There’s a saying around recovery circles: “Secrets keep us sick.”
Country star Terry McBride knows that better than anybody. In April, he’ll mark 10 years sober, again, only this time around, he’s not ashamed of his past, but neither does he dwell on it. He’s working on a new record with songwriter and producer Luke Laird, a Nashville name that’s mentioned in the same circles as Dave Cobb, and he’s enjoying his career outside of the industry pressure cooker he once was a part of.
Back then, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, excess came naturally — so much, in fact, that pulling himself out of the bottle was a more arduous challenge than most folks realize.
“I spent almost 10 years, writing songs and getting (messed) up and having success, so why would I stop it?” he said with a laugh. “The only responsibility I had was to be on the bus when it was leaving. Whatever else I wanted to do was up to me. But it wasn’t long before I was right back to where I was the last time — spiraling out of control, doing everything inappropriate, causing my family pain, and that was more than I could bear.”
At the time, McBride had transitioned from a successful career with his own band, McBride and the Ride, to one as a songwriter with country duo Brooks and Dunn. As part of the group’s songwriting team, McBride helped pen two No. 1 singles (“If You See Her” and “Play Something Country”) and six additional Top 10 songs; he’s also given a songwriting assist to such country luminaries as Alan Jackson, Reba, Kenny Rogers, Trace Adkins, George Strait and Garth Brooks. Even before moving to Nashville, he played alongside alt-country icons like Rosie Flores and Delbert McClinton, and these days, he’s firing back up his own career.
Doing it sober, he said, makes all the difference.
“The best thing you can do is to realize you have a problem, of course, then talk to somebody about it,” McBride said. “Once you reach out and let someone know and don’t keep it a secret, people are willing to help. If people could just do it, could just say, ‘I’m at a point where I think I need help,’ that’s just such a big step. You’ve got to do work to stay sober, but keeping it a secret and hiding it is so much more work all on its own.”
A chip off the old block
There was never a time in his life that McBride can’t remember music being a part of it. His father, Dale, was a regional musician who was “discovered” by Dean Martin and would enjoy some modest national success, and throughout his childhood, the younger McBride remembers that his pops was either on the road, rehearsing at home with his band or recording music in what would become a home studio.
“I looked up to my dad, and I wanted to be just like him,” he said. “I remember begging for a guitar, and he gave me one for my 9th birthday that he bought in Mexico. It had this horrible high end on the strings! It was so hard to fret that guitar, but knowing my dad, he wanted to see how bad I wanted to learn.”
As a teen, McBride was handed a bass guitar by his father, who needed a bassist for his band. He still remembers how his father charted every part for studio musicians, tabbing roles for each instrument by hand and never lacking the knowledge to answer a music-related question. Combined with the excitement he saw consume his mother when The Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and McBride’s future was cemented early on.
“I wanted it more than anything,” he said. “Going to see my dad play, it was impressive to a young kid. He had a great floor show; he was a great yodeler; he could play the five-string banjo; and he did impersonations. I remember going to a lot of honky-tonks and breathing in a lot of second-hand smoke as a kid, sleeping in booths while I traveled over the summers with my dad.”
Growing up in Central Texas, about 70 miles northwest of Austin, McBride was put through basic training in Lone Star State music. The two step, the cotton-eyed joe, songs by Faron Young and Ray Price and Johnny Bush and Gary Stewart — he became the king of shuffles, and as a freshman in high school, he was asked to join a regional band that made the girls swoon and the fellas ask them to dance.
“I did that all the way through high school, every weekend at least, so I was making money as a freshman,” he said. “It was a crazy but wonderful experience; these guys were seniors, and I was a freshman, making money and playing every other weekend, at least.”
And alcohol, he added, was still several years away from being a problem.
Eyes on the prize
“Like a lot of kids, I think I first experimented in high school, but I had a horrible experience with it,” McBride said. “The very first alcohol I ever drank was cherry vodka, and it gave me one of the worst hangovers you could ever wish on another person. I think I did it because a girl dumped me? It was one of those ‘I’ll show her’ things, but the side effects were so brutal. I had to get up the next day and work cattle at this enormous ranch, and I was so hungover.
“It was all scary and horrible and a lot of vomiting, and I was always that kind of a drunk. I always got sick, but for me, I kept hanging in there, even though it was later on. After that one time, I really didn’t have much to do with alcohol through high school, mostly because I had my band, and I didn’t want to lose my privileges of driving.”
