For Joshua Scott Jones, 2011 was one of the best years of his career and the worst of his life. The male half of country duo Steel Magnolia was set to join his singing partner, Meghan Linsey — also his fiancée at the time — on the road with the legendary Reba McEntire. It was an opening slot the couple scored on the strength of their eponymous debut album, which came out at the beginning of the year after an excruciatingly long wait. (Its first single, the Top 5 hit "Keep on Loving You," was released in 2009.) But just days before their dream tour gig was to start, Jones hit rock bottom. His drug and alcohol addictions had spun so out of control that he knew he couldn't take another stage without finally getting help.
"I tried [to quit] by myself for years. It was messy," the singer tells Rolling Stone Country. "There was a lot of apologizing back then, and trying to remember where I'd been and what went on."
He checked into a Nashville rehabilitation center, and Linsey recruited country-soul singer James Otto to take his place on the road. Four weeks later, Jones' health and career switched places: he was finally clean and sober, but Steel Magnolia was crumbling. The duo broke off their engagement and put the band on indefinite hiatus in favor of solo careers.
"Meghan and I were so close, and still are. We were together every day for six years. Can you imagine being around me that much?" Jones asks, his grin quickly fading. "I have a lot of regrets. I had this picture of how I wanted things to go, but you have to trust that this is the way life is. Meghan has a lot she wants to prove and to do for herself, and I do, too. "
Jones' newly sober, newly single life has led to some of the most introspective music in his catalog, as he approaches not only performing but also songwriting in a sharper light. Before rehab, he would pop pills or smoke pot just to get through a songwriting session. But today, he writes simply when inspiration hits him. And for his first solo album, The Healing, inspiration came everywhere from rehab to Mother Nature.
"I was driving through Brentwood [Tennessee] and this melody hit me," he recalls of the inception of the title track, a song not only about healing but also carrying themes of hope, love and spirituality. "The windows were down, it was a nice day, and I looked up at the clouds sitting right on top of the hills and had an overwhelming feeling. I was in the midst of a lot of emotional stuff. The melody hit me, and I hit record on my phone and just started spouting off lines for about 20 minutes. When I finally got to a piano, it all came together."
A particularly poignant love song on the collection, "Just How a Heart Breaks," was also written at the piano, but in just about 10 minutes… and in rehab. The ballad, coupled with similarly lovelorn tracks such as "Rearview" and "You and I," suggest that at least half of the album was inspired by his relationship with Linsey.
"It's like opening an old wound, and that makes me nervous," Jones admits of revisiting their split through his new music. "But it made for an honest record that's straight from the heart."
Ironically, Linsey has co-writing credits on the only feel-good breakup song on the album, the uptempo "Whiskey Anthem," a "whiskey stompin' goodbye lullaby." Jones is quick to point out that his sobriety hasn't trumped his ability to deliver a good old-fashioned drinking song. In fact, his decision to release another anthem of sorts, the carefree "Honk If You're Tonky," as the album's first single was a deliberate introduction of The Healing as a lyrically diverse project — and not just breakup therapy.
The executive producer and co-writer of all 11 tracks on the album, Jones has been pleasantly surprised to find most Steel Magnolia fans have stuck by him, not only through the duo's demise but also in presenting a very different, grittier sound. Even diehard fans of his work with Linsey might not recognize his voice, as he has traded Steel Magnolia's contemporary country sound for more of a Waylon Jennings-meets-Dwight Yoakam vibe.
"Rick Diamond, the photographer, was a huge Steel Magnolia fan," Jones recalls. "He was always comparing us to people, like Fleetwood Mac or Delaney and Bonnie. He came up to me after this festival and was like, 'Dude, your voice. Meghan is the powerhouse, but your voice has opened up to where you're killing it, too.' And I attribute that to being sober. "
Joshua Scott Jones' The Healing is in stores now.