With Kim Cheshire
Cinderella Man – Doug Seegers
“When I first heard Doug Seegers’ voice, so full of soul and raw emotion I was stunned. This man has lived these songs, not in his imagination but every long day over many hard years. He stands before you now – ready to testify. Listen and believe” Emmylou Harris
There aren’t too many fairy tales exist in today’s corporate controlled music industry, country or otherwise, unless you believe those execrable contrivances they call ‘back stories’ on TV talent shows, but the story of Doug Seegers rising from the ashes of a homeless and dissolute life to the top of the Swedish charts is a resurrection story like no other.
Seegers a 63 year old New York native first left his home as an enthusiastic young singer/songwriter back in the seventies, after a New York meeting with guitarist Buddy Miller who invited him to head out to Austin, Texas to front a band he was putting together. Unfortunately the Texas heat, touring, and very little income didn’t sit well with Seegers and he eventually headed back home to resume his life as a carpenter/cabinetmaker in Queens.
It wasn’t until the mid nineties with his kids in their teens that he set out once again to pursue his musical dreams, heading this time to Nashville hoping to make it as a songwriter. Years had passed since his first attempt and things had changed considerably. This time, believing he had the goods to make an impression, he thought he’d try his luck at the songwriter nights but was soon overwhelmed by the quality of the musicianship and songwriting skills on display and retreated to carpentry and playing on the streets. For a couple of years things remained relatively stable but when the carpentry work dried up and the street couldn’t pay the bills, he became a regular at the homeless food kitchens and drifted into a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse and ultimately, homelessness. Years of living on handouts, sleeping rough and battling his demons began to take its toll when in 2013 the breakdown of his relationship with his girlfriend and muse Angie (the subject I suspect of more than just one of the songs on his debut album Down to the River) threw his already chaotic life into complete turmoil and he turned to God for assistance “I told God that I needed His help”.
Finally willing to confront his drug and alcohol abuse and without the help of detox, rehab or any kind of earthly intervention, he managed to walk away from his cycle of self destruction and started to turn his life around. He remarkably remains clean and sober to this day. The divine intervention is the start of the fairy tale part of the story for Seegers, and along with the $5000.00 dollars his step father left him in his will, he was finally able to leave behind sleeping under bridges, doorways and during the warmer months out in the woods, and found himself a house, albeit in one of Nashville’s less charming neighbourhoods. Sustaining his ongoing recovery with busking but still relying on charitable handouts, life was starting to look up.
Even during the worst periods of his fall from grace he’d continued writing songs and had amassed a large repertoire of self written material by the time he was encouraged to participate in “The Little Pantry That Could (West Nashville food pantry) Songwriter Showcase”, highlighting homeless musicians. The next part of the fairy tale came from the most unexpected of quarters when the Pantry’s founder Stacy Downey received an email from a Swedish TV production company looking to put together a reality show about country songwriters and musicians down on their luck, to be hosted by Swedish country singer Jill Johnson. Johnson flew out to Nashville to check out potential contenders and came across a reluctant Seegers who was eventually inveigled to sing them a song, which they captured on camera. Johnson and friends seemed visually moved by his performance of what became the title track of his debut album ‘Going Down to the River’ leaving Johnson in tears.
This was the pivotal moment that led to a recording of the said song within just a few hours of them first hearing it, and due to the impact he’d made on Johnson and the crew it was decided to make the last episode of the series focus on Seegers alone. A few months passed before the series aired in Sweden in January 2014 and he went back to his routine of sobriety, busking etc It wasn’t until his segment of the show aired in March that things started to escalate. With the obvious promotional help of the TV show, the single rose easily to the number one position on the Swedish pop charts where it remained in the top five for 10 consecutive weeks. No-one involved had envisioned this kind of response, especially Seegers.
Then the record label along with Johnson felt that it would be in everyone’s interest to start preparing an album; the demand was building, and in the fickle world of pop music it would be best to strike while the iron was hot. Johnson thankfully was sensitive to the delicacy of the situation and was keen to protect Seegers from the kind of gold rush mentality that can develop around this type of phenomenon, particularly as he was a recently recovered addict and homeless person. He was helped and guided toward business people he could trust and eventually producer, guitarist, and singer songwriter Will Kimbrough took the reins on what was to be his remarkable debut album.
The album Going Down to the River, my favourite bona fide country music album of the last few years, was recorded over only three days at Nashville’s Sound Emporium with Kimbrough’s musical buddies Phil Madeira (Keyboards), Bryan Owings (Drums) and Chris Donohue (Bas), along with veteran Steel guitarist Al Perkins and fiddler Christine Lamb. Old friend Buddy Miller, reunited with the help of Kimbrough, and Emmylou Harris who was blown away by Seegers heartbreaking vocals, offered to contribute vocals to the albums two covers, Hank Williams ‘There’ll be No Teardrops Tonight’ and Gram Parsons iconic ‘She’ respectively, and the results are genuine additions, no star turns.
But in truth it’s Seegers’ originals that hold sway on this collection, from the heartbreaking album opener ‘Angie’s Song,’ a second cousin to Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking,’ or the Rascals ‘Groovin’ yet somehow stone country at the same time, sets the tone and he pours his heart into some of the most believable songs to come out of Nashville in a long time. There’s the title track ‘Going Down To the River’ a redemption song par excellence, ‘Pour Me’, ‘Lonely Drifters Cry’ and ‘Memory Lane’ are classic traditional country, ‘Hard Working Man’ and Burning a Hole in my Pocket’ are barroom classics in anyone’s repertoire, all delivered with a voice that will draw you in and hold your attention with its authenticity and emotional authority. The album was finished in May and within a week was number one on the Swedish charts. A 60 date tour was booked and the crowds came in droves to support him. Rounder picked up the album for release in the US and since its release in October Seegers has been accumulating fans as he makes his way across the States. It’s early days yet and without the support of mainstream country radio it can be a long haul, but after 63 years and a lifetime of rejection, things are looking promising for this country music newcomer.