The CDs of
CDs of recovery music dealing with alcoholism, drinking problems, alcoholic recovery stories, and the personal recovery from alcoholism.
Michael Purington celebrating sobriety with CD release party
By JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian
Not a drop of alcohol has dampened the lips of Michael Purington in 16 years, but the stories of the old drunk days never leave his head.
Instead of ruminating on those old times -- "euphoric recall," alcoholics call the good memories, "regret" and sometimes "terror" the bad ones -- Purington has instead chosen to use his musical gifts to reach out to his fellow drunks, in recovery or not, as his songwriting modus operandi.
"The reason I love the music, and the singing and performing, is the purpose," said Purington, 58, whose new CD "The Journey" is released on Sunday. "My audience understands that purpose, and I understand it." With his fourth CD in the last eight years, Purington's purpose is simple: Share the stories of hope and heartache that unfolded during his decades of drinking and his journey out of alcohol. And maybe, just maybe, change someone's life.
With gospel-inspired, blues-infused tracks laid down by Purington and some of Missoula's best musicians, "The Journey" is another humorous, heart-rending CD of the horror and hope of living, and leaving the drinking life - all from a guy who's played every bar in this town a million times.
Far more mature than his previous recordings, Purington calls "The Journey" his best stuff--and believes in his musical mission so much that he's pursuing it as a full-time career.
"It's an incredible risk," said Purington, who earned his first dime in music in 1971. "But I have accidentally, over the years, ended up with alot of connections and recovery stories from, all over the country." On this CD, for the first time, Purington had a partner -- his wife Victoria, who not only inspired him to pursue the project but became his best musical and lyrical critic.
"I have a real affinity for the cadence of words," said Victoria. "When I read his lyrics, there would be this kind of little sweet spot that would light up in my head."
After releasing his third CD a couple of years ago, Purington was done with drinking songs, or so he thought. But on Victoria's insistence - not long after they were married in 2007 after having first met in 1979 - Purington pulled out a stack of old songs written long ago that had never seen the light of day.
"She said, 'Play that one, now play that one,'" Purington remembered.
That was 20 months ago. The finished product, recorded with the expertise of Missoula's Jim Rogers and mastered by Richard McIntosh, is a polished collection of songs dense in their production value.
Drunk people will repeat themselves 11 times within a 10-second conversation, but this recovering alcoholic has consciously avoided redundancy in his recordings about alcoholism.
"I have a lot of material, and I write a lot," said Purington. "There are limitless themes." Sunday's CD release won't feature Purington or his band playing; instead, musician Paul Kelly will perform singles from his upcoming CD.
That's on purpose, because Sunday happens to be Purington's 16th anniversary of sobriety. The CD release will be largely a "listening party" of friends, fails and strangers who have been affected, in any way, by alcoholism. "I wanted this to come out with a room full of people to share it with." he said.
Recovery Revival: Michael Purington shares his personal, funny songs at 12 Step Fest
By Joe Nickell of the Missoulian
Beneath a twist of gray; hair, Michael Purington's face shimmers with sweat, clenches with emotion, and reddens with fervency as he strums hard on his acoustic guitar.
"Stop talking, start walking, turn on all the lights," he sings, pushing his gravely voice hard. "Stop talking, start walking, get a life."
Combining the pounding urgency of a Warren Zevon anthem with the rawness of a Dylan confessional, the song could easily be mistaken for an evangelist's call to action. But despite the fact that Purington is standing on a stage as he sings, his intended audience isn't sitting in front of him.
It is him.
"I wrote this song at me," he says with a soft chuckle, in a video recording of the performance available at YouTube.com. The song, titled "Get a Life," is one of literally hundreds of highly personal, often funny songs that
Purington has written in the past decade, all dealing with the topic of recovery from alcoholism.
It is a topic he knows from the inside out. This month marks the 15th anniversary of Michael Purington's last drink of alcohol.
But this month also marks a new beginning, of sorts. This weekend, Purington will perform at the 12 Step Music Fest, a three-day festival in the Florida Keys. He will co-headline the event along with nationally familiar names including Peter Tork (formerly of the Monkees) and Art Alexakis, lead singer of the popular band Everclear.
Thousands of people are expected to attend the festival, which is built around the growing popularity of a suddenly booming subgenre of recovery-themed music.
"This is the biggest recovery festival I've come across so far," says Purington, who in the past couple of years has increasingly found himself called to perform at similar events' around the country. "This movement of music has been building and I guess I kind of unknowingly got pulled into it. I mean, I didn't think 1 was getting in on anything, I just started writing songs about quitting drinking and living sober."
