Doug Seegers’ life has all the makings of a great human interest story. He’s overcome addiction, transitioned out of homelessness and seen long-deferred dreams realized.
What’s more, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter was “discovered” at a Nashville food pantry by the makers of a Swedish music documentary, who set him up to become an instant star in their native country. And in the process of recording the first proper album of his career, he was reunited with a former bandmate, who happens to be the busy singer-guitarist-producer Buddy Miller.
The story has been enough to garner the Queens, New York, native plenty of attention. His songs ought to keep it. Some of them are updates of Hank Williams’ honky-tonk blues, others have a touch of Jimmy Webb-esque sophistication and many have an uncommon blend of leathery, lived-in sweetness.
CMT Edge: I tried to watch the Swedish documentary on you, but since there were no English subtitles, I missed a lot.
Seegers: Yeah, I feel the same way. I missed a lot, too.
What was it like to have documentary film producers take that deep of an interest in your story probably for the first time in your life?
We had a three-month tour over in Sweden. … It was pretty much all about filming me touring and just compressing it into an hour of show. It was a lot of fun.
You have Hank Williams and Gram Parsons covers on this album. How did their music influence you over the years?
Well, I grew up with Hank Williams music. My dad had a record collection of 78s. … As an 8-year-old kid, that was really my means of learning music. I was just fascinated with records and putting them on the turntable and trying to learn the guitar parts. I used to slow the records down to try to learn the lead guitar lick.
My mother and father were playing country music in a band together. My mother was very heavily bluegrass-influenced. She had a bunch of bluegrass [records], like the Osborne Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, that I also grew up with. I can remember as a little kid just learning how to play my mom’s guitar. She showed me a couple of chords, and I just started singing Hank Williams songs.
How did Gram Parsons catch your ear?
I grew up with country music, then the Beatles came out and all the rock ‘n’ roll stuff started happening. Then all the sudden, it was country-rock bands, you know? So we started swinging back towards country music with bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers and New Riders of the Purple Sage and Poco and Pure Prairie League and all that stuff.
But you know, I was not a big fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers, even though Gram Parsons was in the band. …When he decided to record his solo albums, I think it was Chris Hillman that told him about Emmylou Harris. And when those two teamed up, there’s really where it began for me as far as modern-day country-rock music. I mean, I was just blown away by the combination of those two voices.
Have you found yourself having to explain to people how it was that country music had such a presence in Queens, where you grew up?
(laughs) I’ve done my share of playing other music, too. I write other kinds of music also, but my heart is here because I grew up with country stuff. That’s where my heart lies, even though [I’m from] New York. People sometimes wonder about that, I guess, but I tell ‘em that my dad met my mom and they had a band and I was just brought up in it.
You met Buddy Miller in the New York country scene, then followed him down to Austin to start a band. What were those shows like?
They weren’t very good, actually. We had a band called the Back Burners. Of course, we had Buddy on guitar, and we had drummer problems. Besides that, I just got really, really tired of the road life. We got paid $100 for a job, and that was for everybody to split — not each. We weren’t making a lot of money at all. I got tired of it real fast. And I decided that I was gonna go back home and get married instead.
Did you make any recordings back in those days?
I recorded one 45 is all I ever did, really. … That 45 had two original songs that I wrote about my wife. Then we had our own little record label.
There are certain things about your performances on the new album, the way you put the songs across and vamp and lead the band, that suggest you have quite a bit of experience in front of an audience. How did you really develop your chops as a performer?
Well, I’ve been a street singer my entire life, also. When you’re playing out on the street, you are performing. You are playing professionally. You’re getting paid for what you’re doing. … I’ve also had these little bands my entire life, little bands that I put together. We played local clubs, you know. I had a band in the early years called Duke the Drifter and the Angels of Overdrive. We must’ve had about three different versions of that band.
At least as far back as Duke’s namesake, Luke the Drifter, country’s had songs about restless and rambling characters. But when you write about them — in “Lonely Drifter’s Cry,” for example — you don’t focus on the restlessness so much as the impact it has on relationships, the long-suffering love it requires of people. Why do you think your drifter songs come out that way?
I don’t know. When I wrote that song, I was questioning whether I wanted to drag someone down into my lifestyle as a musician. And that’s how I got there in the song. I know for a fact that any musician on the face of the earth that’s doing jobs out on the road, I know they’re all confronted with it. … You’re out there on the road, and it’s like why would you wanna do something like that to somebody? Why would I wanna drag a woman down into the lifestyle of a musician? (laughs)
In that song, there’s definitely an understanding of what it takes to put up with that.
I’ll tell you a quick, funny little story. The reason my mom learned how to play the bass fiddle in my dad’s band is because she was worried sick about him hanging out with women when he was out there. She said, “To hell with this. I’m learning how to play the bass and going with him.”
The song that sort of started it all for you, “Going Down to the River,” is interesting, too. It has some standard country and gospel imagery, but it struck me that you’re not talking about a guy getting baptized for the first time. This guy sounds like he’s already done that and gotten back into trouble.
Isn’t that what you want as a songwriter? You want something that the whole world will relate to. Tell me that the whole world hasn’t been through that. That’s exactly what the song is about, and that’s exactly why people like that song — because they don’t feel so guilty [when they hear it].
Since your years of homelessness are an integral part of your story, do you look at the spotlight you have now as an opportunity to speak from a vantage point people don’t often hear in music?
Yeah. What I’m really wanting to focus on right now is using my experience as a testimony and hopefully try to be inspiring to recovering addicts.
How’s that gone over so far?
I feel like I’m getting some interest, as far as people coming up to me. Just off the top of my head, I just thought of this one guy that I met one time. He told me that he heard “Angie’s Song” — this was after one of my shows in Sweden — and he came up and wanted to shake my hand.
He said, “It was that song that gave me the support to really, really think about [recovery] seriously.” He said, “I’ve been an alcoholic all my life, and I’ve been clean about six weeks now, and I just wanna thank you, man.” It brought tears to my eyes, you know?