Through recovery, the guys in 500 Miles to Memphis ‘lift each other up’

Through recovery, the guys in 500 Miles to Memphis 'lift each other up'

The Ties That Bind UsWhen the boys in the alt-country outfit 500 Miles to Memphis decided to christen their new release “Blessed Be the Damned,” it was a nod to their tribe.

The misfits and outcasts. The down-and-out and trodden upon. The street survivors and bare-knuckle brawlers. And most importantly, the guys told The Ties That Behind Us recently, it’s a collection of 11 anthems dedicated to their fellow travelers: The men and women who have walked through the darkness of addiction and emerged into the light of recovery.

“It’s actually a recovery record, dressed up in analogies and other parallel stories, and the title itself means a lot to me,” said Ryan Malott, the band’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. “I feel most connected to people who have had addiction problems in the past and have come out the other side. I think that people who have been through hell come out the other side appreciating life a lot more and understanding life a lot more. Because of that, they’re more blessed, so this record is for them more than anyone.”

The thing about 500 Miles to Memphis is that anyone with an appreciation for authenticity and the sounds of hardscrabble rock ‘n’ roll dressed up in the ragged flannel of Jason and the Scorchers-era cowpunk and Old 97’s-style freight-train Americana can find something to love in the band and its new collection of songs. The three core members — Malott, bassist/vocalist/guitarist/organist Noah Sugarman, and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Kevin Hogle (the quintet is completed by guitar and lap steel player/guitarist David Rhodes Brown and guitarist/vocalist Aaron Whalen) — didn’t start out as a recovery band. In fact, they spent a good chunk of the group’s existence partying as hard as anybody in the audience.

But with the clear heads and sober hearts of recovery, the music they make resonates on a level that’s deeply personal for those who walk similar roads, and for the guys themselves, they said.

“I love rolling into a town where the last time those people saw us, we were a trainwreck,” Malott said. “Now, we roll in with a new band, and our live show is so much better. It’s what I always wanted it to be, and when we roll into these towns sober, they’re blown away. If they’re used to seeing us drunk and falling down, they see us now and go, ‘OK! This is a real band!’ And that’s my favorite thing — putting on a show for people, giving them something to talk about and impressing them while showing off a little bit.”

Working hard, partying harder

Malott grew up listening to Green Day and Social Distortion, and his grandparents’ record collection was filled with such rogue country artists as Hank Williams Sr., Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. He spent one quarter at the University of Cincinnati before moving to Dallas, where he lived for about a year. He wasn’t a big partier in his younger years, but once 500 Miles to Memphis came together — so named because the town where he’s from is roughly that far from the actual city namechecked in the band’s nomenclature — it became a regular thing, he said.

“When I started doing (music) semi-professionally, I figured I’d better start acting like it,” he said with a chuckle. “I would drink with buddies before and after shows, and then blow started getting involved, and when you start a band and start touring and going to these towns to perform, you’re supposed to be the life of the party. And we definitely were.

“There was never this watershed moment of, ‘I’m drunk, and I want to feel like that all the time.’ It just crept up on me. I got a couple of DUIs, and I tried to sober up and never could do it. The cocaine, though, was a really huge problem. Out on the road, we would spend every dime we made on alcohol and blow. We were at a point in our career where things were really on the upswing, and we were doing pretty well for an independent band, but things went off the rails.”

That their addiction journeys were so inextricably intertwined kept them in one another’s sick orbits. Hogle had been drinking since he was 11 or 12, he said, when he started sneaking six-packs off the shelf of the grocery store his mother owned. It was a regular habit by high school, and when he went to college in 1995, other substances became involved.

“I did whatever I could get my hands on, because I wanted to go and go as much as I could,” Hogle said. “Once I graduated college, I would say I had a full-blown problem, although it wasn’t affecting me like it did later. Once I got into the band and started touring, I could see that it was taking a toll on me mentally and physically.”

The first to emerge from the fog

He and Malott were roommates at the time, and Malott recruited him for 500 Miles to Memphis in 2005. By that point, the guys had released a solo reecord with Sugarman and Brown on board, and in 2007, the band released its most successful record to date, “Sunshine in a Shot Glass.” But the road and the chemicals took their toll, and while Brown has always been a part of the 500 Miles to Memphis orbit, he bowed out at one point, leaving the band a three-piece.

“It was hard to get guys to stay with us because we were a trainwreck, but we kept on trucking as a three-piece, doing 250 days on the road a year,” Malott said. “all three of us had such a good time; we never fought, but we also ended up contributing to each other’s alcoholism and drug problem.”

In 2011, Malott came to the end of the road. He drank away the disappointment of a sparsely attended show in Cleveland, then returned home the next day to his girlfriend — now his wife — who was on the verge of leaving him. It was Sept. 17, 2011, he said.

