The Irish World meets Doug Seegers, the country singer-songwriter who became an overnight success…at 63
Just over five years ago, Doug Seegers was homeless and struggling to overcome decades of alcohol and drug abuse. On a warm May morning, in a swanky boutique hotel in Soho, he is glowing.
There’s an Americana lore to his image that is inescapable — a fearlessness. Wearing the full works — archetypal cowboy hat, sequined denim jacket, ruffled hair, a wizened face — his gently booming voice, even in conversation, sounds like a country voice perfected in a lab by technicians.
Sitting with widened eyes, his back hunched over slightly like he’s getting news from a doctor, Seegers speaks warmly and freely.
Although he is bracing the flu (his publicist brings him a vitamin C supplement during the interview), the 67-year-old embraces the press run for his latest album, A Story I Got to Tell, his first major UK release, as enthusiastically as a rising country star — and that’s because he is.
“When you get a hit song, it happens overnight,” he tells the Irish World. Considering Seeger’s backstory, this might just be the understatement of the century.
Back in 2013, Swedish country singer Jill Johnson came to Nashville and was pointed toward songwriters who had fallen on hard times for a documentary she was making. Seegers, originally from Long Island in New York, who was sleeping rough at the time, played Johnson “Going Down to the River,” a song he had written two years previously.
This lyrical reckoning with his addiction and his demons, coupled with his relic of a voice, moved Johnson so much that she brought him to Nashville’s Cash Cabin Studios to record the song.
Within weeks of the song’s official release the following year, “River”, against all expectations, turned out a surprise hit, reaching No. 1 on iTunes in Sweden.
Yet, in Nashville, it had been over a week of oblivion before Seegers realised what was happening.
As he tells it, a young man walked up to him one day, out of the blue, asked if he was Doug Seegers and questioned if he knew that he had a number one song in Sweden. Sceptical yet morbidly curious, Seegers dashed for the local library where had internet access.
“I’m googling around with the mouse and I find the Swedish iTunes and I see Doug Seegers and I just froze sitting in my seat. I was just like, what the…” he recalls with astonishment — as if his own story has yet to fully sink in.
He had been sober from decades of drug and alcohol abuse for just three weeks before the video was recorded.
This instant fame, in a land far away, shocked him, but he found meaning in this series of events. He now has a higher purpose: to spread his message and inspire those similarly caught up in addictions.
“The way I put all of this together in my head is that I’m being rewarded in my head from God or a higher power,” he says.
“I’m trying to present myself as a living testimony. I feel that it is my responsibility to talk about what I’ve been through to try and inspire. Inspiration is really the only medicine that’s gonna work for anyone. You can’t go out and buy a bottle of medicine and walk away from your addictions.”
A self-described believer of God, or a higher power as he occasionally refers to it, he finds a sliver of biblical redemption in how his story panned out.
In the AA meetings that he attended, addicts were encouraged to tap into their faith, their higher power. “I’m a firm believer in God,” he says at one point. “It was a miracle how quickly God turned my life around.”
To most, homelessness suggests destitution, desperation and even purposelessness. Quite interestingly, Seggers looks back fondly on his periods of homelessness; it was an unholy cocktail of drug and drink addiction, he assures The Irish World, that caused him suffering.
“I want to write a book on homelessness, actually,” he says, his ashy, husky voice trailing off into a cackling giggle. He found life on the streets to be the ultimate adventure.
After graduating high school in 1969, Seegers picked up his guitar and hitchhiked directly to Manhattan. Two days later, aged 18, he fell into homelessness for the first time.
“My life has been a rollercoaster ride; a lot of years living the homeless lifestyle,” he says. “For me, it was an adventure, though. I enjoyed playing my guitar out on the street.”
After some years busking and living on the margins of New York life, Seegers took to Texas, where he performed under the stage name Duke the Drifter (Duke named for his mother, Drifter arising from idol Hank Williams’s Luke the Drifter moniker). This period of his life came to a halt quickly, ending up in him moving back to New York.
Later in life, he ended up moving to Nashville, playing for another 17 years undetected until the viral video catapulted him to semi-fame in Europe.
In Nashville, while drifting in and out of homelessness, jobs came and went, dabbling in cabinet-making and other piecemeal woodworking jobs. But he enjoyed the hustle of playing and gigging music. His intentions, however, were never to become a professional musician.
“I’ve always had hope but I’ve never had high hopes. I’ve always had hopes for survival, really. To not stress out about being homeless was my hope. I really feel like I conquered that,” he says.
“As far as recognition as a musician is concerned, I always just played because I liked to play. I never really had stars in my eyes.”
His mother and father had a country band together when they were younger. Consequently, music became integral to his life; so much so that he defines music as being his first — and everlasting — addiction.
It’s therapy, too, he says. “Music has gotten me in a lot of trouble, but it has always saved me. It can go both ways.”
It’s been a long, tiresome road: soup kitchens, food pantries, church missions and, most importantly, caring friends are what lifted him off the streets and into a new life.
Fascinatingly, Seegers displays little pity for those homeless people who, he says, “choose” the lifestyle. In his mind, the poverty people describe today bears no resemblance to the type of suffering people endured in the ‘40s or ‘50s.
“I get very short-tempered with homeless people,” he says, his voice raising a register. “To me, a lot of them appear to be little spoiled brats that walk around crying and moaning when they don’t need to be. It doesn’t take much to figure out how to get yourself out of that and a lot of them chose to be there.”
Now, after years of suffering, he wants to frame his past (as the A Story I Got to Tell album title suggests) as an escape route for others. Not only in the realm of music, but also on-the-ground in Nashville, where he spent months upon years searching for peace. Songwriting provides him with an emotional release, but it’s the impact that concerns him.
“I want the courage and words in my songs to give people hope,” he says. “Or at least, at a bare minimum, just to inspire them. It would be great if we could all be inspirational to someone in our lives.”
He makes it a point to visit old addict friends (“I want them to see my clean eyes and the change in me”) but he also taken a man afflicted by addiction in the same vein as him under his wings.
In fact, he adds, it’s this man’s duty to watch over Seegers’ house in Nashville while he’s of town. He’s been clean and sober for just two months, he gushes, and he is going to continue supporting him until he finds his own salvation. “I want him to help himself start life over again.”
Doug Seeger’s new album, A Story I Got to Tell, is being released on BMG on 31st May.