“This record 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.”
Ricky Byrd is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a fierce advocate for those who are recovering from or fighting the demons of addiction and the author of a brand-new album called “Sobering Times.”
Byrd was awarded Hall of Fame status in 2015 as a member of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and that honor has benefitted him, his career and his passion to help those in recovery.
“I played with her from ’81-’91 and I came back and did a VH1 special with her in ’98, so it was like 10 years,” said an absolutely excited Byrd. “I’m eternally grateful for her taking me there because not only does it; 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 (laughs).”
Byrd has his fret prints on many a musical project since his time with the Blackhearts; so how does this hard rockin’ axe man go from what he calls a, “Basic solo record” to becoming 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; 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 Ft. 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 in online; I did a fast recording of it. I put it online 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.”
“It actually dropped on September 25 which also coincided with my thirty-third clean and sober anniversary which is cool; I did that on purpose obviously as it’s called “Sobering Times,” he continued as he does not ever shy away from his past; as a matter of fact, he uses it as daily inspiration to help others.
“Maybe this is the last one as far as this goes; who the hell knows where we are, even in the world we don’t know what’s going on. Right now, this is really cool, I’m glad I’m getting this reputation as this guy who gets asked to go around the country and go to treatment facilities, schools, I’ve been to a juvenile detention center or two, recovery events, keynote speaker stuff; what more can I ask? I think it’s really cool; I’m in my third act. 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. So, it’s subject matter; do you know what I mean?”
“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 sound check 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; of course, in recovery community support group meetings; I’ve always done that business talking to people counting days that’s a given but this is something extra, it’s a whole other thing. I love it, I love doing it, I love talking about it, I like getting responses from people and 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; no I don’t get specific 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?
“Who is on the record? So, 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. Drums; I used four different drummers depending on the songs. We have 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 and 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 ’80’s 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; on “Clean Getaway” I had Bobby Whitlock from Derek and the Dominos play on one song and he did the lead noodlings on “Bottle Let Me Down” but on this one I kept it kind of insular and played all the guitars myself. We did it after the lockdown so we did it by phone and finished it, I’m happy, I love it.”
Every artist seems to have struggles putting together a final product; Byrd reveals that he too has his issues.
“Two things I go crazy over are the order of the songs; the funny part is I drive myself insane with the order and I think to myself; I wonder if they put all of the songs on “Abbey Road” in a hat and just picked them? That would be ironic huh? (laughs) Then the very last thing was; what do we do about a title? On my phone I have like 60 titles that I’ve been collecting for the last two years and I would say three quarters of them probably are awful and the rest of them are used already. I would get a title, get excited about it, Google it and there would be like five albums with that title. Then I was just on the phone with somebody and we were talking about what’s going on in the world right now and I said, oh man these are definitely sobering times and my brain went; really? You went crazy and it was like right there?”
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! I’ve done a couple of recovery events from my basement with a little backdrop here,” he laughed. “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, the record just came out but for the last record I really didn’t do any live stuff except go to treatment facilities and schools and stuff but while I was doing this record, man the guys that played on this record are so great that it would be great to put together a band even if it’s only to do a couple of special gigs or events instead of just me going with my acoustic or whatever. Like if we were hired to play a giant recovery event and I could come in with a whole band and rock the house down; I really want to put together a rock ‘n’ roll band; but where are we going to play? We can’t play bars; I mean we can but the point is that we want people to be able to come who are newly sober so it would have to be theaters or places that we could manipulate into not having booze. I don’t know, we haven’t even gotten that far but it couldn’t be just go on the road and start playing clubs; how do you ask people that are just coming out of treatment to go to clubs?”
So, with an uncertain future Byrd will continue to stay the course. By his estimate he has, “Given away over 2500 copies of “Clean Getaway” at treatment centers across the country” and he sees no reason to veer off anytime soon. Shall you wish to discover more about Ricky Byrd or purchase “Sobering Times,” please visit www.rickybyrd.com