It’s a Wednesday morning in Music City, and singer-songwriter Mitzi Dawn is feeling a bit hungover.
She’s not, of course. After 10 years of sobriety, she’s on the verge of staking her claim in a music career she thought she’d put behind her, and the discomfort she feels is actually a result of the work she continues to put in to maintain both.
“I slept in my makeup, and when I woke up, my eyes were burning,” she says. “It was good, though, and I was laughing this morning. This was a recovery jam, and I really feel like I tied one on!”
Some coffee and breakfast, however, and she was good as new — a far cry from those days of subsistence on chemicals that slowly destroyed everything she was and everything she had. Today, her life is full and blessed, she adds, and she has four new songs coming out next month, “4, 4 You.” ("4, For Me" follows Nov. 22, and "4, For Us" will be released Dec. 22.) It’s the culmination of a journey she resumed 18 months ago, when after a long break from music, she found that the muse is still there, and that she still has something to say.
“So many good things are happening,” she says. “Now, I’m writing by myself, which I never did. I’m recording songs I wrote, which I’ve never done. I’m writing about funny, happy things — like (the song) ‘Liquor or Kiss Her,’ which is just about a guy that has to make a decision between going to a bar or going home to his wife. There are things happening now where I’m able to just enjoy myself.
“There’s not a tremendous amount of pressure on me. My kids are grown, everybody’s OK, and now’s my time to just do that. The other big that that’s happened is that I started therapy — and all the years of being in a 12 Step fellowship is a thousand percent what made me have the ability to look at the things I’m looking at now.”
Little girl lost
If family-of-origin issues dictated fate, Dawn may have very well succumbed to the disease of addiction. It is, after all, part of her genetic makeup; more importantly, she points out, it informed the coping skills she learned as a young girl, watching it slowly dismantle her mother’s life.
“I can say over and over again I’m not ever going to be like my mom and my dad, but the truth is, a person drinking and using to cover up feelings is the person who taught me how to handle a feeling,” she says. “I never got to learn how to handle a feeling. Growing up, it was traumatic, and it was hard. I remember vividly the moment that I saw how destructive drugs were, and that started with my mom.
“Honestly, she was one of the most aesthetically beautiful women you can imagine laying eyes on. I remember her laying out in the sun, and it was the late ’70s, so she had on one of those little waist-hugging bikinis, and she was gorgeous. But one day I went out there to see her, and she was covered in sores. She was on meth, and I just remember that vividly, knowing that this was not going to be good. It seemed like it happened overnight, even though it couldn’t have been, but I was really little at the time.”
That was in the San Diego suburb of Imperial Beach; her father, a working musician, lived on the other side of the country, and she rarely got to see him. She admired him from afar, but music was also a balm for the tumultuous relationship she had with her mother, she adds.
“My mother sang all the time, and even when things started to get bad, that was the one thing (that helped),” she says. “If I sang with her, she would sit down for a minute and do that with me. I would sing all the songs on the radio constantly, and we would play this game called ‘radio,’ where I would sing a song, and she would tell me to change the channel, and I would sing another one.”
Her mother was a marked woman, however: Law enforcement was often parked along the street on which she lived, and Dawn’s mother would send her daughter out to bring them cookies. It seemed cute and fun until one morning, as she and her sister and brother were eating breakfast, they stormed the house.
“It was like a SWAT team, and they came in through every window and door,” she says. “They handcuffed my mom to this chair that would roll around and yell while me and my brother and sister were sitting there, eating cereal.”
From Cali to Jersey to Nashville
The kids were taken to a child services center, mom made bail and when the time for her sentencing, she took her two daughters to court, relying on the leniency a judge might show to a single mother. The court had other plans, however, and their mom was taken to jail. She had made no arrangements for such a turn of events, and so Dawn’s older sister sat on a phone book and drove the family car back to the house, where they stayed for the next month before the landlord discovered that three kids were living by themselves.
“He called the police, and they came and got us again,” she says. “They called my dad, who was on his honeymoon, and he drove all the way from Connecticut to get me, and I went to New Jersey to live with him.”
