Travis Meadows will turn 50 in May. Which is nothing short of a miracle. Nashville's most brutally honest songwriter, who has had songs cut by Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen — all of whom shake their heads in awe when his name is mentioned — admits that he simply should not be here.
"I probably had 413 second chances," Meadows says in his Mississippi drawl, his eyes red around the edges, his face creased.
Raised by his grandmother, Meadows' first memory was of watching his brother drown. At age 14, he was threatened by cancer, which he beat, but at the heavy cost of his right leg. Later, he skirted the boundaries of addiction before sobering up and becoming a Christian missionary for 17 years, substituting, as he says, one addiction for another. "When I was getting high, I wanted everybody to be high," he quips. "When I found Jesus, I wanted everybody to get Jesus."
He eventually landed in Nashville, determined to follow a far-fetched dream of writing country songs. He had some success, scoring a deal with Universal Music Publishing. But at 38, overcome by dependence on alcohol and a life seemingly defined by loss, Meadows hit rock bottom.
"Up until I was 38, I would always get back up. But at 38, I was just done. I laid down," he says, sipping on coffee in one of his favorite East Nashville hangouts. "I had a real bad day that lasted six years."
Around that time — his memory is fuzzy — he made the first of four trips to rehab.
"I've struggled with addiction my whole life. I remember I was five or six years old and I'd have a stomachache, and they'd give me Paregoric, which has opium in it. It felt so good, I'd get stomachaches all the time so I could take it," he says. "But my drug of choice is 'more.' If I had a bottle of pills, I'd take the whole bottle. I loved cocaine when I was drinking, because it helped me drink more."
On July 19, Meadows marked four years of sobriety. He also notched his most successful period to date as a songwriter. Within the last two years, Church, Bentley and Owen have all recorded his songs. Bentley titled his latest album after a Meadows composition, "Riser." Owen chose a Meadows song, the ballad "What We Ain't Got," as his new single.
"Travis is such an amazing artist, singer and songwriter," says Owen, who recalls sitting in on a writing session with Meadows six years ago. "I remember looking at him and thinking, 'Man, I can't hang with this guy. He's better than me at this point in my life. I need to practice really hard.' We ended up becoming friends."
Like Meadows the missionary spread the good news, Owen spread the gospel of his new pal, gifting his friends copies of the songwriter's album Killin' Uncle Buzzy. Written in 2010 about his experiences in and out of rehab, Meadows' as-real-as-they-come album became a must-hear in Nashville.
"When I heard Killin' Uncle Buzzy, the honesty in that room was like somebody ripping a scab off a wound and pouring vinegar or lemon juice on it. It was just real," says Church, who wrote the Jekyll and Hyde brooder "Dark Side" with Meadows for his hit album The Outsiders. "He lived everything he sang about [on Killin' Uncle Buzzy]. You could feel that that album was for him. It was therapy. Which the best music is. It's been a muse for me in a lot of ways."
And a door-opener for the man who wrote its 10 tracks.
"My whole world started over with that record. I was getting out of rehab for the fourth time, and one of the counselors suggested I keep a journal. I don't do well with a journal, so I said, 'I'm a songwriter, I'll write some songs,'" Meadows recalls. "I wrote one song and one turned into 10. I never intended for anyone to hear that record. It was me trying to save a life — it just happened to be mine."
Owen's single "What We Ain't Got" came from Uncle Buzzy — "Every song on there is like a redemption song," Owen says. When he performed the spare piano number this summer in front of thousands at his free Nashville "beach party," the radio star brought Meadows onstage to duet. But not before grilling the songwriter about his soul-baring lyrics. "I cornered him and we sat on the steps by the stage for an hour before my show. I told him how much I appreciated him."
The notoriously tight-lipped Church is equally effusive. "I write with Travis quite a bit. Everybody out there looking for the real deal, he's it," he says.
