Doug Seegers Beyond The “Homeless Man Made Star” Story
The story of the homeless Nashville singer-songwriter done good named Doug Seegers crossed the Saving Country Music news desk early on in the story’s cycle, before big outlets like NPR and the Wall St. Journal were running big features on the heartwarming tale, but for whatever reason, a story that seemed like it was fit for telling filled me with a bit of trepidation. Even though early samples of Seeger’s songs seemed quite promising, and so was the news that artists like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller were involved in an upcoming album, there was just something philosophical keeping me from really buying in to the story 100% as a testament to the human spirit, and the spirit of giving that everyone was making it out to be.
Homelessness is such a complex issue, and it’s so easy for people who have their positions secured in the social net to look at a homeless person as a product of laziness, or a problem of governmental neglect, when really what causes someone to slip through the cracks is an involved set of circumstances that includes fluid details of mental illness, addiction, lack of familial support, and so many other factors. What caused Doug Seegers to go from living in upstate New York with a wife and two kids to living on the streets of Nashville? The way the story was being presented was almost a little too Hallmark Channel and heartwarming. I needed to actually hear the music before I held the Doug Seegers story in some high regard.
And no offense to Doug Seegers, but why should he be chosen to be picked off the street and have a big production album made for him when there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of other artists out there patiently waiting their turn that may deserve this chance just as much, if not more, including artists who have shown initiative and self-discipline and reliance over years, making them arguably more worthy of investment?
As the story goes, Doug Seegers was a musician in Austin, TX and New York before he got married and moved upstate. At some point he showed up in Nashville by himself, and was living on the streets and hanging around The Little Pantry That Could in west Nashville, playing and singing at songwriter nights. Then through a set of circumstances, he was discovered by a Swedish television crew that happened to be in Nashville filming. The host Jill Johnson heard about Doug from a street food vendor who told her Doug could sing. The film crew found Seeger who played his song “Going Down To The River” for them, and later the show came back and taped a Doug Seegers performance at Johnny Cash’s recording cabin outside of town. When the Doug Seegers episode eventually aired in Sweden, Seegers became a cultural phenomenon in the country, and he was subsequently signed by Lionheart Music Group to record and release the Going Down To The River album.
Emmylou Harris was brought in to sing on a Gram Parsons song, and Buddy Miller who apparently knew Seegers from his days as an Austin musician was also brought on board. Will Kimbrough was named as the producer, and by the time Going Down To The River was released in Sweden, Doug Seeger’s popularity was such that it shot to #1 on the charts and was quickly certified Gold, helped along by a 60-date tour and a big festival appearance by Seegers in the Scandinavian country.
But was this a symptom of hype, or the result of good country music? The allure of a story about finding a diamond in the rough on the streets of Nashville, polishing him up, and making him a superstar is the perfect type of romantic notion for a Swedish television audience swept up in the fantasy of American culture, but would Doug Seegers’ music translate to even a viable listening product for well-cultured country music ears here in the States? We couldn’t even tell completely until October 8th when Going Down To The River finally received its U.S. release, nearly half a year after the songwriter had become a Swedish television and cultural icon.
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Featuring Gram Parson’s noted composition “She,” the classic Hank Williams song “There Will Be Teardrops Tonight,” and ten original songs penned solely by Seegers, Going Down To The River presents a troubled, but gentle and sweet man with a lifetime of pent up stories to tell, and a tear-soaked voice that despite its noticeable toothless lisp, conveys tremendous emotion and evidences remarkable phrasing instincts and delicate control. Going Down To The River has a classic, late 70’s smooth country feel to it with a traditional heart and a small taste of the blues, seeming to evoke the period stylings of the original era when Seegers’ songs were likely written many years ago.
“Down To The River” is the song that started all the Doug Seegers Swedish hype, and the classic story of atoning for sins in the muddy waters of the American South is done with such original flare and is a perfect exhibition for Seegers’ vocal strengths, the song feels worthy of its international praise. But “Angie’s Song”—the first song on the album—may just be the gem of the entire endeavor. Excellently written and tastefully produced, it’s the sound of Otis Redding meeting Hank Williams, and the warm love story at the heart of the song truly makes it something special.
