It’s one of those stories that is so improbable it sounds made up. Except Doug Seegers knows it’s true. The 62-year-old singer-songwriter, whose debut album Going Down to the River comes out today, lived every minute of it.
Seventeen years ago Seegers moved to Nashville from New York to pursue his dream of making it as a musician. He also worked as a cabinet maker, drifting in and out of homelessness, dogged by alcohol and drug addictions that always kept him from staying in one job or off the streets for very long.
His most loyal companion was his music. He busked on the sidewalks of downtown Nashville and filled the lined pages in red composition books with new songs to join the older ones he had written over the past 25 years.
Seegers made friends while living on the streets: especially the folks that operate the Nashville Rescue Mission, where he’d crash when he wasn’t sleeping in a tent in the woods or under a bridge, and Stacy Downey, who runs the Little Pantry That Could food bank.
It wasn’t a bad life. “The truth of that whole homeless thing is it’s exciting to me, it’s an adventure,” says Seegers, his lanky build, tousled grey hair and weathered, angular face making him look like a character out of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “In the summertime, you’re outside living in a tent by a stream, maybe you’re fishing. In the wintertime, maybe you’ve got a 55-gallon drum in the woods and you’re throwing big logs into it and everyone’s hanging around by the fire. It wasn’t stressful to me.”
But everything changed this spring. Swedish country singer Jill Johnson came to Nashville and asked Downey to point her toward songwriters who had fallen on hard times. An initially reluctant Seegers played Johnson “Going Down to the River,” a wrenching tune that uses the time-honored metaphor of water as salvation, a place where redemption can be found and sins washed away.
Seegers wrote the song two years ago, while he was still homeless and wrestling with his demons. “It was almost like a prayer I wrote to myself,” he says, sitting in a corner office of his booking agency in Beverly Hills, hours before his first Los Angeles show.
A few months later, he was struck sober. “I prayed for [God’s] help and I feel like he pulled me out of it,” Seegers says, who has remained abstinent. “Also, I had none of the joneses or the cravings or the pain. I had nothing. He removed them all. It was instant.”
Johnson was so moved by the song, Seegers’ performance and his story that she whisked him into a Nashville’s Cash Cabin Studios, traveled back home with the record, and “River” became a surprise hit, reaching No. 1 on iTunes in Sweden in a matter of weeks.