It’s easy to wander your way into a drug addiction – and oftentimes, people do. But to overcome one requires a will power that, to many people, is so unprecedented that they seek out spiritual intervention in the process, whether they’re religious or not.
The story of Ruston Kelly is not the story of an artist who was addicted to drugs. To perceive it through that lens would imply that drug addiction is a defining characteristic of a human being, rather than a catalyst that changes them and their surroundings.
The story of Ruston Kelly is a firsthand account into the granular, visceral details of drug addiction and recovery that frequently get glossed over. But the only story he wants to tell is how he broke free.
Following an overdose in December 2015, Kelly decided to pursue a life of sobriety. On Oct. 14, 2017, he married fellow country singer Kacey Musgraves. On Sept. 7, 2018, he released his debut album Dying Star. There has been some clear, traceable progress in the last three years of Kelly’s life, but he is only getting started.
The FADER referred to him as, “[A]n instant legend.” Rolling Stone described his music as, “[R]oots-rock that still actually bothers to rock.” He played the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2018, and he is scheduled to play this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. His upcoming Dying Star Tour has sold out dates in Austin, Nashville and Minneapolis. The remaining tour stops, including the Cambridge Room at House of Blues in Dallas, have only a handful of tickets left as of writing.
In anticipation of this tour, we had a brief chat with Kelly via phone while he was at his home in Nashville.
What was the process of getting clean like? Did you go cold turkey? If you took opioids, did you go through a methadone program?
It was a long process. Trial and error. For about four years, I’d try and go like, a month clean, and I’d go back. I probably relapsed like, 10 times.
I went to rehab once, but it was all I could afford, so it was this fucking Bible-beating kind of rehab in North Carolina. [laughs]
Those are big in the South.
It was all I could do. So they handed me a shovel and a Bible and were like, “You’re gonna sweat this out.” That worked to an extent, but if you’re not all for the Baptist way of life, you’re gonna have no root of dealing with your addiction when you come back to reality and back to life.
After the overdose, I decided I was going to rehabilitate myself, and I came to the realization that if I want to live, and if I want to have a career and do what I’m doing now, then I’ve got to stop doing it.
You said in an interview that suffering is a prerequisite to pure joy. Can you elaborate on that?
I think that everyone has a crack in them somewhere, or a figurative thorn in their side. I think that is the human element that connects all of us, and drugs, religion, happiness – it’s an attempt to alleviate ourselves from a sense of suffering or unhappiness. And I think we’re built to be happy and joyful, but we’re all born with a brokenness that has to be fixed or corrected somehow. And there are healthy ways to do that, and some people (given their chemistry) are going to either choose this path or that path. We’re all going to alleviate or free ourselves from what we feel we are beholden to.
How do you alleviate yourself?
Art. Expressing myself. I’ve done that since I was a kid.
And it took a minute, because I wrapped up my artistic identity in these ways that I was living. It started to get into this Black Mirror scenario where I was writing about being fucked up and writing. [laughs]
And you start running out of material, but it’s a great thing to realize that doing it in the most sober and clear way makes it not a challenge, but more rewarding when I can write about a variety of different things going on in my life, rather than, “Oh, I’m just fucking suffering right now.”
It can also be as simple as going for a run.
I also wanted to ask about “Paratrooper’s Battlecry.” First off, I interpreted “TK” as the initials of your father, and I wanted to confirm or disconfirm that.
Hard confirm on that.
I also wanted to ask about the statue of Jesus in that song.
“Paratrooper’s Battlecry” was pretty literal. It’s about coming down. Also, just wondering about what your life means.
I had this little office – it’s basically a desk, all my shit and a mattress. I moved there, and I worked, and I had shit tacked onto the wall. It was like a crazy person’s room. [laughs] I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I’ve always had a predilection towards spiritual things. I was raised in a Christian house, and I still find comfort in the belief that there is a power you can appeal to. I don’t know exactly what that is.
