Travis Meadows has lived a life of adversity — but as he predicted in his 2011 song “It Gets Better,” life did, in fact, get better.
The Nashville-based singer-songwriter, known for both his solo work and for penning songs like Eric Church’s “Dark Side,” has overcome strife in the forms of loss, cancer and addiction. He credits his resilience, in part, to the Recording Academy’s MusiCares, a nonprofit health and human service organization that helps members of the music industry in times of financial, medical, and personal hardship.
“It’s quite a journey we’re on, and I’m truly grateful for every inch I gain,” Meadows, 54, tells PEOPLE. “Thank God there’s these guardian angels called MusiCares to help point you in the right direction.”
Meadows was born in Mississippi to two teenage parents whom he describes as being “too young to be having kids.”
“Nobody told me, but I’m pretty sure I was probably conceived in the backseat of a car,” he says in his Mississippi drawl.
At the age of 2, Meadows watched his baby brother drown in a lake. After that, his grandparents took him in and raised him.
“I always had a little bit of an unwanted child complex,” he says. “Everything else was pretty normal. I was spoiled a lot. I got a set of drums when I was 10 years old and started playing and got my head around that pretty good.”
At 14 years old, Meadows’ life was again changed forever when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was very challenging to go through puberty and cancer at the same time, I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody,” he says. “It was pretty horrible.”
When he first went to the doctor, Meadows was told that he had a cyst and that he should have some blood work tested at MD Anderson in Houston, which is one of the world’s leading centers devoted exclusively to cancer patient care, research, education and prevention.
“That doctor walked in and he said, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ I said, ‘Well one of the doctors back home said that I have a cyst,’” Meadows explains. “He said, ‘Well you have cancer and there is a high probability that you could die. You may lose your right leg and when we give you chemotherapy, you’re probably going to lose your hair as well. Do you have any questions?’ I was so overwhelmed with the hammer to the face that I said, ‘No I don’t think I have any questions.’”
Two thirds of everything that the doctor told Meadows was going to happen, happened. He lost his right leg, his hair and, additionally, a great portion of his hearing from the chemotherapy treatments — but, he was able to hold on to his life.
“I remember my uncle pulling me aside after getting out of the hospital and he said, ‘I never would have told you this while you were in the hospital, but the doctors secretly told us that they were pretty certain that you had a 100 percent chance of dying — so you’re a miracle boy,’” he says. “I’m ashamed to have come that close to death and get a second chance on life and still spiral out in my 30s, but life happens.”
After getting out of the hospital, Meadows says he had a hard time finding a job because most places determined him to be “a liability.”
“I couldn’t really find a place in the world,” he says. “I always felt like I was on the outside looking in.”
When he was 21 years old, Meadows moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee with the intention to “play bluegrass music and smoke weed.” But when he found out how hard bluegrass was to play, he says he “opted for just smoking weed” instead.
“While I was up there, there was a little deli-café where some guys played and they had a tip jar,” he says. “They would play James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Bob Dylan. I did not hear well, but I felt music more than I actually heard what was going on. I actually could hear the lyrics of this one guy singing a song with his guitar. It was really kind of life-changing for me.”
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s got to be $20 or $30 in that tip jar, this is a lot of money! To come up with $20 or $30 a day, I’d be rich,’” he continues. “So I asked the lady if I could sit in and play a couple of songs for the lunch crowd and she ignorantly said, ‘Yes.’”
Meadows only knew how to play three songs at first, so he’d tell the lunch crowd that he was going to take a break and be right back after he finished playing them. He would wait for that some group to finish up their sandwiches and leave before going back out and playing the same three songs to a new crowd. He slowly built up his repertoire and by the end of that summer, he knew how to play 150 songs, many of which were his own.
“That was the start of a singer-songwriter career for me,” he says.
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Meadows didn’t move to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career until he was 38 years old, and as he puts it, “I take the long way going everywhere.”
“It took me a while to put two and two together and Nashville seemed to be the place where that was happening, so I moved there and I had a one-year-old child and everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,” he says. “I had a lot of crises all at the same time. I had a marriage crisis, a mid-life crisis of faith and a career crisis all at the same time. I just kind of crashed and burned and started drinking really heavily to the point that within a few years, I was spiraling completely.”