There’s really not a slouch on this album. The songwriting and singing evidenced by Seegers on one track after another are really a remarkable display of the talent that can be picked off the Nashville streets and shine with a little polishing. “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” and “Pour Me” are pure, classic country songs plain and simple, and so is “Gotta Catch A Train” and “Burning a Hole In My Pocket.” And when I talk about how country some of these compositions are, I’m talking so classic and sweet, with just the right amount of steel guitar and laid back drumming and bass, you feel like you were listening to what Hank may have recorded if he’d lived a little longer and had a little more Motown or Memphis in his voice.
Even the two covers were handled so well they didn’t stick out as foreign to this song list, and if you notice these were the two songs Seegers collaborate with Emmylou and Buddy Miller on, leaving his original compositions as you may have heard them at the Little Pantry That Could songwriter showcases in west Nashville. Some of the more bluesy numbers, like the last song “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again,” and “Hard Working Man” felt a little out of place on what is overall a very classic-sounding country album, but this might have been Will Kimbrough doing his best on what probably are the album’s weakest tracks artistically.
It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted.
Once again, the European appetite and ear for American country music, and the willingness to dig deeper and offer support to worthy artists, wins out over the efforts of country music’s home once again. Of course Doug Seegers was a homeless man living on the streets, because that’s about the assessment of value American society has placed upon the classic style of country music. Doug Seegers may have demons in his back pockets or skeletons in his closets yet to be revealed, and he may have had his entire life to write this album. But Going Down To The River is as good of a classic country album as you will hear all year from anyone.
Two guns up.
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October 15, 2014 @ 9:48 am
There is a great interview with him on Sirius. It was the Buddy & Jim show on Outlaw Country. Probably still listen on demand.
October 15, 2014 @ 10:28 am
Jeez, it’s not Unknown Hinson getting serious is it?
Junior Brown – They Don’t Choose to Live That Way. Best song I heard to dispel myths about homelessness.
October 16, 2014 @ 11:53 am
Men with broken hearts – Hank Williams is a good one too.
October 15, 2014 @ 11:19 am
I bought his album on the strength of the video of his live rendition of “Going Down to the River.” I like it.
Bigfoot is Real (and getting more real every minute)
October 15, 2014 @ 12:14 pm
Excellent stuff. Hope all goes well for him and he makes the most of this amazing opportunity.
October 15, 2014 @ 1:26 pm
Wasn’t sure at first, but love the approach you took with this one, Trigger. Great story, even better music. And although I usually like the production a little on the raw side, I think this is one of the better produced albums I’ve heard all year. Perfect for that 70’s vibe that he’s got going on. Great listen!
October 15, 2014 @ 1:48 pm
I thought the production on this album really shined aside from the two bluesy tracks. There were many different directions this could have taken, but there will be time to isolate Doug in a more stripped down setting in the future.
October 15, 2014 @ 2:20 pm
Will Kimbrough is one of Nashville’s true bright lights, and his production on this album truly shines. Also check out Kimbrough’s ‘Sideshow Love’ album. It’s one of my favorites of the year.
As for the album itself, it’s vying with the Kansas City Royals as the feel-good story of the year. So many times there are albums that don’t live up to the accompanying great backstory. This is an exception and a definite Top Ten contender.
October 15, 2014 @ 2:42 pm
October 15, 2014 @ 3:23 pm
Does iTunes not pay a rebate ala Amazon?
I ask because iTunes gives (usually) a 90 second preview which is infinitely better than the 30 you get with Amazon.
Never heard Emmylou on the Amazon title track.
October 15, 2014 @ 3:56 pm
No, iTunes does not pay referral fees to anyone, but as I always tell people, purchase music where you’re most comfortable. If you can help the site out a little by purchasing through Amazon links or by using the search window on non-music items, great. But were not talking loads of money here anyway, so if you prefer iTunes, please don’t feel guilty.