I had this statue of Jesus in my office, and I thought it was funny. I was living such a quote-unquote “sinful” life, and it was meant to be ironic. Like, “Shit’s going wrong in my life. I’ll just buy this statue of Jesus, and everything will be fine.”
What kind of Christian environment did you grow up in? Southern Baptist? Was it more of a progressive denomination?
No, it was Methodist, which is the calm version of Southern Baptist.
California is a pretty big motif in Dying Star. You mention it in “Cover My Tracks” and “Son of a Highway Daughter.” You mention Los Angeles in “Faceplant.” Did you live in California, and whether you did or not, does it hold any other significance for you?
Man, I didn’t. But I think I lived in California in a past life. It’s always on my mind. Interestingly enough, there were several times where I happened to go out there, right at the time when I quit doing drugs. I went out there and basically got clean.
There’s been two times that I went out there and got over a breakup. So it’s been this weird place – ironically in Los Angeles, “The City of Sin” – where I have gone and rehabilitated myself. I still think there’s something magical about it, I don’t care what people say.
What can you tell me about Dr. Cornel West?
Oh, damn dude!
He’s one of my biggest inspirations ever. I read his book Race Matters, which is amazing. I’d go, research his essays, I’d watch his lectures online, and I read Hope on a Tightrope. He put passion behind a sense of Christianity and spirituality, and put it into a political context that actually made a lot of sense to me.
This compassionate form of government could exist, but it was also rooted in his belief that you can’t understand yourself as a Christian – you can’t understand yourself as a compassionate person if you haven’t lived or understood what it means to “live in the shadow of the cross.” When he said that, I felt very drawn to it. We were born in a shadow, it’s our job to figure out how to bring life to things and to ourselves.
Do you prefer Parker Posey in Dazed and Confused, or do you prefer Parker Posey in Coneheads?
[Laughs] That’s a great question.
Dazed and Confused.
Good answer. Richard Linklater is from Texas, and I wouldn’t have accepted any other answer.
[Laughs] I love that.
You stated once that your favorite band was Behemoth, and other runner-ups to that seem to be Slayer, Metallica and Slipknot. What other runner-ups are there besides those?
It changes a lot. I love metal.
Slipknot’s my favorite band right now. I fucking love Jackson Browne so much. Bruce Springsteen, I love all that shit. Obviously, that’s my bread and butter.
Dawes is really fucking good. Napalm Death is fucking good.
They opened for Slayer in Nashville on their last tour. Were you at that show?
I know, dude. I fucking missed it. I wasn’t here.
Going back to the earlier questions I asked, what advice do you have for anyone trying to overcome a drug addiction?
I would say that life is possible outside of your addiction. Anything that makes you go back – as long as you face it and don’t say, “Fuck it” to it, you’ll get a lesson out of it, and you’ll come out stronger on the other side.
That’s why Narcotics Anonymous say, “One day at a time.” It’s really true.
Are you still part of Narcotics Anonymous?
How’s that going?
It’s good. I actually joined recently. I never really wanted to. I also try to do everything on my own, and an important thing for anyone struggling with an addiction is that you cannot do it alone.
If you’re on an island, you’re going to have to do it alone. But there’s a community of people for a reason. And it really helps.
Who has been that community of support for you?
The producer, Jarrad K, moved to town like, a week before I overdosed. And we were buddies before that. He had a strong sense of being there for me.
My family, and when I met Kacey, she had heard stories about me being kind of wild around town, but was willing to invest her loving energy into me.
You and Kacey just celebrated your one-year anniversary recently.
Yeah, one year.
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Congrats on everything. Overcoming an addiction, getting married. You’re living the dream.
Hey man, I appreciate that.
I never really thought, A. That I would want to get married, or B. That someone would want to fucking marry me. [laughs]
But she was a really redemptive force in my life. Reminded me that there’s a lot more to this person than I previously thought. And her, along with my friends and family that know me, and know the better parts of me when they see the worst side of me — those are the ones that stick around, lift you up and make you better.
Ruston Kelly plays The Cambridge Room at House of Blues on Thursday, Jan. 24. Tickets are available at livenation.com.