People who knew Michael Purington back when he drank might hardly recognize him today. Familiar regionally back in the 1970s as the front-man with Missoula's popular Lost Highway Band, Purington had a reputation as a brash and often besotted performer. Off stage, he really let loose.
"I'd be dead today if I had continued drinking like I was drinking," he says in a soft-spoken voice. "I know in my heart that that's literally true."
But the band broke up, and Purington ultimately decided to stop drinking. Then, in the late 1990s, Purington began writing songs about recovery.
At the time, he felt like a lone voice in the wilderness.
"When I put out my first CD in 2001, I was the only person I could find on Google who was writing songs about recovery," he says. "To me it seemed like a natural subject, and one that a lot of people could connect to." Certainly many musicians had addressed the dangers of alcohol and drug addiction in songs over the years. Artists including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton spoke eloquently about the problems of dependency that plague the entertainment world and tlriat had blackened their own lives. Back in 1992, some of the music industry's brightest lights came together to create the Musicians' Assistance Program, which offered financial assistance to musicians in need of drug or alcohol addiction treatment.
Yet for all that - and despite the ever-longer list of religious and issue-centered musical subgenres -recovery music hadn't really built its own focal community of musicians and fans.
Blame the Eleventh Tradition. One of the foundation principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery groups, the tradition dictates that people involved in the group "need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films."
That tradition posed a challenge for Purington and other like-minded musicians: How to share their songs with the broad world and particularly with other 12-step participants, without sacrificing anonymity and tempting the humility that is so central to the established recovery process?
"I've had to be very careful about how I go about this," says Purington, who stresses several times that he does not speak as a member or representative of any particular recovery organization. "This music is not for members of any one group or program or church. It's about a universal struggle .... And yet, if you get on stage and shine lights on your face, that's not humility. I work to focus on humility, but of course I think anyone can see that ego makes it so that I can perform. Hopefully, it's a good thing that I can at least recognize the challenge and the conflict."
Ultimately, as with so many cultural phenomena over the past decade, it was the Internet that began to crystallize and connect a recovery music movement. Online radio stations such as RecoveryNetRadio.com, 12StepRadio.com, and Takel2Radio.com began to offer around-the-clock programming of music focused on recovery from addiction.
Suddenly, people began noticing the smiling, graying singer from Missoula, thanks to his Web site, QuitDrinkin.com. By the time the recovery music movement had begun to congeal, Purington had already put out a short stack of CDs with his band, Michael and the Messengers. His songs boasted lyrics that were at turns hilarious and clever, heartfelt and humble, all set to a skipping country beat.
"You drank up all your dinero / Threw up your huevos rancheros / Muy loco beneath your sombrero / Say si si, buenos dias to sobriety," he crooned in "Your. Ego is Not Your Amigo," one of the goofy yet sincere numbers that caught the attention of deejays at online recovery-oriented radio stations, where Purington's music began to show up in rotation. Soon enough, he was being invited to play at small festivals around the country, and even on a recovery cruise.
Along the way, he decided to disband Michael and the Messengers, and focus on performing solo. Though part of that decision had to do with cutting expenses so that he could travel to budget-challenged festivals, it also had to do with stripping himself bare and creating a stronger bond with audiences.
"Any time I'm playing with the band, it's about the musical interaction on stage rather than the interaction with the audience," says Purington. "I never thought that a solo performance would enhance what I'm doing, but it does: It makes the message and the communication more intimate and more sharp."
The 12 Step Music Fest is by far the largest such event that Purington has been asked to headline. This week, he flew to Florida, all expenses paid, for the performance.
It's a big honor, but one he tries to keep in context.
"I'm being very careful not to push this," he says of his newfound success. "The music has to really work; it can't be about hype at all, because this is too important of a subject to mask with anything that's not real. If people want more of what I do and what I have to offer, that's great and I'm happy and honored to share it. But really, that's not about me. It's the message, not the messenger."
Ultimately, what Purington wants most is to beam a glimmer of hope through his voice.
"Not to sound too lofty, but imagine how much more aware and communicative people would be if they weren't loaded on booze and drugs so much of the time," he says. "My hope is that I play a small part in individual transformation by sharing my own experience through music."
Songs Sung Dry: Michael Purington brings his message of sobriety to men serving their time
By Joe Nickell of the Missoulian
Almost exactly a year ago, 27-year-old Chance Givens set off on a trip to West Yellowstone to attend Snowblast, an annual throwdown of concerts and snowmobiling.
