For Morgan Snow, labels are a nebulous concept.
His band, for instance — Triggers & Slips, which releases a new album, “The Stranger,” this week — doesn’t fit into any certain box. There are throwbacks to the band’s 2012 full-length debut that are most definitely honky-tonk in origin, songs built with lap steel and twang and Snow’s country drawl that belies his roots as a Utah native. But there are a great many flourishes drawn from other colors on his musical palates, often within the breadth of the same song.
Take the title track, for instance: barrelhouse piano and loping bass lines slowly transition into a fuzzy, driving freight-train boogie, and by the time the band reaches the end of the line, it’s almost a completely different song. It’s a creative gear-shift that continues throughout the course of the record — the final track, in fact, is a cover of the dark-and-dreary Alice in Chains track, “Rooster.” To classify Triggers & Slips as a band firmly entrenched in a single genre is misleading, too say the least.
The same goes, Snow believes, for addiction and alcoholism. Even the terms are fluid, Snow points out — and as a mental health counselor, he speaks from a position of both professional authority as well as personal experience.
“Use, abuse, dependence — that’s the cycle,” Snow told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “The terms ‘addict’ and ‘alcoholic’ mean so many different things, and they’re not clinical terms from the standpoint of a clinician. There’s not a diagnosis for ‘drug addict’ — it’s chemically dependent, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. It’s not either-or, and there’s no on-off switch.
“I think that’s a common theme with both mental health and substance abuse. There’s a lot of black and white thinking, a lot of all-or-nothing thinking about it. There’s the stigma that you must be weak or must be a (screw-up) or of low moral character, so if you’re a person struggling and you’re identifying with those messages, you’re not going to tell people that (stuff). You don’t have a place of safety to work through what’s going on. People like to say, ‘Just quit,’ but if being sober was the cure, people wouldn’t relapse.
“That’s not where it ends, and I also think that’s part of the problem with the abstinence-only model,” he added. “People think, ‘I can never do it again,’ but that’s destination thinking.”
A different kind of recovery approach
To be absolutely clear: Snow does not advocate against abstinence or 12 Step recovery. He does not, in fact, work against any possible solution — he simply feels that harm reduction has a place at the table for people who struggle with drugs and alcohol, and his work and his personal experiences have led him to a place where that aforementioned destination thinking does more harm than good for some individuals, he said.
“I like to ask them, ‘Well, are you doing what you want? And if not, are (drugs and alcohol) getting in the way of what you want?’” he said. “A lot of times, it’s become this big, scary monster, and people don’t know how to talk about it. My goal is to get clients to attach to the idea of, ‘This isn’t so much about the identification that I’m an addict and can never do it again and have to do all these things.’ I like to tell them, ‘You’re getting ahead of yourself. What would it be like if you just didn’t do it for 30 days?’”
In a different approach to be sure, but Snow is adamant that when it comes to reversing substance abuse and overdose trends that killed more people in 2017 alone than the entirety of the Vietnam War, all possibilities must be brought to the table. Because in the end, the goal of any type of recovery is often the same:
“There is one thing that works every time, no matter who you are, and that’s finding passion and purpose,” he said. “No matter what model you use, if you find that, you’re going to have something else to hold onto that makes life worth living.”
For most of his early life, Snow’s passion and purpose was centered around baseball. A native of Salt Lake City, he’s a sixth generation descendant of some of the first pioneers to settle in Salt Lake Valley, but despite the perception that such stock must belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Snow didn’t grow up Mormon. Although he grew up around drinkers and smokers, however, he didn’t try it himself until he traveled across the country to play baseball for Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I was focused on sports,” he said. “I had seen people I grew up with struggle with it, and I didn’t really want to get to that point.”
Some metaphorical curveballs, however, threw him for a loop, and two weeks before his senior season started, he quit the team. Without baseball, he found himself adrift and struggling to fit into his role as a young husband with a new wife and a dog and bills to pay.
“My entire identity was wrapped around (baseball) — it was all I thought about, all I did and was what saved me from my early teen years of anxiety and depression and not knowing who I was,” he said. “I really had something to hold onto that was everything, and when you took that away, I had no idea who I was.”
Music becomes a passion
The guitar became a worry stone, the thing he held onto as the world around him seemed to unravel. He and his wife separated and eventually divorced, and he watched from afar as the young men who had been his teammates and brothers of the bat continued to play what would have been his final collegiate season.
“I was still in college, enrolled and going to classes and watching them, and I just felt like, ‘What am I?’” he said. “I just struggled to figure out anything that was tangible to what I was and what my purpose was; what I was going to do and what my life was even about. I spent the six hours a day I used to spend in sports just practicing the guitar.