While Meadows was battling addiction, he hadn’t even heard of MusiCares. After he finally put his “white flag in the air” and said, “I don’t know what to do, but I can’t do this anymore,” somebody called the organization for him. By the next morning, MusiCares had him in a treatment facility.
“It was absolutely life-changing for me,” he says. “They just do so much great work. They’ve helped me more than once for different things, and I bet you I know at least 10 or 15 people personally that have been helped in the same way by this amazing organization.”
The first way MusiCares helped Meadows was by paying for his 28 day program in a Nashville treatment facility. Then they helped pay for a hearing aid and helped him acquire new parts for his leg to get around on.
“They’re spending millions of dollars a year and helping hundreds of thousands of people in all kinds of crises and emergencies,” he says. “They’re pretty incredible. Because of the impact that they had on my life, I’m having an impact on other people’s lives talking about the miracle that I received.”
Over the past 10 years, MusiCares has provided close to $10 million dollars in assistance to more than 3,250 substance abuse clients. Across all of its programs and services, MusiCares has served close to 150,000 clients since 1989, distributing more than $60 million to music people in need.
While in treatment, one of Meadows’ counselors suggested that he keep a journal so that he could track his progress. So he went on to document and write songs about getting sober.
“One song turned into two and two turned into 10 and it wound up being a record called Killin' Uncle Buzzy that not only changed my life, but now they’re playing some of those songs in treatment facilities all over America — what a gift,” he says. “I dare say that I have a music career today because MusiCares took a chance on me all those years ago.”
During Meadows’ time in treatment, which he says didn’t allow things like CD players or Walkmans because they thought they might be distractions, Jake Owen had recorded and released a demo of one of his songs called “Cherry On Top.”
“My friend brought the demo up there, and I went and talked to my counselor and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been working my whole life to get a song on the radio and this just got recorded by this guy and I need to hear this. I’m going to leave here if you don’t let me hear this song,’” he says. “So they got me a jam box and I put the CD in there and they let me listen to it. There were a lot of things that gave me hope and inspiration, but hearing that song while I was still in treatment was huge and it really indicated that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel and that I could have something that resembled a life as opposed to the chaos that it was before. Jake Owen has been very kind to me through the years.”
Since then, Meadows has also penned tracks and collaborated with country-heavyweights like Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Brandy Clark, Hank Williams, Jr., Randy Houser and Wynonna Judd.
Meadows’ latest album, 2017’s First Cigarette, even features a song called “Underdogs” which he wrote with Judd’s husband, Michael Scott “Cactus” Moser, who lost his leg after a Harley Davidson motorcycle accident in 2012.
“Him and I were writing and he didn’t know I was missing a leg and he would say something like, ‘Man, you know, it’s the weirdest thing, I can still wiggle my toes.’ I was like, ‘I know,’” he says. “By the third time he said, ‘How the hell do you know?’ I told him that I had lost my leg when I was 14, and then we just hit it off and were best buds. He was producing Wynonna Judd’s record and he started playing her songs of mine and the next thing I know, I’m getting these texts from Wynonna Judd saying how amazing I was as a writer and that I was one of her favorite writers. That was a pretty surreal experience because I was always a huge fan of the Judds’. So having her text me on my personal phone was a big deal.”
Even though Meadows has been sober since 2010, he still attends meetings and talks to people who are also in recovery (including his wife) when he can.
“Sobriety, to me now, is pretty much everything,” he says. “I’m no good to anybody if I’m not sober. I’m still doing pretty much the same things that I’ve been doing since the beginning. It’s a big deal and very important to me.”
Now, Meadows is remarried to a “lovely bride” who is “doing good” after recently battling breast cancer, and his son is 16-years-old. These days, he says he finally feels comfortable in his own skin and that he’s “as content” as ever.
What’s more, he’s in the early stages of writing and recording a new album which he hopes to put out by the end of this year.
“I’m very happy, very grateful for the place that I’m in now,” he says. “My records are a little bit dark in content and you can hear the struggle — that’s where my fan base came from. I’m actually a little nervous [since] I’m getting ready to do a new record and I don’t have anything to be depressed about!”
MusiCares’ annual tribute concert, which will honor Dolly Parton this year, is set to take place in Los Angeles on Feb. 8 ahead of the 61st Grammy Awards. The award show will be broadcast live from the Staples Center at 8:00 p.m. ET on Feb. 10.
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