When Travis Meadows sings about hitting rock bottom, you can tell he’s been there. There’s a rawness and pain in his voice that tells you he’s not just playing a character or weaving a narrative. His songs ache with the scars of a hard life. As a child, Meadows’ younger brother drowned, his parents got divorced, and he ended up the odd man out between a mother and a father who started new families and moved on without him. At 14, he was diagnosed with cancer. He survived the disease, but lost his right leg in the battle. Eventually, he turned to alcohol as a crutch. He was already writing songs, and already had a publishing deal in Nashville, but he was such a mess that no one would agree to write with him. It took four trips to rehab before he could make sobriety stick.
Meadows has been off the bottle since 2010. In the interim, songs he’s written have been cut by Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, and Jake Owen—three of the biggest male stars in country music right now. His songs, though, remain haunted by his past. In a recent profile for Uproxx.com, Meadows said that he uses songwriting to admit the secrets about himself that he’s too scared to say out loud. That honesty radiates through First Cigarette, Meadows’ second full-length album and the most starkly intimate LP that anyone has made this year.
“I have days where it’s just nose above water/Keep it together while I fall apart/I have moments when I act just like my father/The only man that ever broke my heart,” Meadows sings in the second verse of “Sideways,” the album’s no-holds-barred mission statement. It’s a song about trying to hide your scars, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and struggles, only to have them find a way to the forefront anyway. “Push it down, it comes out sideways.” Simply put, there are some things you run from that you will never fully escape.
Later in the album, on “First Cigarette,” Meadows revisits a similar theme. “I’ve got lessons on my shoulders/Where the Devil used to live,” he confesses. He knows he can’t run from his past, but he’s also done letting his devils define him. “I’m more curse than I am blessin’,” he sings, “But I can look at my reflection and see hope.”
The confessional nature of the lyrics on First Cigarette gives the album its soul. Hearing Meadows exorcise the demons of his addiction and his long life of challenges is akin to what Jason Isbell did on Southeastern, a similarly stirring rise-from-the-ashes album. But as Meadows sings in the title track, he can see hope now, and there is also considerable hope in these songs. You can hear it in “Pray for Jungleland,” a radiant song about being young and in love, cruising the streets of a small town and waiting for a Springsteen song to come on the radio. You can hear it in “Underdogs,” a ripping anthem that Meadows clearly wrote for people like him—people whose “battle scars” are part of who they are, who can fall down seven times and get up eight.
You can certainly hear it in a song like “Pontiac,” which feels regretful on the surface, but really isn’t. It’s about failure and crushed dreams, and about how those things have value—even if they hurt like hell. “I hope you get your heart broke at least once before you fall in love,” Meadows sings in the chorus. Getting through life without failure is not an option any of us gets. Letting those failures kill your dreams instead of getting up and trying again, though, is a choice. In the song’s key line, he urges listeners to “keep the Pontiac,” as a way to hold on to the innocence and hope of simpler times. Most things from youth are fleeting. Meadows lists a bunch of them—from elementary school snow days to wasted time exploring county backroads—in the verses of this song. But some things can bring those moments back, like a car that still smells exactly like it did back then, or a song that still sounds like 18. And those things can keep you young and keep you strong, even after the tough days that make you want to give up.
If there’s any justice, First Cigarette will make Travis Meadows a breakout star. There probably isn’t. The album—which was produced by Jeremy Spillman, with assistance from Jay Joyce—sounds more like 1977 than 2017, bearing a strong spiritual bond with records from Springsteen’s late 1970s and early 1980s run. For much of it, Meadows, Spillman, and Joyce recorded without click tracks. Many of the songs are sparse and lonesome tunes, mournful in a way that modern rock and country music aren’t. Spillman and Joyce even left the mistakes in, instead of going back and cleaning up the minor imperfections in guitar parts or vocal lines. Add the fact that Meadows is 52 this year, and First Cigarette is probably no one’s pick for “star-making album of the year.”
But, my god, the songs. Back in 2014, Meadows and Steve Moakler wrote a tune called “Riser,” which Dierks Bentley loved so much that he built an album around it. “I’m a riser/I’m a get up off the ground, don’t run and hider,” went the core lyric. Both Bentley and Moakler put the song on their records, but it seems like it was probably Meadows’ experiences that most inspired the words. When he sings it, you feel every ounce of the resilience and resolve that got him to this point. First Cigarette is the same: a raw, aching portrait of defeat and good times gone, but also an earthshaking tribute to the power of the human spirit. There are a lot of sad songs here—perhaps none more than “McDowell Road,” a co-write with David Ramirez that sounds like every regret and missed opportunity you’ve had in your life. “Some roads take you nowhere/Some make you walk alone,” Meadows sings on the bridge. “Some just leave you standing there/’Cause you know you can’t go home/The ones you leave behind you/Man, they haunt you like a ghost/But the ones you never found/Are the ones that’ll kill a man the most.” From what I’ve read of his story, Meadows is a guy who has spent a lifetime regretting both the roads he didn’t take and the ones he did. If this remarkable, life-affirming record says anything, though, it’s that he’s learned to stop wondering what could have been and start focusing on what is. The result is one of 2017’s most profoundly moving pieces of art.