A day after chatting over coffee, Meadows performs a stripped-down set — just him with a guitar and another player — at Nashville's historic Bluebird Café, made more famous by its prominence in ABC's Nashville drama. The show is sold-out and Meadows seems nervous, which is understandable given that he let slip he was once banned from the venue for being drunk onstage.
"The fact that they even opened the doors back up to me is a gift. It's like the Ryman Auditorium for me. It always felt like home. I would go to the Bluebird and listen to those writers and it was so spiritual. When I got to town and started to play there, it was a big deal for me. So it was a little disheartening to be banned, even though at the time I kind of bragged about it. But the truth was it was heartbreaking, because I screwed myself out of something I really loved," he says.
Meadows slays the crowd, who respond just as enthusiastically to Uncle Buzzy songs like the true-to-life "Davidson County Police," which documents the troubled artist's run-ins with the law, as they do to the more recognizable songs cut by Owen and Bentley. But "Riser" is the standout, with Meadows singing of being a "riser," a "fighter" and a "survivor."
"When I first heard that song, wow. It really hit me hard. Not only did we know we were going to record it, but we thought it'd be the cornerstone of the record," says Bentley. "You hear a song like that and you have to meet the guy behind it. And Travis has been through a lot — he's lived and breathed and died with that song. I feel honored to have it."
While Bentley recently released "Say You Do" as his new single, he hopes that his album will have enough legs to warrant shipping "Riser" to radio. "I have a lot of respect for those guys who let me record their songs. I want the whole world to hear it and do the song justice, and give that song as big a platform as possible. Especially a song like 'Riser,'" he says. "It has been and really could be so impactful on people's lives."
The next morning Meadows sends a text that reads, "Thanks for coming last night. It meant a lot. You're watching second chances live!"
Bolstered by the second chance afforded him by Killin' Uncle Buzzy, Meadows was in a better, but no less creative, mental state when he recorded its follow-up, last year's Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business. A collection of optimistic songs like the letter to his son "Wide Open" and the humorous "Good Country People," Unfinished Business was similarly therapeutic. "I needed that record to prove to myself I had moved past where I was on Killin' Uncle Buzzy. There's a lot more hope in it," he says, noting that he's beginning to write for another new project. "I don't know how I'm going to pay for it, but I'm excited about it."
Meadows, who currently has a publishing deal with the independent Kobalt Music, is also optimistic about his personal life. In addition to celebrating his fourth year of being sober, he has a girlfriend, a home they share together and a new dog. Like its owner, it too is one leg shy.
"When I adopted him, they said what you're getting is a middle-aged, grumpy dog missing a leg. I went, 'That's my dog!'" says Meadows, who is proud that, despite his handicap, he has no noticeable limp. In fact, he notes that losing his hair to chemotherapy during his battle with cancer was harder to accept than the loss of his leg. "I'm a vain little man to be so ugly," he grins.
His famous pals, however, disagree.
"Travis is an incredible guy, and a great person," says Bentley.
"He's one of my favorite people and one of my absolute favorite songwriters and artists," raves Church.
For all he has been through — the cancer, his continuing soul-searching, alcoholism — the props aren't lost on Meadows.
"There was a time, a very long time ago, when I believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But something really tragic happens when you find out the truth about that — and you start looking for magic the rest of your life. It's a terrible way to live," Meadows says, finishing his coffee. "But I'm starting to believe in magic again. I really am."
"What We Ain't Got" (Meadows, Travis Jerome Goff; recorded by Jake Owen)
"I wrote this right in the middle of me not giving a shit… it was me trying to save my life. I wrote it with a guy named Travis Goff, and he was gracious when he came in. We knew we were onto something magic that day. I believe it took us two days to write. That was a really strange time because I was detoxing off of alcohol and I was batshit crazy. I was married at the time and we were separated. I had a wife and a girlfriend. I was just sick. I hurt a lot of people. When you get that crazy, your whole life is so chaotic, you kind of want to find a way to get rid of the chaos, but your addiction is promoting chaos. It's like pouring gas on everything and lighting it on fire."
