‘Recovery troubadour’ Ricky Byrd releases new album, ‘Sobering Times’

Ricky Byrd interview

RICKY BYRD

Ricky Byrd says his new album, Sobering Times, “is for people that are struggling with addiction. It’s for people who are in long-term recovery. They will hear something in there that will remind them of why they are in long-term recovery. It’s for people who support the recovery lifestyle, whether you have somebody that is struggling or in recovery.

“And last but not least, this is just a loud and proud rock ‘n’ roll record for all of you fans of the bands that I played with over the years.”

Byrd, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 as a member of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, is a fierce advocate for those who are recovering from or fighting the demons of addiction.

Byrd played with the Blackhearts from 1981 to 1991; they had some huge hits during this decade, including “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” Byrd also performed with Jett in a 1998 VH1 special.

“I’m eternally grateful,” he said. “I mean, personally, from a kid who grew up in the Bronx who wanted to play guitar, it is cool, but it also gives me the ability to help a lot of people with recovery-based lyrics that sit on top of loud rock ‘n’ roll.”

So how did this hard rockin’ axe man become a force in aiding people in recovery?

“I did a basic solo record called Lifer back in 2013 which had nothing to do with recovery at all,” he said. “It was just straight-up songs about nothing in particular. Then in 2017 I put out the Clean Getaway record, which is about addiction, recovery, hope, change for the better — once again with loud, crunchy guitars.

“I never really thought about it, all of these years, but maybe 10 years ago I was asked to be part of a recovery show in Florida that my friend Richie Supa, who co-writes a song with me on this record — we ran together and we’re clean and sober together —asked me to come down and do. So, it was this outdoor show. I never even heard of something like that, but I went down there and it was in Fort Lauderdale and it was like 120 degrees (laughs). I had no songs; I think I did some blues and ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and he had one song, but the whole afternoon was about recovery. They had tables set up with information. They were selling recovery jewelry.

“But the thing that got me was after I finished playing and I was kind of lingering around by the stage, people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, I grew up on your music and it’s so cool to see that you’re in recovery,’ or ‘I’m in it,’ or ‘Unfortunately I lost somebody to addiction.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’ because I never had thought about it in those terms. Then I did a couple more and Richie and I wound up writing a song called ‘Broken Is a Place,’ which is on the Clean Getaway record. So I came back to New York and I put it online; I did a fast recording of it. … and I started getting messages from people literally around the world, saying, ‘Oh man, you told my story and I love that; you really spoke to me.’ And again, the light went off over my head and I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting, perhaps I should write another one.’

“I started writing songs that dealt with this, and when I had about six songs, I reached out to somebody that I met when I did the gigs in Florida. Those gigs turned into other gigs and we had a little band. I said, ‘I know that you have a treatment facility up here in New Jersey. Can I come in with my acoustic guitar and do recovery music groups?’ I didn’t even know what I was talking about but I said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ They said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I went in there; it was actually a detox. And I played to the clients with those six songs and I spoke and told my story a little bit and the reaction I got was pretty impressive. It just shows that music can be a really great voice when you’re trying to help somebody and, also, maybe people don’t want to hear stuff conversation-wise when you are brand new in recovery, but put it in a song and it kind of slips by a little easier. It’s easier to swallow.

“I really loved the response that I was getting, so I kept doing it and I did it for a couple of years, and then I went other places and I started getting asked to go around the country doing it. I kind of became a recovery troubadour. People all started asking me the same thing: ‘How can we take this music home?’ I procrastinated as I would do, for like six months, and then I said, maybe I should do a record. And that’s where Clean Getaway came from. The response from that was, again, overwhelming, from people around the world. I would get messages like, ‘I wanted to use last night but I listened to “High Wire” on the Clean Getaway record and it really spoke to me and I didn’t go out.’ And I thought, ‘This may be a good thing here, that I’m doing.’

“So once the Clean Getaway cycle was done I picked up my guitar and I started writing new songs. And now you’ve got the Sobering Times CD. It’s as simple as that.”

The album came out on Sept. 25, “which also coincided with my 33rd clean and sober anniversary, which is cool,” said Byrd. “I did that on purpose, obviously, as it’s called Sobering Times.”

A vintage photo of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (Ricky Byrd is second from left).

Byrd does not shy away from his past. In fact, he uses it as daily inspiration to help others.

