Country Stars Fight Age-Old Battle

CMT News Examines Substance Abuse in Addicted to Addiction

Editor’s Note: CMT News Special: Addicted to Addiction debuts Friday, Feb. 20 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.

Trick Pony bassist Ira Dean is the epitome of a good time. His frenetic stage presence and offbeat sense of humor have created a “party guy” image that’s been hard to shake. But offstage, Dean is much more serious about fighting his problems with alcohol.

“Moderation hasn’t been a word in my vocabulary at all,” Dean told CMT News. “I’ve drank since the age of 13, got kicked out of seventh grade for alcohol. I’ve had a problem with it since the first day I picked it up.”

For the first time publicly, Dean discusses his struggles to say sober in the CMT News special Addicted to Addiction. The half-hour show examines the roots of substance abuse in country music, beginning with legendary singer-songwriter Hank Williams. Williams’ stepdaughter, Lycrecia Williams Hoover, said her mother, Audrey, hid the singer’s addictions from her and half-brother, Hank Williams Jr.

“I saw my daddy drunk one time that I can recall in my lifetime,” Hoover said. “He was an alcoholic, but he was not the alcoholic that drank everyday. He could go months without drinking, but if he had one drink, he couldn’t stop.”

Williams’ back problems eventually led him to abuse prescription drugs. His tragic death at the age of 29 robbed country fans of great music yet to come and immortalized him as a tortured artist who lived hard and died young. Several more country legends followed Williams down that same dangerous path. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and George Jones all fought their own public battles with booze and drugs. In 1989, 33-year-old Keith Whitley drank himself to death just as his musical dreams were coming true.

But why do talented musicians who seem to have it all — fame, success, money — still fall into substance abuse? Family members close to those country artists say it’s a combination of a delicate personality and a volatile business.

“Keith’s problem was very genetic and started years and years ago when he was just in his early teens,” said Lorrie Morgan, who was married to singer Keith Whitley when he died. “I think he probably thought that if he were successful and could prove himself that he wouldn’t need that anymore.”

Jessi Colter, Jennings’ musical partner and widow, said Waylon realized later in life the toll his drug use took on his music.

“One day in the last few years of his life, he was listening to one of his first live albums,” Colter told CMT News. “He sat there listening, and he said, ‘Damn, I played guitar so much better before I ever started taking drugs.’ He would say things like, ‘I had the body of an athlete, if I hadn’t abused it.’”

Singer T. Graham Brown, who is a recovering alcoholic, said the work environment often adds fuel to the flame for many working country musicians.

“I’m always in a honky-tonk doing a show, and there’s always a bar and people drinking, and it’s hard to resist,” Graham explained. “It’s like being a heroin addict and heroin laying right there on the table calling you. It’s just something you have to deal with.”

Alcohol is still a siren’s call to today’s successful country artists. In addition to Dean, hitmaker Trace Adkins has gone public with his alcoholism and subsequent stay in rehab.

“Even if you wanted to keep it a secret, you wouldn’t be able to,” Adkins said. “So, we just got ahead of it and came out and said, “Hey, I’m an alcoholic, and I need some help.’”

In addition to sharing the stories of the country artists who’ve been there, Addicted to Addiction also explores what the music industry is doing to help the problem.