“I was still drunk until 9 p.m. the next day, but I promised her: ‘Don’t leave. I’ll get this under control,’” he said. “I had gotten in more trouble with the law, so I had to wear an ankle monitor and had a breathalyzer in my car. I couldn’t drive or do anything, but I went to (recovery meetings). I remember thinking, ‘I can’t afford to do this anymore, because I feel like garbage.’ The hangovers kept getting worse and worse, and I wasn’t healthy in any shape or form. So I took it day by day, and a month went by. Then two months, then a year. And now it’s been seven years.”

The guys reconvened for a 2014 record, “Stand There and Bleed,” but for a guy trying to maintain sobriety, working with guys who still partied wasn’t easy for Malott. He didn’t booze-shame them, but he didn’t feel comfortable being the guy in the corner after the shows while his old friends slammed drinks with their fans.

“I didn’t need to distance myself from them, just because we had been friends for so long and on an amazing journey for so long, but I needed to distance myself from the life of living in a van and being on the road all year,” he said. “I needed to focus on my wife, and who I was, because I still wasn’t reliable. It took a while to shake being a drunkard, even though I wasn’t drinking.”

Brothers in recovery

While 500 Miles to Memphis continued to play regional shows here and there, the guys took a break. Sugarman got sober first, and Hogle followed 18 months ago.

“I would do some seriously stupid (stuff),” Hogle said. “Starting fights with people, blacking out — and that’s not me. It took me longer to realize I had a problem, but once I did, I felt so guilty for all the things I’d done. That guilt was really difficult for me. I’ve apologized to people, and that’s made it easier, but I’ve also apologized to myself for letting myself get to that point.

“It was tough, man. To reiterate what Ryan said, we went on this journey together. We were working really hard, and our expectations were really high. We cared about what we did, but when you party all the time, you lose sight of that. You lose the ability to actually function at a level where you can achieve your goals.”

During the down time, all of the guys focused on other projects. Malott played a few solo shows, Sugarman concentrated on his solo project and Hogle played with the band Fifth on the Floor. In 2017, shortly after Hogle got sober, they decided to get back on the horse. Brown and Whelan came back to the fold, and they discovered a new sense of magic in the studio during the recording of “Blessed Be the Damned.”

“This was the first record we’ve done completely sober, and it was completely different in every way,” Hogle said. “Not that we didn’t work really hard to make the other albums successful and make them sound as good as we could sonically, but this time, you could feel it. We were more focused. It was an awesome experience.”

There’s a muscular energy to the record that seems lifted from the well of renewed determination. From the choogling boogie of “No Doubt About It” to the gospel vibe of “The River” to the foot-stomping urgency of “Save Me,” the guys seem intent on celebrating the gift that is a band reborn. That one of them found sobriety is a blessing; that three of them did is downright miraculous.

A renewed focus on the future

“We’re just so focused and passionate about creating good music,” Malott said. “We lost our way with the partying, and it became not about the music any more, and more about, ‘Let’s get this show over with so we can go drink.’ I was always feeling pretty (lousy), and I’d need to get at least a couple of shots in me to feel normal. The shows suffered, and our personal lives were in shamble.

“I think we really had an opportunity to do something bigger, and we (messed) it up — and now we’re making up for that. With this new album, we’re back. We’re drawing a line in the sand, and it’s all about the music once again and not about the party. It’s truly about doing what we love to do, and that really comes across on the new record.”

Sobriety as a touring rock band isn’t without its challenges, especially when the 500 Miles to Memphis catalog is replete with party anthems. Many of the band’s fans still love to party, and the guys in no way want to discourage that, Malott added.

“If you don’t have a problem, then drink up — get out on the weekends and let loose,” he said. “I can’t, but I don’t have a problem with anybody else doing it. I’m right there with you, but I just can’t drink with you.”

To his surprise, he said, he’s discovered that he doesn’t need the alcohol to have a good time. Being present — in the moment, feeling those power chords still reverberating off the walls of the clubs and bars in which they play and talking about favorite bands and songs with other lovers of music … he, Hogle and Sugarman have found their niche, they said.

“I feel OK — comfortable in my own skin,” Malott said. “I do have something to offer to the world that’s not just this wild party animal, here to entertain you. Down deep, I’ve realized some things about myself. We all have. It just took us a long time to figure out that life is actually better sober.

“We’ve been at it for 16 years now, and we’ve gone through quite a rollercoaster together. We’ve been there for each other’s worst, and we’ve probably been bad for each other at one point, but we came through it. Now, at this point, we lift each other up.”

“Moving forward, I think we all have been through a lot of (stuff) that defines who we are right now,” Hogle added. “I really think that we want to improve as a band even more so. We continually, constantly strive for improvement, and we’re really excited about the record and about touring again. I like to tell everyone — we’re gonna make you love us.”

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