“I met a dude at the bar who taught me how to do some things, and we would go out and hang out, smoke pot and drink and then play guitar. It was my only way to cope with it.”
As the darkness seemed to close in, there were even thoughts of suicide, he added. He was working at a Myrtle Beach piano bar and making good money, but the future seemed bleak, and his sense of direction was lacking. He went so far as to begin writing a suicide note, he said, but the more he wrote, the more he realized he was talking himself out of actually going through with it.
“Now that I’m in the clinical world and can see where I was at, I was really only a step, or maybe two, from really following through,” he said. “But I think being able to put it into a song helped me realize, ‘Hey — this isn’t what you want to do. This isn’t the way to deal with it. This is never going to get better if you do this.’”
The catharsis of writing sparked a creative fire within him, he added, and he began to put pen to paper, writing poems at first. As he got better at guitar playing, he began to put melodies behind them, and his career as a songwriter was born. He struggled at first, spending much of his time drinking and smoking weed, but the music became a lifeline. After finishing his senior year, he and his estranged wife decided to return to Utah in an attempt to work things out, and looking back at the bitterness and emotional angst that clouded his mind in Myrtle Beach, he recognizes that he was, at the time, attempting a geographical cure.
Back in Salt Lake City, he got his foot in the door with mental health treatment, going to work for a rehabilitation facility, and he and his wife had a child. His son, he said, changed everything.
“When I got to see him, that was the game changer,” he said. “That was the unconditional love I needed to tap back into, and it never really left me.”
Music becomes a purpose
Although he was still playing guitar, it wasn’t until his divorce, when he was in his late 20s, that music became a prominent passion. Friends took him to see a band in Salt Lake City, and he was left with a newfound excitement that had only been matched previously by baseball.
“It blew my mind, and I thought that if I could just do that and play on the weekends and play for people who were into my music, that’s all I would ever want,” he said. After I got divorced, that was when I what I really wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice it. I had learned from my baseball experience that quitting was not the answer, and I felt like my marriage and my decisions had really got in the way of that being a possibility. So when I started playing music, I said, ‘You know, this is what I want, and I’m not going to let anything get in the way.’”
Around the same time, he began to take a serious look at his drinking. Although he and his wife at the time had attempted to make their marriage work, Snow was unhappy. His son was born in 2005, but by 2007, he came to a realization:
“I thought to myself, ‘If you’re going to be in this, you’re going to have to continue drinking a lot, and that’s not healthy — so why not do something healthy and walk away while you still can?’” he said. “These days, I’m more about moderation, but I really try to make sure I pay attention, and I also take long breaks (from drinking). I don’t ever want someone to think that I know what it’s like to be dependent on anything in that way, but I know what it’s like to use and to abuse and to struggle with anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts. I know what it’s like to be healthy and unhealthy.
“For me, harm reduction is about being balanced and making sure I’m being honest about it with myself. I’ve gotten to the point in the past where it’s not OK, and as I’ve gotten older, I always want to be sure that I’m not putting those things before my life, my music, my son or my girlfriend. I’ve never felt like I have to cut it out completely, but I’ll go for months without it, especially if I just start to feel like it’s not really doing anything. For me, I don’t need to go drink at a bar just to have fun. I can do all sorts of things for fun.”
Around the same period, he reached a crossroads in his professional career as well. He was working at a substance abuse treatment center and had advanced as far as he could without furthering his education. He debated between going to film school or getting his master’s, ultimately deciding on the latter because he “decided being a therapist would give me a chance to have some freedom to help people,” he said. At the University of Utah, he pursued a mental health/therapy track and began to expand his base of clientele, from children to teens to prisoners to adults.
“Therapy is kind of an art form, and I’ve always been in the really high-intensity realms — prisons, working with people on parole or pretty significant probation, a lot of crisis family work,” he said. “I was on the front lines there for several years in the deepest pockets of the shadowy realm in my own community, and as I’ve gotten older and started paying attention, I’ve had to ask myself, ‘What are you doing? What’s happening here?’ Because I don’t think people are really designed to go through a bunch of trauma within this realm and not having something to help them stay balanced as well.”
For Snow, that’s meant taking breaks from being a therapist, and making the time to work on his music. Triggers & Slips was formed in 2008, and the name itself comes from his treatment background, he added.
“The guy I was playing with was also in the field, and he had a notebook that he used for work that he opened up to jot down some ideas for a name,” he said. “I saw that at the top of the page, and it clicked. I can’t imagine a better band name for what I do — country-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and grit and deep connection to what I am.”
