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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.”