October 15, 2014 @ 4:28 pm
Thanks, thought so.
And what you didn’t mention on principle or pride, folks who appreciate what you do with this site can always tap the yellow DONATE button (which should be more prominent) in the upper right corner. Even $1 directly is much more that you’d get from Amazon I reckon. Even $5 or $10 is a small price to pay for your service to the genre and introductions to music otherwise missable.
Thx again. For everything.
October 16, 2014 @ 1:18 am
I’m so glad you wrote this review, Trig! I was passing on this album (using it as a coaster on my desk) for a week. I haven’t stopped listening to it since I got home!
Maybe it’s cause I already have a Ray Lawrence Jr. on my listening roster or maybe like you stated the story seemed to commercially manipulated – I don’t know. But it’s fucking great!
Seegers even made Buddy Miller sound inspired; I initially thought that was Ronnie Dunn crashing in on ‘Teardrops.’ And of course Harris predictably contributed on ‘She.’ Cowboy Junkies and who else has jumped into bed with her and that song?
Like you stated, the originals are what shine on this album.
October 16, 2014 @ 6:37 am
,i>Seegers even made Buddy Miller sound inspired
I’m glad you like the album, but really? Have you heard much from Buddy’s five solo albums or the two Buddy and Julie albums? I personally treasure those albums and uninspired is not a word I would use to describe him on those efforts. For example:
I even think the Majestic Silver Strings album, which is more of an ensemble effort, is pretty damn good. The only with his name on it that I think is somewhat lackluster is the Buddy and Jim album, which I think is less than the sum of its parts. I really wish he would put out another solo album. It’s been about 10 years since the last one.
October 16, 2014 @ 12:24 pm
During my last itunes purge, I deleted “Written in Chalk” and “Buddy and Jim” (but I kept “Cruel Moon”). I just find most of that Americana genre sleepy, uninspired and boring – a matter of taste, that’s all. I feel artists like Emmylou, Buddy, and Crowell mail it in on most of their albums. Patty Griffin’s “American Kid” being the exception the last few years.
I saw Buddy Miller open for Emmylou Harris (2001, maybe). They performed ‘Showman’s Life’ together – that was cool. I love the song “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”; I remember Buddy and Julie on the ACM stage performing it with Womack – awesome. I have a lot of respect for him as a songwriter and a master of his trade, but his album output of late isn’t my style.
October 17, 2014 @ 9:23 am
I miss Buddy Miller as a regular recording and touring artist. He made 5 solo albums (plus the first Buddy and Julie album) between 1995 and 2004. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite of those 5 as I thought they were all great. Plus, I would say he was one of the more overtly country of those artists tagged with the alt.country/Americana label. Also, he toured on his own or with Julie more regularly back then. Saw him a few times inthe early oughts and he always delivered. I guess his priorities now are more about producing and that TV show. Plus he headed up Robert Plant’s Band of Joy for a while.
October 16, 2014 @ 3:24 am
Wow. It’s the first time I saw the documentary. I was told about this guy when I recently went to Stockholm, Sweden (to see Sturgill Simpson, which is as good a reason as any to visit this beautiful town)
I did not know Magnus Carlson was involved in this story. His band, the Weeping Willows, is fantastic and well worth seeking out. They’ve dabbled in Indie pop and the song “Touch Me”, which has probably been their biggest success, is indicative of that phase. But mostly they’ve been doing opulent classic Sixties-pop of the Roy Orbison kind.
Check out this beautiful cover of “Rambling Man” they did for a Finnish TV show (their version actually made me buy my first Hank Williams CD)
October 18, 2014 @ 10:37 am
Thanks for the review. Couldn’t agree more, loving this album. Great production and has that touch of late 70s gold that is rare to find these days. He is certainly worthy of the acclaim. Kind of embarrassing that it continues to be Europeans that are finding and promoting the best of American country music (besides savingcountrymusic.com, of course). God bless them though for doing it! Kind of reminds me of how it took the British rockers like the Stones to “discover” and popularize the Chicago blues artists, that were relatively unknown by the masses in their country of origin.