"Riser" (Meadows, Steve Moakler; recorded by Dierks Bentley)
"I've always been a fighter, a participant in life. But I got tired of fighting and laid down and quit. That was the darkest period of my life, dealing with depression, a crisis of faith, a mid-life crisis. I had a writing appointment with a young guy named Steve Moakler. We got in a room together, and he walks in and is so optimistic and enthusiastic — everything a young guy should be. But I was so taken aback. I could not relate to that type of optimism at all. He wanted to write a song called 'Wide Open,' because his whole life is wide open. I said, 'I haven't been that optimistic in a long time.' But I got to thinking about my son, who was nine or 10 then, and I said I could write him a letter to encourage him that his whole life is wide open. That's the approach we took and we wrote an incredible song.
Fast forward and by now I had a little more time to get my head further out of my ass. I'm feeling alive and my emotional and spiritual muscles are coming back in my body. I think I can do this life thing again, and I was tinkering around with the lyric 'I'm a riser.' I'm a big Springsteen fan and I love making up words, like 'Don't run and hid-er.' So I started writing about a guy getting back up and getting in it. Steve said, 'I don't feel like I have lived enough life to write this song.' I said, 'We did pretty good on 'Wide Open,' so let's just try.' And it was fantastic. Two of my favorite parts in that song I didn't write: 'The hard times put the shine into the diamond.' And 'I'm a lighter.' I would never in a million years write that. I use tough angry words, and Steve goes 'I'm a lighter!' I am so thankful he was in the room."
"Dark Side" (Church, Meadows, Jeremy Spillman; recorded by Eric Church)
"[Music publisher] Arturo Buenahora Jr. works with Dierks and Eric. He was the one that turned Eric on to me, he turned Dierks on to me. What a gift, dude. One day, I got a text from Arturo, like the CIA: 'Would you like to write with Eric Church?' I went, 'Yeah!' Then I got a text from a number I didn't know, and all it says is 'Eric and a time and a place.' It was cool! Top secret! Like I was on a mission. I showed up at his management's office and we wrote a good song. It didn't make the record, but it was a proving ground for me and Eric. Jeremy Spillman is a friend with Eric and writes with him a lot, and later they brought me on his bus. So Eric gets on the bus and is like, 'What ya got?' We played what we had and it was like, 'yeah, yeah that's cool.' And then there was this long pause, just deadly. Long. Pause. And Eric goes, I do have this one thing, and begins singing the first verse to 'Dark Side.' I looked at Jeremy and said, 'Let's do that one!' I'll tell you, there are some great artists and some great writers, but I was taken aback by how great a writer Eric is. He knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it."
"Don't You Wanna Fall" (Meadows, Spillman; recorded by Frankie Ballard)
"This is about going after a girl way out of your league. You're trouble and she's not. Don't you want to come down to my level? You can stay up there and hang out with those guys, but I'd probably be a little more fun. It's just going for something way out of your reach, which I've been doing all my life. Frankie does a great job on it."
"Pretty Little Lie" (Meadows, Charlie Starr; recorded by Blackberry Smoke)
"From the middle to the end of my dark days, I was functioning quite often in a blackout. I love Blackberry Smoke. And I'm always YouTubing them, keeping up with their career, and I'd check out what they're doing new. This song popped up on YouTube and [Blackberry Smoke singer Charlie Starr] starts singing, and I go, 'That's cool.' Then he hit this E Minor and I thought, 'That melody sounds like something I would do.' So I called Universal, with whom I had a publishing deal at the time, and I said, 'Do I have a song called 'Pretty Little Lie'?' And they said, 'Actually you have three songs called 'Pretty Little Lie,' written with three different people.' I said, 'Is one of them Blackberry Smoke?' They said yes, and that's how I found out they had cut that song. God's honest truth. It's a story you want to either laugh at or want to get drunk over, so let's laugh."