“I’m in my third act,” he said. “I’ve played all over the world. I’ve played stadiums, clubs, theaters, and now I get to go into these facilities and really help somebody and make a difference a little bit. I want people who don’t have any addiction issues to listen to it and say, ‘Whoa, this is a cool rock ‘n’ roll record,’ which it is.

“I’m blessed that I’ve managed to stumble into this thing where I’m combining two things I love dearly, and for right now this is what I do. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do a blues record next. Now it’s to the point where I sit down with my guitar and start writing lyrics and it’s like, ‘Oh no, not another one, let me write something else for a second.’ Right now I can’t because I’m kind of in this vein so I’ll just run with it until I run out of ideas. I get a lot of ideas from going to these treatment facilities, because I play and I talk and I ask if anybody has any comments and then people say stuff and I get other ideas for new songs.

“One of the things that cemented the deal for me doing this was when we were in D.C. around 2014 doing an event for FED UP which is an organization of parents who have lost kids. I stepped off the elevator on my way to soundcheck and there had to be 300 people in the lobby who were going to the event wearing purple shirts with pictures of kids, friends, mothers, fathers or others that they lost. Talk about being emotional. They were all talking to me and I was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta do something here, I’ve got to see what I can do to help a little bit.’ You play to your strengths and I’m a guitar player.

“If you listen to this record, I do not preach and I don’t even get that specific, like, ‘I was a high school football player and I got injured and I took opioids,’ or something like that … Here’s the facts. I do one and I can’t stop. That’s the facts for people who have the disease of addiction. Now, in this new world with opioids and fentanyl, you don’t even have to have the disease of addiction in order to get addicted and die. It just grabs you by the short and curlies and takes you right to the grave.”

Over his years in rock music, Byrd has amassed quite a Rolodex of contacts and friends. So who did he choose to help with this new release?

“There’s me, obviously, singing and playing guitars, and I do a lot of the background vocals because I’m great singing to myself. It’s easier and I know exactly what I want to hear. There’s a couple of backgrounds that I’ve brought in like Christine Ohlman, who is an old friend of mine and the singer from the SNL Band. We’ve been in bands together on and off for 15 years and she’s like my soul sister. I record at Parcheesi Studios out in Long Island and it’s like 45 minutes from me. So, to get people to come out there, you’ve got to be specific and you’ve got to plan it. Jeff Kazee came to the studio and played all of the keyboards on this record; he’s in Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and he’s great and he sang backgrounds, too. Bass was Bob Stander, my co-producer. He is a great bass player and great musician all together …

“I used four different drummers, depending on the songs. Rich Pagano played on one song, ‘Quittin’ Time’ the opener. He plays in the Fab Faux with Will Lee. And then we had Liberty DeVitto, my old friend, who played on one song; he played with Billy Joel and he’s got a book out now. I had Tommy Price, who played with me with Joan in the sort of late-’80s version of The Blackhearts. The song ‘Together,’ the big glam tune … I thought he’d be perfect to come in and play. And while he was playing on that I said, ‘Let me play you something else,’ and he played on the cover I did of Merle Haggard’s ‘Bottle Let Me Down.’ Finally, the one who played on most of the record was Steve Holley, who played with Paul McCartney in Wings and Joe Cocker and currently with Ian Hunter & the Rant Band.

“I kept asking Little Steven if he wanted to do some stuff but he was either out with the Disciples of Soul or too busy. … I had Bobby Whitlock from Derek & the Dominos play.”

A shiny new toy can be tempting to show off. But in this current climate where there are no tours, limited gatherings, face coverings and more obstacles than ever before, what is Byrd’s next move?

“Drop back and punt!” he said. “I’ve done a couple of recovery events from my basement with a little backdrop. A lot of people are doing stuff on Instagram and Facebook live. I don’t know. Maybe I’m lazy or maybe I’m scared. When this first started in March, I did a couple of songs; when we were in the studio recording the record, I’d just turn on Facebook live and say, ‘Hey, I’m here with my producer. What do you think of this song?’ I did that but when it comes to doing a concert from my basement, I haven’t done that yet, and people say I should try it. We’ll see.”

So, with an uncertain future, Byrd will continue to stay the course. By his estimate, he has “given away over 2,500 copies of Clean Getaway at treatment centers across the country,” and he sees no reason to stop anytime soon.

For more information, visit rickybyrd.com.

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