It was, needless to say, a culture shock. On top of that, her new stepmom wasn’t exactly thrilled; her husband, after all, was a traveling rocker, but suddenly he had to drive across the country and bring his daughter home. Her father continued with his music career, however, and took a hands-off approach to parenting, she says.
“He just wasn’t present,” she says. “I would ask him, ‘Can I spend the night at my friend’s house?’ And he would say, ‘You don’t have to ask me that now. You’re 10.’ It was that kind of a situation. There just wasn’t a lot of encouragement or involvement. I hear people talk about growing up in really abusive situations, but I would make up a story about being in trouble. I thought it was funny at the time, but really, I was just ignored.”
Music was always her saving grace. She got married as a senior in high school, and once her dad moved to Arizona, Dawn decided to seek her fortune in Nashville. She packed up her children and drove from New Jersey, never once thinking about the odds stacked against her.
“Maybe it was because I just thought about it every day, but I knew it was what I wanted to do,” she says. “Within six months, I got a publishing deal writing for RPM (Music Group) and Tim McGraw with no experience. I had some songs I had written, and I was involved with John Rich and the MuzikMafia, but ignorance is bliss, and I didn’t know any better. I called people on the phone who usually didn’t get calls, and I made friend with a lot of secretaries.”
She still giggles at one particular memory: Trying to get ahold of Tim DuBois, who had been appointed to oversee Arista Nashville. A friend who was also in the business overheard the call and scolded her:
“He said, ‘Girl, next time, you might want to call him DUBOIS,’” she recalls. “I had called him and asked for Tim Dubious, because I didn’t know how to pronounce it!”
Addiction comes calling
She finally signed a deal with RPM’s Sam Ramage and was on her way. At 25 years old, she was still a couple of years away from falling into the same habits that had claimed her mother. But even before that, the life traps and maladaptive coping mechanisms that contribute to addiction were already in place.
“My first drug was the word yes — ‘how can I get you to say yes to me?’” she says. “I would change the way I felt with approval. There was this man in a rock band, who was famous and beautiful, and I remember the first time I saw him, I thought, ‘Someone gets to go home, and that’s who they get to go home to.’ I decided that if I could make him love me, then everybody could see I was special.
“I worked pretty hard at that, and I succeeded. And I remember one Tuesday night, we were out, and there was a plate going around, just like there was so many other times before. Usually, I would just pass, but for no reason, I decided to do it. That first time, I didn’t even like it, but I loved what it did to him. He would react to it, and then I would get my drug, which was his approval.”
It didn’t take long for it to sink its fangs in deep, however. She soon went from craving his attention to ignoring his incessant pounding on her door, because she didn’t want to share her drugs. Her songs were getting picked up by other artists, but Dawn was so shackled to her habit that she gave up on her own music dreams because they interfered with getting high.
“I changed from wanting to have a record deal and wanting to tour to let other people record my songs,” she says. “I just wanted to stay home and do drugs and let the money show up in my mailbox. I had to turn in 12 songs a year, so if I disappeared, there were no consequences, so that means I disappeared a lot. And I think that helped me hit the bottom quickly.”
“Someone would give it to me, and I would just think, ‘OK, I’ll start tomorrow,’” she said. “I knew it was a problem, and I remember one day I was sitting across from my producer, Trey Bruce, at this restaurant. I said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Baby, you’re a drug addict.’”
Recovery, take one
His assessment came as a shock, but she agreed to go to her first 12 Step meeting. She didn’t like it, she recalls, and didn’t go back until a month later, when she picked up her 30-day chip. She celebrated with “a shot of Jack and an eight ball,” she says, but in the harsh light of the next day, she was terrified at how quickly she’d succumbed to her disease.
“I realized I quickly had to go back to the rooms, so I went in, and I basically hijacked the meeting,” she says. “I was listing drugs and mentioning people’s names — I just didn’t (care)! And after the meeting, a lady named Rhonda came up to me and suggested another fellowship. She drove me to a meeting and dropped me off, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
That was in 2008, and she was teetering on the precipice of disaster. She still had the big stuff — her children, her car, her home, her job, and for eight months, things began to improve. But then, she says, she caught the rock star cheating on her and was back out the door, spiraling into an abyss that took all of those things.
