Travis Meadows’ ‘First Cigarette’ Is The Height Of Country Myth-Making

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To say Travis Meadows has had a hard life is an understatement. In fact, he’s had about four of them. At 52, Meadows has ultimately reached his final form: A country songwriter on the verge of a huge breakout, but the years it took to get him to the debut of his stunning new album, First Cigarette were brutally dark.

Technically his third country album, this record is the first one where Meadows has really been able to work on the songs with two other professionals, he wrote and recorded this collection of songs with Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Brandy Clark, Brothers Osborne) and songwriter Jeremy Spillman, polishing and reworking them until they reached a new pinnacle, even for him. It comes out October 13 on Blaster Records.

Widely regarded as a legendary Nashville songwriter over the past few years, Meadows wrote the title track off Dierks Bentley’s fantastic 2014 album “Riser,” along with Eric Church’s “Knives Of New Orleans,” and “Dark Side,” among others. But to hear him aching for the tiny buzz and beauty of a nicotine hit, like he does on the album’s title track, “First Cigarette,” is to hear a man who has been hell and back find respite in the small joys he still has left.

From the time he was a small child, Meadows has been struggling just to stay alive, and that kind of comes through on songs like “First Cigarette,” or the album’s other standout, a nostalgia-leaning Springsteen strummer called “Pray For Jungleland,” a working-class dream rock track that immediately caught the attention of Rolling Stone. But when it comes to the story of this record, “First Cigarette” is closer to the heart of who Meadows is now. Whatever sorrow or wisdom comes through in Meadows songwriting has been hard earned.

When he was just two years old, Meadows saw his younger brother drown near his Mississippi home, and that wasn’t even the only tragedy that would mar his childhood. Whether it was due to the strain of that incident or other forces, his parents soon divorced, and Meadows went to go live with his grandparents; while both parents remarried and tenderly began new families, he was left excluded from either one. At the age of eleven he began using drugs to cope with what he’d already endured at such a young age, and a couple years later, at fourteen, he was diagnosed with cancer. Though he survived, the disease ultimately cost him his right leg from the knee down.

“By the time that I got an idea of which way the wind was blowing, life was terrifying,” Meadows remembered when we talked by phone a couple weeks ago. “I think humans are very resilient animals, and I think we have more in us than we know, we just don’t know it until we go through something; we have this built-in survival instinct. I was going through puberty and cancer at the same time — both of those are tragic enough in themselves. But to do them at the same time? But I would always get back up… that’s just what you do.”

Still fighting, Meadows picked up the drums and began playing gigs in bars as a teen, sneaking in the back door to avoid the bouncers, and catching the performance bug early in life. Struck by the particular beauty of amateurs doing covers of songwriters in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, he made thirty or forty dollars a day playing in bars, and learning classic songwriter joints bit by bit, just to get by. Around the time he was 21, though, Meadows was derailed from music again by a conversion to born-again Christianity.

“I was in ministry for 17 years and I was very sincere about it,” he said. “Before I converted, I was smoking a bag of weed a week. But I was just serious when I quit all of that stuff for Jesus. That passion and that drive took me to do something in countries all over the world, speaking at schools, and speaking at some of the biggest churches in America, I was sincere and I don’t think that I was lying. I was really in it and I was sincere.”

Instead of nurturing his vocation as an artist, the Christian music world chewed Meadows up and spit him out. Though he achieved a lot of success playing worship music, and worked years in the file teaching his style to worship teams, when he needed to get some of that support back, the church didn’t show up.

“I remember calling thirty churches and getting turned down thirty times, and I’m sitting in the house, smoking, with two babies, wondering what I’m going to do with my life, I just crashed and burned. I remember hanging up the and going, ‘That’s it, I’m not chasing this rabbit anymore.’ Because I would do worship conferences and stuff like that, I basically worked myself out of a job, because I taught all these people how to do this worship, and put bands together, they didn’t need me anymore.”

For almost two decades Meadows traveled the world, preaching the good news he so desperately believed. Until, he simply didn’t anymore, and the vacuum of desperation led him elsewhere. Over the course of his tenure, he’d scored a music publishing deal and moved to Nashville, but hadn’t fully explored that option for several reasons — namely, alcohol. One day, at the age of 38, Meadows finally stopped picking himself back up. For another six years, Meadows squandered himself in the throes of alcoholism, earning a reputation as a drunk and losing almost everything in his life — a marriage, a job, and a sense of purpose.

“Fast forward to 38 and everything that I thought was black and white, all of the sudden turned into one big gray,” he explained. “For all those years, it felt like, if you pray and pay your time and you go to church and ask God to forgive your sins, if you do those couple things that are in the rulebook then everything will be fine. But I had no place where nothing was fine.”