Plus, he added, he was a witness to alcohol’s insidious tendencies. His mother was an alcoholic, and because his father was on the road so much as a performer, it was often left to McBride to pick up the pieces. As a 10-year-old, however, there was only so much he could do.
“I remember one time, she sat me and my sister down and told us she was leaving,” he said. “My dad was on the road, so by the time he got home, our mom was gone. That was our eighth grade year, so all through high school, I was on my own, with my grandparents living next door. They raised me and took great care of me, but I got away with murder.”
Not that there was much hell-raising going on. McBride, after all, was too zeroed in on making music his life. There were plenty of band parties and rehearsals, but even after high school, he didn’t fall immediately into the clutches of booze. It wasn’t until he started climbing the Austin scene’s musical ladder that he started to pick up steam.
“I had been in a band with Reese Wynans (AB and The C Notes), who played in my dad’s studio and was kind of a mentor for me,” McBride said. “He introduced me to Lee Roy Parnell and opened up a lot of doors for me in Austin, and he was the one who recommended I try out for Delbert McClinton’s band. By that point, I was the youngest guy in the band. There were a lot of professional drinkers on that crew, and I jumped right in there and made the most of every moment.”
Sobriety, take one
In the beginning, it was a habit begun out of boredom: play a show, have a cocktail, rinse and repeat. But by two years in, he was a wreck, he said.
“At first, I respected Delbert so much that I didn’t want to screw up, but the bar was set low, and I crawled right under it,” he said. “I loved Delbert, and he still loves me — he even did a duet with me on my new record — and back then, he tried to help me. I was spiraling out of control, getting drunk through the sets, getting alcohol poisoning.”
The end came in Milwaukee, of all places, when Delbert and the boys were set up to play a Miller Lite convention in 1986. Tired of being drunk, and restless to do more than just go through music as a hired bass player, he just walked away, from booze and the band. He took a cue from his friend, Jimmie Vaughan, and fasted for 10 days, during which he lost 15 pounds, and he spent the end of the 1980s honing his songwriting chops and picking up gigs with a variety of other artists.
“When I quit, I quickly auditioned for Bill Carter and the Blame. Bill had been writing cool songs for Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he was putting a band together to go out on tour with Stevie Ray, so that was my first experience of playing gigs and doing gigs sober,” McBride said. “It was really a chore, because everybody was still drinking, but it gradually got better. I went to Europe with Rosie Flores, where we did a whole tour with Waylon (Jennings) and Buck Owens, and I wrote with her a little bit.
“I auditioned for that Stevie Ray tour and got the gig did that whole thing with Stevie, and the whole time, I played them my little country demos. They loved it, and when I got off that tour, I started writing country songs.”
The road eventually led to Nashville, with Bill and his wife, Ruth, serving as McBride’s liaison with the music industry. The couple arranged for a meeting with Tony Brown of MCA Nashville, who loved what he heard and flew to Austin to meet McBride. Determined to put together a band, Brown teamed McBride up with Ray Herndon and Billy Thomas, and McBride and the Ride was established in 1989.
The more success he achieved, the less inclined he was to pick up a drink, he said.
“I was just afraid to go back, because I knew that those starving musician days didn’t appeal to me at all,” he said. “I was almost 30 when I got a record deal, so I had struggled for a long time, and I didn’t want to go back to that, and alcohol reminded me of that. I was just on a mission to change my life and my lifestyle completely.
“With Bill and Ruth, things started happening, and that gave me incentive and a little hope and pulled me out of where I was. I got healthy, and I started running, and I still believe that when you have addictions, you can use whatever you can to help you through it. It just lost its appeal to me. Everybody on the bus drank, and we even had alcohol on our rider, and I liked seeing people have fun.”
McBride and the Ride’s debut, 1990’s “Burnin’ Up the Road,” did modestly well, and a year later, McBride moved to Nashville. That same year, the third single from the record, “Can I Count on You,” charted at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, and the weekend McBride moved to Music City, McBride and the Ride played Fan Fair (now the CMA Music Festival).