“When he cheated on me and I caught him, I had this little nervous breakdown, and I just remember one thing: pumpkins,” she says. “A friend found me at my house and took me to a hospital, and afterward brought me back to his house, so he and his wife could take care of me. I just remember waking up and looking over, and he was sitting on the edge of the bed, and all he said was, ‘You got kicked, baby. You got kicked.’
“That was in October, and there were pumpkins everywhere. Shortly after that, after a couple of months of hanging in there, I relapse, and during that nine-month relapse, I lost my publishing deal; there was a foreclosure note on my door; my car was repossessed; and I lost the kids.”
It wasn’t a graceful tumble to her bottom. If anything, Dawn strapped on a pair of rocket boosters and drove herself into the earth with the ferocity of an impacting meteor. She became reclusive, refusing to go to the store for cigarettes; a squatter had broken into her home, but she didn’t clean up the mess; her animals were flea-bitten and half wild; she was arrested.
Finally, fellow musician Jon Stone, half of the duo American Young, scooped her up and took her to his mother’s home. The older woman took Dawn to the store, and once again, one thing stood out: pumpkins.
“I saw them and thought, ‘Holy shit. It’s been a year, and I’ve cried every single day, and I’ve lost everything I that I’ve owned,’” she says. “I said in that moment, ‘I’m done.’ I called this girl from the rooms — whom I’d gotten so angry at, because she once told me, ‘I don’t think you’re doing everything you need to do for your recovery.’ I expected her to be like, ‘Look at this mess. I told you so!’
“But all she said was, ‘Are you ready for a meeting?’ I said yeah, so she came and picked me up. That was Oct. 22, 2009.”
Recovery, take two
Once again, recovery proved true to form. Her first sponsor had just separated from her husband and offered Dawn a room in her home. She went to 90 meetings in 90 days, as is suggested in recovery circles, and then did it again.
“It was one of those things where if you do better, you get better,” she says. “I was in the meetings every day, and I started really focusing on what they suggested I do — the whole put your shoes under the bed, so when you wake up to get them, you have to get on your knees, and then you’ll remember to pray.”
She got involved in service work, and even though she quickly found another songwriting gig — this time with renowned manager Doc McGhee — her sponsor suggested that she needed the structure of regular employment, so she started waiting tables. Eventually, she started working at a Nashville drug and alcohol treatment center with younger patients — mostly because she missed her own children, and felt working with young people would be a salve for that wound.
Her kids eventually returned to her care, and the tools she had been given through recovery and as a rehab worker helped her guide him through difficult times. And on the side, she hooked up with producer and musician Michael Flanders, who didn’t hold back when the two met for the first time.
“He said, ‘I’ve heard your voice, and I know a little bit about your story — I just want you to write,’” she says. “At first, I was like, ‘For who? For what?’ And he said, ‘Just write.’ So that became a weekly session, and it was so therapeutic. I was allowed to just articulate, and what he was doing was secretly recording the music. I would come in to write, and he would say, ‘I need you to throw a vocal on this.’ All of the sudden, there were 12 or 13 songs, and he said, ‘I think this is a record.’”
“Trainwrecks and Pink Clouds” was released in 2012, along with an accompanying documentary that told Dawn’s story, and the reaction was enthusiastic. The universe, however, had other plans.
“We were doing this record, and I was touring with Brooks and Dunn, and we did the documentary and all of these other things, but then this little beautiful surprise showed up,” she says. “My 15-year-old son and his 15-year-old girlfriend were pregnant, and when the kids were discussing options, I told them, ‘If you’re discussing options because you think I’m not an option, then I need you to know that I am.’
“They decided to have the baby, and originally, I was going to raise him, but they turned out to be great parents. But in order for them to still be able to go to school, I stayed home with the baby. We’re all in this together, and it’s just turned into the most amazing little blessing.”
