drugs, alcohol and sex are free and plentiful, and a lot of people will offer you all of these things,” he said. “People will offer you a drink before they offer you a sandwich, or to just sit down and ask how you’re doing. And over time, it 100% affected my career to the negative, because I was a self-centered idiot who cared more about my own pleasures rather than worrying about anybody else’s.”

While sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are certainly part of the popular music aesthetic, a hedonistic reputation, regardless of how romantic it might see, doesn’t pay the bills, Easton added. No-showing a gig because of alcohol might have added to George Jones’ street cred, but for a guy like Easton, it only hurts.

“For a guy like George, that might be a bit of a feather in his cap or part of his reputation, being unable to drive to a show or too drunk to get behind the wheel, but for a guy like me who was struggling just to put 50 people in a club, that was just stupidity,” he said. “Finally I thought to myself, do I want to stay up all night partying with some dudes in some town, or do I want to play music?”

Tim Easton and the power of asking for help and accepting it

Courtesy of Michael Weintrob

When he was ready to accept help, the organization MusiCares made sure he got it. He can’t say enough about the nonprofit arm of the Recording Academy, which not only provided him with the help he needed but reassured him that he wasn’t the only musician who was struggling to get on top of a problem that threatened to derail his career and possibly ruin — or even take — his life.

“I feel lucky that I was able to accept the help that was offered to me,” he said. “MusiCares is a remarkable and resourceful organization that helps struggling musicians get into rehab or get mental health help, and I simply accepted their offer. I didn’t stop wanting to change the way I felt all the time — hence the marijuana and mushrooms, etc. — however, those things just made me thirsty in the end, and I got back to the thing that led me to being self-centered and in fear all the time, and in literal trouble with the law.

“When you get into actual trouble with the law, you have to make a decision whether you want to carry on that way or take the help that was offered to you and realize that you don’t have all the answers.”

And ever since he recommitted himself to complete sobriety five years ago, he’s come to a somber realization: He’s always going to be surrounded by addicts and alcoholics. Today, he simply chooses the ones who are doing something about their problems, as he is.

“My whole life seems to be in communication with those I met when I was actively throwing down, those who have chosen recovery or those who have altered their life paths in some way,” he said. “I’m really big on morning meditation: I’ve got my ritual, but I’ve also studied transcendental meditation, which I did learn about through the Beatles, and I believe it’s helpful for me to focus on a mantra for 20 minutes, or at least 2 minutes, every morning.

“I’m big on the phone call, on checking in with others. I’m really big on gratitude lists — that’s part of my daily thing, writing and journaling down gratitude. And it doesn’t have to be anything bigger than, ‘I’m hydrated.’ ‘I have a roof over my head.’ ‘I’m not starving today.’ Just short little things like that can make you feel great if you recognize them.”

More importantly, he moves through the world as a free man — unencumbered by the shackles of substances that used to be the balm for heartbreak, triumph and every emotion in between. Sobriety doesn’t guarantee him a Zen-like existence free from those emotions, but it does give him the tools to experience them, to acknowledge them, and to change them, if he so chooses.

“It’s about being happy today. What makes you happy? And if you’re happy, what are you doing to maintain that?” he said. “If you’re in a depression, what’s going on, and what can we do to mitigate that? We can’t be happy, joyous and free all the time, or it would lose its power — and we certainly can’t be down in the dumps all the time. But when I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and I recognize that black dog of depression, do I sit here and try to solve it with my own mind, or do I call someone and ask how they’re doing and mean it?”