He was pumped about the party; after all, in addition to all the snowmobiling events, it featured performances by top names in country music, including Trick Pony (whose song, "Pour Me," could serve as an anthem for drinkers everywhere), Sawyer Brown, and Terri Clark (singer of "I Wish He'd Been Drinkin' Whisky" and "Not Enough Tequila"). Somewhere between his home in Hailey. Idaho, and his destination in Montana, Givens started getting himself in the mood for the party, with a little help from the bottle. The memory becomes a bit blurry from there, until the point when, coming off Targhee Pass just 15 miles short of his destination, Givens was pulled over by a police officer. He would never make it to the concert in West Yellowstone.
Instead, Givens found himself this past Monday afternoon sitting in a cinder-block gym in Warm Springs, listening to a different kind of concert. Rather than cheering and hoisting the bottle after every song, Givens sat rapt, leaning forward in a green plastic lawn chair amid 150 other felony DUI offenders, as Missoula songwriter Michael Purington and his backing band, the Messengers, sang songs of recovery.
"Country music is kind of depressing to me now," said Givens. "But this, this is a lot different."
Country music has long been intertwined with a lifestyle of boozing and partying. Famed crooner Willie Nelson even has his own brand of bourbon.
But over the past half-decade, Michael and the Messengers have become a leading voice in an emerging subgenre of country music that celebrates sobriety instead of hard drinking.
In so doing, they're flipping one of the traditional foundations of the genre.
It's a welcome change for people like Chance Givens. That DUI last year was his fifth. He knew at that time that he had a problem. When a judge offered him the option of attending the WATCh (Warm Springs Addictions Treatment & Change) program in lieu of a 13-month prison sentence, Givens jumped at the chance.
"I was ready for this, really," said Givens, whose clean-cut hairstyle, soul patch, and stylish, dark-framed glasses make him look more like an urban hipster than a man who, a year ago, "didn't have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of."
"My lifestyle wasn't helping me," said Givens. "It was killing me."
That's a refrain echoed by Bruce, a gray-haired man from Great Falls who is currently in the WATCh program after receiving his fourth DUI conviction.
"I come from a musical family," says Bruce. "Unfortunately, these days, it's hard to get into musical activities without going to bars. And for me, it's hard to go to bars without drinking too much."
Amen, said another man from Stevensville, who last year received his fourth DUI conviction.
"Walking into a bar, even if you go in to just watch the music, it's just too tempting," said the man. "It's like waving a pork chop in front of a dog."
Michael Purington understands those sentiments all too well. Twenty-five years ago, Purington was a member of one of the most popular bands in the Northwest, the Lost Highway Band. The group was a fixture in Missoula, where it would draw hundreds to gigs at bars such as the Park Hotel. The band also toured extensively.
"I spent 15 years pushing booze with music," says Purington.
Unfortunately, the name of Purington's band would become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the road, he lost himself in the bottle.
"It wasn't until we quit going on the road that it started up for me," says Purington of the alcoholism that would take over his life during the mid-'80s and early '90s. "I had a lot of time on my hands, and I lost control."
He quit drinking several times. Several times, the quit didn't stick. Finally, 12 years ago, Purington dove into recovery in earnest. He hasn't drunk a drop of alcohol since.
Instead, he's focused his energy on creating music that speaks to the experience of recovery.
Purington says that when he released his first album of recovery songs in 2001, he searched the Internet, and found only one other album of recovery songs.
Nowadays, there are many. There are even several online radio stations devoted to recovery music, such as 12stepradio.com and Recoverynetradio.com.
"Partying is big fun, but people who have the physical and mental addiction to alcohol pay huge," says Purington. "I do love what the music does in spreading the message."
At Monday's performance, Earl (not his real name) sat in the back of the gym, singing along with every song. This time last year, Earl was a participant in the WATCh program. He had known Purington for years, though he hadn't absorbed Purington's message.
WATCh changed that. So when he was nearing completion of the six-month treatment program at WATCh, Earl asked Purington if he could play a song off one of his CDs at his completion ceremony.
"He said he'd do me one better, and come play in person," says Earl. "I asked him if he'd play for everyone, and he said yes."
That first performance at the WATCh program, last August, affected Purington deeply.
"This is different from playing at a convention," says Purington, who spends much time performing at recovery events around the country, and even recently performed on a cruise to Belize for recovering alcoholics. "This is so much more intense. These guys are very thirsty, spiritually and emotionally.
"Drunks don't like this," he adds, wagging a finger as if disciplining a child. "The message has to come out of real life experience, or it won't connect. I have to feel .like I'm busted when I write a song, or it's not a good song."
That approach contributes to Purington's appeal on both musical and lyrical levels. His songs often are laugh-out-loud funny, as in the song "Step 13," which describes an all-too-common ulterior motive for alcoholics to attend meetings:
"I'm here to quit drinkin' and get a date / I'm always at the meeting on the make / I'm happy, hot-blooded and serene / And I'm ready for step 13."