'Pizza Pocket' returns to the stage
Her grandson calls her “Pizza Pocket,” of all things — an outgrowth of “Pizza,” which was what he said when he started talking because he couldn’t say “Pixie,” which was once her nickname. Now, everyone in the household calls her “Pizza,” and at the time, foregoing the stage to be “Pizza” was what she both accepted and embraced.
“I had already been working in treatment, but then I got a job at an outpatient treatment center, and I got a little bit comfortable,” she says. “I was only working 3 ½ days a week and making a lot of money, because it was privately owned, and I had worked my way up to clinical director. Finally, after the grandbaby turned 6, I was just like, ‘This is silly. I need to get back to what I want to do.’”
She had still been writing on occasion, for artists as far away as Australia, but her family — including her fiancé, Coley — pushed her to pursue her artistic endeavors. First, however, she had to make peace with some changes.
“When I was little, I had cancer in my carotid gland, and because of that, I developed hormonal imbalances and thyroid problems,” she says. “I was really tired for years and years, and when I finally went to the doctor, he fixed my thyroid, and that fixed my hormones. But apparently, I never had enough testosterone, so because of that, my voice changed.
“I thought I couldn’t sing anymore, because it didn’t come out the way that it once did. And so here I was at 42, and nobody even remembers who I was, but about a year and a half ago, the songs started coming — and I could sing the songs I was writing. I realized my voice had changed, so I just had to make a key change. I just can’t sing them the way I sang before.”
But she can certainly still sing them, and it seems new opportunities are opening for her to do so all the time — the aforementioned MusiCares jam, for example. Now, she hosts a regular Friday night performance series at the Nashville Recovery Center, where she went to work after leaving her treatment center gig.
Funny thing about that, though: She turned in her notice, but her employees terminated her immediately. And for that, Dawn is grateful — because it helped her solidify her commitment to recovery.
Doing for her what she couldn't do for herself
Why? She had slacked off on her meeting attendance, but a short break turned into a long one, and her life didn’t fall apart. Maybe, she began to think, she could do it successfully this time.
“And so I decided I was going to drink,” she says. “Everybody in my family has always heard me say, ‘I’m allowed to drink whenever I want, but beforehand, I’ll go to 90 meetings in 90 days, talk to my sponsor and share about it.’ So I told my family I was planning on drinking again, just to let them know, and all they said was, ‘OK, whatever you choose, we’ll support you — but have you done your 90 in 90?”
Around the same time, her good-paying job dried up, and she was faced with financial instability — another reason not to add alcoholic fuel to the fires of uncertainty. Then, even though she hadn’t been to meetings in a while, other addicts and alcoholics asked her to be a part of their sober celebration.
“After the second person asked, I said, ‘I see what you’re doing, God,’” she says with a laugh. “But then the third thing that happened was that a girl I had as a patient when I worked in treatment asked me to speak at her seven-year celebration. Now, I had decided that New Year’s Eve would be the day I drank, and I had it all planned out, so when she asked me to speak, I said, ‘Absolutely. Just send me the date.’ And it was New Year’s Day. That was it. That was the last sign I needed, and it got it out of my head.”
God, she believes, works in mysterious ways, and nowhere is that more evident than at the Friday night performances at the Nashville Recovery Center. Committed to maintaining regular employment, she got a job in a vape shop after losing her treatment gig; the shop happened to be inside the Nashville Recovery Center, and when she thought about turning in her notice, the owner approached her with an offer.
“He said, ‘I know who you are and what you do, and I don’t want you to leave, but you don’t belong in the vape shop,’” she says. “I said, ‘I’d really love to bring music here on Friday nights and give musicians who are newly sober a safe place and give people who are newly sober a safe place, but if you do that, you’ll need this amount of money and you’ll need to buy a sound system and build a stage.
“And he said, ‘Done.’ He built a stage, he put in a sound system, and at our first show, over 75 people were here. We’ve been doing it every Friday, and it’s free, and all are welcome. We have big people who stop by, but we also have our community playing. And anybody who wants to come and here music in a safe environment is welcome.”