Finally, Meadows began to wake up from the six-year-long bad day. He tried and failed rehab three times, until the fourth try stuck. And around that time, one of his counselors suggested that he channel his thoughts and feelings about recovery into a journal. That bare-bones journal became the basis for his first solo album, a country-folk stunner, the failure-inflected Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, a record that burns and stings like a wound. Written in 2010 over the course of his first real stab at recovery, the album came out independently in 2011, but like a spark in a hay field, it spread like wildfire throughout Nashville, making its way onto tour buses, and, eventually, songs were worked into sets themselves.

“When I started writing, I was basically telling secrets about myself in my songs,” Meadows said. “It was lots of stuff I would be scared to look you in the eye and go, ‘You know, here’s a part of me that you may not know.’ But I would slip them in songs, and it could be anybody because it’s just in the song. Until I started going to treatment, I really used to think psychology was bullshit. But after going into treatment four times, I realized how powerful it is to hear you saying with your own voice, ‘Hey, I’m an alcoholic.’ Or I’m struggling with this, or this made me mad, and so, not even knowing it, I started doing that in my songs and it helped me process. I hate to compartmentalize, but maybe that’s exactly what it is. All the files in the right filing cabinets, in the songs.”

After releasing another short album in 2013, called Old Ghosts &Unfinished Business, Meadows was still scrambling to get a foothold in the fickle country music industry. In the meantime, though, the songs on his debut album were still picking up steam, so much so that in 2013 mainstream country star Jake Owen officially cut one of the album’s tracks, “What We Ain’t Got,” and when it was released as a single in 2014 the song soared, peaking at No. 14 on the country charts.

Finally making real money off his music for the first time, Meadows turned right around and invested it in making First Cigarette. It may be his third album, but it’s the first one that Meadows has been able to make with the help of real professionals — and it shows.

“Jay [Joyce] just has this real insight, he makes the big dollars with all those bands for a reason,” Meadows said. “He’s just got these magic ears. We were recording all of these songs and tracking them like people normally do, and about second day, Jay came in and said, ‘I’m not believing any of this. It doesn’t sound like, are you playing guitar?’ I said, ‘No, I played guitar then did a vocal pass.’ He said,'”Man, forget that. Turn the click track off, and play like you play live because that’s where the magic is. What you do live is what we want to capture.’

So we started going down, it’s a little terrifying because there’s no click tracks, and there’s no autotune, and very few punches. Most of those were live takes, two or three times at the most and that’s what we got. It’s very different from people are recording now, consumers ears have sort of gotten used to hearing all those auto-tunes and everything is perfect, then here I am with record that sounds like 1975, with flaws, and you can hear the frets moving, and if there’s a bad note or two. But Jeremy would not take out, that was his favorite part, you know, the blue notes, so there was some of that that was terrifying but I would not have done either one of those things had it not been for those two guys. It was a pretty great experience.”

Aside from the larger influences on the recording and tracking process — Spillman set up song transitions that Meadows called “Pink Floyd-esque” — there was one song where Joyce had a major say in how the final version went down. The title track just couldn’t come out right, and was about to be cut from the project, until Joyce called down the studio on the final day of grappling with it.

“I almost gave up on that song, because we could not record it right,” Meadows said. “We tried rocking it, we tried everything because I always heard it bigger, then Jay sent a text: ‘I’d love to hear him sing the song kind of soft, like he’s trying not to wake somebody up in the next room.’ We went in and did one take, and that’s what you hear, we passed one time, I sang it one time, he played it one time, and that it’s it. We were done, and it was magic, and it became the sleeper hit on the record, that’s just one of those things you just can’t plan for and it’s hands down one of my favorite songs on the record because it’s a little outside of what I normally do.”

One of the best things about First Cigarette is that nearly every track on here sounds a slightly different way. All of them have been recorded live, and they reach varying degrees of heat and rock-heavy heights, before dropping back to down to lonely lullabies, and silvery country ballads that feel lifted directly from the past. But as Meadows moves forward, maintaining his sobriety and living, instead, for his music, that one, final buzz remains at the core of his survival.

“I love the message, but you know it’s a little bit bigger than cigarettes I quit drinking, I quit doing drugs, you know, I’m not going to quit smoking. Cigarettes are my one legal buzz, I’ve got to have one thing that I do where I feel like I’m doing something wrong. It only works one time a day, and it’s that first cigarette, or like when I’m on a long plane ride, like when I’m going to California and I haven’t had one in four or five hours, I sit down and I have a cigarette, and that buzz, it’s my only legal buzz, but I’ve learned to love the comfort that comes.”

First Cigarette is out 10/13 via Blaster Records. Pre-order it here.