Over the next several years, the group recorded three more albums for MCA — 1992’s “Sacred Ground,” 1993’s “Hurry Sundown” and 1994’s “Terry McBride and the Ride,” which featured the namesake with a new collection of musicians. The band was nominated for Vocal Group of the Year by both the County Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, but in 1995, the group disbanded, and McBride hooked up with Brooks and Dunn.
Although he was a part of that group’s stable of songwriters, his penchant for a well-constructed tune made him in demand around Music City, and he, Herndon and Thomas even got back together for one more “classic” McBride and the Ride album, 2002’s “Amarillo Sky.” A year later, however, McBride’s world was thrown into turmoil … quite literally.
The bottle wins again
“I had a really bad motorcycle accident, and a driver hit me head-on while I was going 45 mph,” he said. “I went from riding my big ol’ Harley that I had for 10 years to waking up in an ambulance racing down (Interstate) 65. They had cut my clothes off and had morphine going through me, because the accident threw me 80 feet. I landed on my head, and even though I had a helmet on, it cracked my helmet down the side.
“The bike catapulted me off of it, and I slipped and slid down the asphalt for 80 feet. It took all the skin off my arms, I broke all my fingers, and they thought maybe my back was broken. It even ground my blue jeans into both of my knee caps, and there was one guy at Vanderbilt, his whole job was to scrub jeans out of my knees.”
It turned out, he added, that the pain in his back stemmed from a lacerated kidney. The pain was excruciating, he said, and the four months of rehabilitation that followed his hospital stay were exhausting. It was then, he said, that his old friend the bottle beckoned again, and he answered the call.
“I was on the back porch one day, and Cathy (McBride’s wife) was having her glass of wine,” he said. “I had just gone through this trauma, and she was drinking that glass, and it looked so good. I thought, ‘Life is short, and I’m older now, so why not?’ I’d never had a glass of wine, because I always drank hard liquor to get drunk.
“So I started drinking wine, and I loved it. And then I started collecting wine, and that went along okay for a while, but then I was right back where I was 17 years earlier.”
Finally, in 2010, he ran up the white flag. Being the life of the party and directing it every night on the road was draining; the fallout at home over his drinking was taking a toll. He’d never been to alcohol rehab, but by that point, he was willing.
“I felt like if I was going to save my family, it had to be drastic measures,” he said. “I went through 28 days at Cumberland Heights, and when I got through, I still wasn’t convinced I really had a problem, but a little while later I thought, ‘I want to get out of this situation. I’m done.’
“I hit a wall, and that was it. It was just a matter of getting my head wrapped around it. Rehab gave me that break I needed, and I realized I could survive without it.”
Sobriety, take two
He went to meetings at first, bonding with a 12 Step group on Music Row, but the more sobriety he put together, the less drinking became a factor. He certainly embraced some of the concepts, he added, especially the part about “finding something way more important than myself,” he said.
“The best thing going for me is that I don’t think about it; therefore, I don’t miss it,” he said. “Now, I’m trying to revive this touring thing I haven’t done in 25 years, and there ain’t no room for anything else if I’m going to pull off playing 17, 18 or 19 songs a night.”
In 2017, McBride released the EP “Hotels and Highways,” but his new full-length, “Rebels and Angels,” is taken from a song he wrote a couple of years ago with Chris Stapleton. It features guest vocals by Patty Loveless, but that ballad style is just a small piece of what the new McBride record actually is: a little bit of everything.
“I wrote a blatantly rowdy song — ‘Went for 1 and Stayed Til 2,’ which is just a fun song that sums up back in the day,” he said. “It’s pretty autobiographical, really. And then I recorded one of my dad’s songs from 1971, ‘Corpus Christi Wind,’ that we recut but kept this old school vocal groove to it. And then there are several cool country things, and a song for my wife. We also recorded ‘Love Me Some Texas,’ and Mickey Raphael played on that. He’s been with Willie (Nelson) all those years, but he also played on my dad’s 1971 record.”
The album was recently mastered, and McBride is taking meetings around Nashville to figure out the best way to release it, he said. He’s still on the road, playing shows whenever possible, and with almost another decade under his belt, he’s even more sure this second time around: He doesn’t miss drinking.
“Now, man, I really enjoy being sober, and I feel good,” he said. “I really like being in control instead of completely out of control, and plus I’m just getting too old. There’s nothing attractive about a 60-year-old guy who’s a lush. It’s just sad at that point.”