Eighteen months ago, Doug Seegers was living under a bridge in Nashville.
Recently laid off from a job, he found himself homeless once again, as he had been on and off throughout his life. A singer-songwriter who’d moved to the country capital to chase his music dreams, Seegers, 62, often spent his days playing his songs on the streets.
In September 2013, shortly after he sobered up, he says, he got his big break.
Jill Johnson, a successful Swedish artist, was working on a project about street performers. Awoman from the pantry – where Seegers got food and clothes – threw his name out there. One minute Seegers is playing his song “Going Down to the River” on camera, the next:
“[Johnson] takes me to a recording studio – it turns out to be one of Johnny Cash’s old studios,” says Seegers. “I walked in, and I said, ‘I do believe I’m having a dream here!’ ”
Seegers cut the track and after it aired in Sweden, immediately shooting to No. 1 on the country’s iTunes chart.
Fast-forward to March 2015: Seegers is now a platinum-selling artist and, at 62 years old, hustling just as hard as any breakout artist.
“Two years ago I didn’t have a whole lot to think about, no responsibilities,” says Seegers. “It’s totally different now.”
”Life Has Been Like a Roller Coaster Ride for Me”
Raised on Long Island, New York, Seegers has lived as a troubadour since graduating high school, when he moved to N.Y.C.’s Lower East Side neighborhood.
“I had found myself living in abandoned buildings and playing my guitar in the street,” he says. “You know, life has been like a roller coaster ride for me because I’d have jobs, then I’d get laid off, then I’d end up homeless, then I’d go back to work and get a place to live again.”
Part of the problem: addiction. Seegers admits he struggled with alcohol and drug dependence for 40-plus years.
“I was playing to feed myself. But it was also to buy drugs and alcohol, too,” says Seegers.
Seegers eventually married and had kids, settling back on Long Island and choosing family over his music dreams for a time. (He says he still has a relationship with his kids, now grown, and hopes to reconnect with his wife.) But he was still battling his demons.
“A low point for me is way, way back, when I walked out on my wife,” says Seegers, who left his family in the ’90s to move to Nashville. “She said, ‘You’re gonna have to make up your mind – it’s either partyin’ or me.’ I got up the next morning, and I just walked down the road. That was the end of my marriage. I still have regrets that I did that.”
Seegers, who worked as a professional cabinetmaker for years, says he finally was able to overcome his addiction and get sober shortly before his big break with Johnson.
After splitting with a girlfriend, Seegers hit a breaking point. “I got to the point where I started worrying about myself,” he says. “I basically was just sittin’ outside an abandoned church one afternoon, and I had some vodka in me and some on me, and I just got to the point where I looked up into the sky, and I said, ‘God, I need your help.’ ”
Seegers says he’s been sober since and hasn’t been triggered to relapse.
“I call it a blessing. When God got me off the drugs and alcohol, He also took away the cravings,” he says. “I was an alcoholic and drug addict for 40 years. [Now] it has not been a temptation.”
”Life’s Totally Different Now”
These days, Seegers’s living his dream. He and Johnson have recorded a duets album, to be released in Sweden, he’s touring nonstop (he had three big showcases at Austin’s SXSW festival), and when he’s not on the road, he’s got a place just five miles outside of Nashville.
“It’s turned into fun. I get up and just have coffee and just think about what I’m going to do with my music career,” he says. “I’ve got a picture in my mind of a guy taking a little snowball and rolling it down the hill – that’s pretty much how I look at what I would like to see my music do.”
Seegers knows he’s got a one-in-a-million story, and he doesn’t take a thing for granted.
“Guys are coming up to me and saying stuff, like, ‘Boy, it must be wonderful after all those years of struggling on your music career!’ But I wasn’t doin’ anything with my music!” he insists. “All I was doin’ was playing my guitar on the street, and I got lucky one day, ya know? It really was a blessing.”
While he’s got a lot more money now – and, not to mention, a home – Seegers still plays on the streets.
“I don’t have to rely on the money anymore, but it’s not something I would ever consider not doing because I get so much joy playing out on the street,” he says.
Using His Pain to Inspire Others
Having gone through more than most would ever experience, he pours his hardships into his music.
“From the pain, from the struggling, from being down and out and having to just get up and ask yourself, ‘How are you going to survive today?’ … I put all that in my music because to me, music is therapy,” he says.
“It sounds funny to say this, but the hard times is the reason I got recognized.”
Now, he’s hoping to use that recognition to help others battling the same demons he did for years.
“I finished a concert one night in Sweden last summer, and this young lady walked up to me, and she had a pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, and she walked up to me, and she said, ‘Doug, my husband’s a real bad alcoholic, and he heard your song, and he’s really trying to quit. If you could just write some kinds of words of inspiration, you don’t know how much that would mean to us,’ ” Seegers recalls.
“It really brought me to tears and totally refocused my career right there,” adds Seegers. “I’m trying to use my own personal experience as a testimony in having faith and getting away from drugs and alcohol.”