In performance, Purington is energetic yet humble, earnest and self-effacing. Even when he drops catch phrases and pearls of wisdom ("Addiction is like having sex with a gorilla: Just because you want to quit doesn't mean it does"), he doesn't pretend to be an expert.
He's working it out like the rest of the men in the room: chord by chord, moment by moment.
"A lot of Michael's songs, you could just fill in the blank with different names and the song might be about you," said Tom Perrick, treatment supervisor at WATCh.
"He tells stories that all of us have experienced."
Demons & Redemption in Alcoholism Recovery
"Promises" was one of the first songs I wrote for this project three years ago. At that time "this project" was a vague concept about exploring specific problems and solutions in sobriety. I was going to place them back to back: this hurts; this helps.
I have been hemorrhaging lyrics ever since. The wealth of material is astonishing, inside myself and all around me. I have discarded more songs for "Promises" than I need for the next five CD's. Not that they were not all cherished treasures, but there was a criteria here, a measuring of substance, depth and accuracy.
"Awakening" slipped out one morning before I'd finished my coffee, no conscious effort involved. "Your Ego Is Not Your Amigo" required a short laundry list of my meager Spanish vocabulary. Most of these songs sort of wrote themselves; I just tried to keep a good pen handy.
The band and I recorded this collection over the past year. The process has been fluid, nearly psychic. Everybody understands what's going on, and how often does that happen? The performance and production are by far the best we've done so far.
And the order of the songs ended up, of course, telling a story. It's quite a story, if you have 77 minutes and 45 seconds to share it with me. There's delusion and clarity, madness and hope, isolation and connection…oh, I guess just your basic life and death situation.
So hop in. Let's go for a ride and see what we see. Come on.
An Even Tenor
You know the type, the life of the party, the guy who orders a shot, holds it up in the air and challenges everyone in the bar to chug-a-lug, to bottoms-up, to down their drinks all at once.
That was Michael Purington. As a musician with the popular 1970s group Lost Highway Band, Purington would start with a beer in the afternoon, during rehearsals, and progress to liquor at night, during gigs.
For a dozen years he traveled and played and drank - having fun, he says: "It was working. It was a great life."
When the band quit, in the mid-80s, Purington didn't. "When there's no gig, you have a lot of time to fill," he says.
He'd work from 8 to 5, then go home at night and get drunk. He quit writing songs; he stopped making music. Then for the umpteenth time, he quit drinking. He was sober for about four years. "Quitting is easy," Purington says, paraphrasing W.C. Fields. "I quit a million times."
He returned to music - as a promoter this time, bringing blues acts to Missoula. He booked Bonnie Raitt into the Wilma Theater, he says; he brought John Prine and John Lee Hooker to the Top Hat. The bar scene proved too great a temptation, though; in 1989, he took to the bottle again.
"I just wasn't hooked up with other people who were sober," he says. "It just about makes you crazy if you don't have help."
Then he found himself playing in a band at Harry David's nightclub: "It was horrible," he says – not the band, necessarily, but the experience. After all, he'd toured all over the place with the Lost Highway Band, had recorded albums during an era when doing so was a big deal, had nurtured big dreams of making the New York scene - and now, the best he could do was a Missoula South Side bar?
"So I started," he says, lifting an imaginary drink to his lips. To escape? "Oh, yeah - to escape life. Just let me die ... slowly." He drove home shakily that night. The woman he was living with was so fed up with his drinking, she wouldn't talk to him. That was bad enough. "But mostly, I had reached a point where - it was very undramatic - I started asking for help."
Ten years later, Purington, 52, is not only as sober as a stone, but he's writing, and playing, music again. Not just any songs, either. While most country musicians write and sing about drinking, Purington sings about NOT drinking. His CDs have caught the attention of the sobriety community and Purington, who sells cars for a living, is touring again.
Last September, for instance, he played a gig for recovering alcoholics in Cherry Hill, N.J., - across the river from Philadelphia. So close to New York, he could almost see the Empire State Building. Now he's entertaining offers from "sobriety cruise" companies inviting him to perform for their audiences.
"I spent all these years of my life trying to make it someplace," he says, shaking his head.
Sobriety is paying off for Purington in all kinds of ways - not the least of which is this one: He's writing songs again, lots of songs. "Not just about drinking," he says. "It's about living a different way.
"We all know people that are just flat-out good people. For the rest of us, there is a way to learn to not only be who we want to be, but to be who we are."
Sober, he says, "You get to be who you really are. Your real self emerges. You attain your potential. Stuff starts happening in life. It becomes an adventure."