My jaw-dropped at a particularly brilliant piece of writing during a recent episode of ABC’s Nashville. “I know a dry drunk when I see one” quipped Juliette Barnes, the pampered country diva, who shows up to help her friend Deacon Claybourne out. Claybourne, for those who haven’t been watching the ridiculously good musical-drama, is a sober guitarist whose life is still unmanageable, thanks in large part to a super dysfunctional relationship with his ex, the queen of country music Rayna Jaymes. Juliette goes on to tell her friend that even though he hasn’t picked up a drink in years, he needs to be taking care of himself, doing what he loves, and going to meetings. The exchange is written not in the ‘very special episode’ manner that recovery used to be handled on television but with realism and humor. Nashville creator Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for Thelma and Louise, knows her way around this subject and doesn’t back away from it. And why should she? Recovery makes for great drama.
As a kid from an alcoholic home who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I didn’t ever see my family on TV. Other than the occasional episode of Facts of Life or that random after-school special about ‘angel dust’, TV like the rest of planet avoided talking about how ugly and complex alcoholism and addiction really were. Besides, we tuned into shows like Knight Rider or Charlie’s Angels not to be bummed out but to be entertained. Corny television shows aside, my childhood was probably not the different from the fictional Juliette’s. See, our little country star does know a lot about this disease as her own mama struggles to get and stay clean. In Juliette, Khouri has created a difficult, temperamental, strong willed and ultimately sympathetic character. Like a lot of us from alcoholic homes, Juliette pretty much raised herself and was lobbed disappointments by the bucketful since an early age. As a friend of mine in the program recently texted, “Juliette’s not a bitch. She’s just an ACA!” The character even admitted on a recent episode that she wanted her mother to die after she screwed up her ninth birthday party. Played by Hayden Panettiere with tart combination of heart and steel, Juliette Barnes might look like Taylor Swift to tabloid reporters but to kids who grew with drunk parents, she certainly looks an awful lot like one of us.
But back to that line about being a “dry drunk.” This zinger left a mark on me because not only had I grew up like Juliette but at four years sober I know thing or two about dryness also. Deacon may have the ready-for-primetime problems like the “is he or isn’t he” the baby-daddy to Rayna’s oldest daughter that I thankfully don’t know anything about. Yet like him, I know the struggles of staying emotionally sober and how tricky self-care can be. Since my second year of sobriety, I’ve vacillated with great regularity between being a happy, respectable sober fellow and a dry uncomfortable mess. Staying sober is a tough and tricky task that isn’t always met with the drama of relapse. A lot of the time, the drama comes with just staying afloat and getting back to the things that saved our lives in the first place. The character of Deacon seems to confirm what many of us in recovery have discovered. Just because we got sober and our lives got better, it doesn’t mean this whole life thing ever gets easier.
Leaving drugs and alcohol out of a show about country music would be a mistake. Country music might be the soundtrack of America’s heartland but it has a long tragic history with alcoholism and addiction. What alcoholic can’t relate to famous country songs like Whiskey River, Friends in Low Places and I’m so Lonesome I could Die? Legends like Hank Williams, Keith Urban, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis and even Saint Johnny Cash are as famous for their problems with drugs and alcohol as they are for their music. Just last month troubled country singer Mindy McCready lost her decade-long fight with addiction and was found on her porch by her neighbors. McCready had shot herself and in sad country song fashion, she also shot her ex-boyfriend’s dog.
While Nashville the city is still turning out the hits, it’s hard to say if Nashville the television show will last. Can normal, non-country fans relate to a show dedicated to the juicy side of the music business? Probably not. Viewers need to identify with what character’s are going through, even on the most remote level. Most of us don’t know what sleazy managers are like or how to deal with slumping record sales. What might keep Nashville on our television sets for a few more seasons, however, is it’s no apologies and distinctly human look at an epidemic that continues to rock country music stars and everyday people alike.