An evolution of music and consciousness
The way Snow sees it, Triggers & Slips’ 2015 EP, “Buffalo vs. Train,” serves as an acoustic bridge between the band’s self-titled debut and “The Stranger,” but while the sound has evolved, some of the songs date back several years. He laughs when he’s asked about similarities to Sturgill Simpson, the hardcore troubadour whose synth-heavy guitar rock record, “Sound & Fury,” is about as far removed from his country roots as a giraffe is from a sea snake.
While “The Stranger” doesn’t go that far into left field, the influences are coming from the same place, Snow added.
“I love the old country, the old honky-tonk, but one of my greatest influences was Alice in Chains,” he said. “With this record, my vision was to really take the approach of making it like the old records were made. These songs were cut mostly live, four of them were cut on tape, and it’s just the band that I’ve put together in the last couple of years.
“We’ve been playing a lot, but we’re on another level of making these songs really stick out and making them feel different while still having a common thread. I think the other two albums I recorded are fine, but for this one, I was listening to a lot of records, going to a lot of shows, and I even lived in Nashville for a year. I was holding myself to a higher standard of what kind of product I wanted to put out, and that definitely influenced how much energy and time I put into recording these songs.”
Adding “Rooster” to the record, he added, was a natural fit. That band’s late singer, Layne Staley, fought a well-documented battle against addiction, and Triggers & Slips once learned and performed the entire Alice in Chains “Unplugged” record, the proceeds of which were donated to a Salt Lake City-area harm reduction program that gave out free naloxone kits to reverse opioid overdoses.
After all, harm reduction is as important to Snow as anything else. And while talk therapy can be a vital tool to anyone seeking to improve their mental health, his particular path is to avoid binary thinking when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
“I’ve kind of gotten away from using the term alcoholic or addict — it’s more about, ‘Are you dependent? Are you abusing it? Are you using it?’ And breaking it down to those three categories,” he said. “When you go about it that way, most of them instantly relax, because then it becomes a thing of choice. I’m very up front with every single client I meet with — I don’t care if you smoke pot, do heroin, drink alcohol or snort cocaine. That’s not my business to tell you what you should or should not do, but if you want to change that, and you think it’s a problem, or you’re coming in here because it’s in the way of you getting purpose, passion and direction in your life, then let’s talk about that.
“Because then the patient becomes the driver. I don’t want to be the driver. And while I usually work best with people who don’t fit the 12 Step program model, that’s not to say I can’t incorporate that in. If they think religion works, then I’m going to use that with them. Exercise … diet … community service … I’m going to use whatever they have in their box that’s meaningful. I just let them know, right out of the gate, that it’s all about choice — if they want to do this, then I’m not going to tell them not to, but if they’re coming in every week complaining about their lives and not changing anything, then I’m going to confront them on that.”
Changing the things they can ...
While his approach may make some abstinence-only proponents uncomfortable, that’s of little concern to Snow. He’s respectful, even encouraging, of other approaches, but he’s a strong believer that harm reduction has benefits to society as well as the addicts and alcoholics themselves. Case in point: By examining IV drug use as a general health problem and encouraging addicts to get tested for disease and make sure they have access to clean needles, it reduces the risk of those diseases affecting the general population, he said. But more than anything, he believes that strident belief in only one way to recover sometimes fails those in need of help. That’s where he believes another way — a Middle Path, so to speak, to borrow a tenet of Buddhism — can come into play.
And in the Salt Lake City therapeutic community, that approach has been welcomed, he added.
“Other therapists send people to me who are on the fringe, because they know I’m the guy that might get through to them because I’m going to be real and not bullshit them, but I’m not going to tell them what to do,” he said. “Now of course, someone who needs actual detox and actual help in an inpatient setting — that’s a different conversation. If there’s enough evidence in your life to support that this substance is causing way more problems and destroying things in your life, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing them. Maybe it’s not a wholesome, helpful activity anymore.
“But for people who are on the fence, I think it’s sometimes better to say, ‘Take off six months. Heck, take a year off, get your health back and make it to where you have other tools in your life that are healthy, so this thing doesn’t become the biggest thing in your life that destroys everything.’ Because my job is to point out those red flags, and sometimes these patients are telling me they can do these things, but they’re also showing evidence in their lives that they can’t.”
And when they can’t, then drugs and alcohol become self-constructed roadblocks to the passion and purpose that can bring peace to their lives. It’s a realization Snow came to through personal experience, and helping others who similarly struggle get to a place of serenity perhaps a little quicker than he did is on par with raising the roof on a dive bar Saturday night alongside his Triggers & Slips bandmates.
“I tell them, ‘Let’s work on what you know you want to change,’ and that’s going to open up that avenue,” he said. “We can talk about the substances, and that’s a part of it, but it’s not the meat and potatoes. It’s just what’s getting in the way. It’s what you haven’t resolve or made peace with, and until that happens, you really can’t start changing anything, because you don’t know what you’re looking for.”