There are honest country-music songwriters in Nashville, and then there’s Travis Meadows, a writer who can’t help but shine a light on his darkest flaws and ugliest demons. Since releasing his painfully autobiographical chronicle of his four stints in rehab, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, in 2011, the Mississippi native has become a favorite collaborator of Eric Church and Charlie Worsham, and had his songs recorded by artists from Church and Randy Houser to Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen.
“That’s what I bought with my Jake Owen money,” Meadows says, motioning to a 2000 Ford Excursion hogging up the small driveway of the East Nashville home he shares with his girlfriend. Owen cut Meadows’ ballad “What We Ain’t Got,” taking it to Number 14 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart in 2015. Its success provided Meadows with a modest royalty check – enough for him to buy an SUV to drive to gigs with his loyal sideman, “Whiskey Jack” Untz and, more importantly, help fund his eagerly anticipated new full-length album, First Cigarette.
Set for release on Friday, October 13th, the LP was produced by Jeremy Spillman, with Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) offering feedback as executive producer. The significance of the album hitting on Friday the 13th isn’t lost on Meadows. “I can be a dark son of a bitch,” he says.
But on this day, Meadows has a spring in his step, thanks to his album finally having a home – on Blaster Records – and because of a shiny new red prosthetic that he says makes him look like Iron Man. Meadows lost his right leg to cancer at age 14. Opening the door to a 1975 Winnebago camper he keeps tucked behind the house as a refuge, he bounds up the stairs to talk about the inspiration for First Cigarette and one of its fan favorite tracks: the Bruce Springsteen-inspired “Pray for Jungleland.” (Listen to the song, premiering above.)
Meadows was sitting in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena watching Springsteen work the stage during a 2014 tour stop when he received a text from an old friend and, unwisely, chose to reply. “He wrote me back in all caps, ‘Turn your damn phone off and pray for ‘Jungleland,'” Meadows recalls, referencing the Born to Run opus that tops many Springsteen fans’ live wish list. “When he said, ‘Pray for Jungleland,’ I saw the whole song.”
Meadows fleshed it out almost immediately after, giving in to nostalgia to write about his teenage days cruising around Jackson, Mississippi.
“It’s about when your whole life is Friday night. We’d drive to McDonald’s on McDowell Road, through the parking lot, then go about two miles down to Apple Ridge bowling alley, and that was everybody’s night, riding that strip,” he says. “We’d listen to the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, but all of the dots connected and the stars aligned when Springsteen came on the radio in my Mustang.”
It’s a relatable story, which can be said for the bulk of First Cigarette. If Killin’ Uncle Buzzy and the follow-up EP Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business were about Meadows’ personal experiences, the new album focuses on the things we all share, especially the small joys. Like that first hit of caffeine or nicotine to kick-start the day.
The title track finds Meadows singing in a hushed howl: “I’ve been hungry like a stray dog in an old abandoned town / went running just for running’s sake because I couldn’t settle down.”
“There’s a line that also goes ‘I’ve learned to love the comfort when it comes,'” Meadows says, sipping on an iced coffee, no cream, no sugar. “I have these little pleasures. I just quit smoking, but I’ll still sneak one and, man, that first cigarette, that’s my legal buzz.”
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Meadows marked seven years of sobriety on July 19th, a topic that still informs his work, even if indirectly. Right now, he’s finding inspiration in saying “thank you,” to the fans who follow him to gigs, for his relationships with guys like Church and Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, and for the upcoming record.
“With all those trips to rehab, I learned a lot about gratitude,” he says. “Life has been giving me so many gifts that I wasn’t paying attention to when I was a little…cloudy.”