When singer/guitarist Ricky Byrd looks back upon the Big Moments of his life, it would be pretty hard to beat the evening of April 18, 2015. There’s when on the stage of Cleveland’s Public Hall, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
And then he took part in a collaboration that the teenaged Byrd couldn’t possibly imagine. In the all-star finale jam at the end, there he was face-to-face with Paul McCartney, ripping off the solo to the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man.” And behind him on the drum stool and singing sat the other surviving Fab, Ringo Starr.
Amazingly, it wasn’t that performance (with Byrd decked out in a Howlin’ Wolf T-shirt) that he says was the most nerve-wracking moment. Instead, it was the speech that he gave—and who was in his field of vision.
“I was trying not to look down because at that table in front of me was Paul, Ringo, Joe Walsh, their wives, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Yoko Ono. Can you imagine trying to give a speech to that group!” Byrd laughs.
“So that made me nervous. But once I put the guitar around me, that’s what I do. And I have to thank Joan for bringing me along on that journey. The night was kind of a blur. It was bunch of wonderful people, a cool night, and at the end we were just all in a giant band. I mean, Stevie Wonder was playing harp on my left! It was surreal.”
In a sense, Byrd came full circle since he’s always said how seeing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones perform on The Ed Sullivan Show is was set his life and career path to rock and roll in the first place. And as he mentioned in his induction speech, rock and roll saved him from a life “working the men’s cologne counter at Macy’s.”
Today, the 64-year-old Ricky Byrd’s focus is still on music, but also about another topic he’s intimately familiar with: continuing recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
Byrd began his sober journey in 1987, and 30 years later he released the record Clean Getaway, full of songs directly about the topic. He obviously had more to say about it, because the follow up Sobering Times (Kayos Records, out April 9), features 12 tracks focusing on addiction, recovery, and hope.
The titles speak for themselves: “Quittin’ Time (Again)”, “I Come Back Stronger,” “Recover Me,” “I Ain’t Gonna Live Like That,” “Pour Me,” “Life Is Good,” and a cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” But don’t think that means the tunes are preachy and treacly: this is nothing if not a real rock and roll record.
“When I finish a record and it runs its course, I’ll pick up the guitar and usually the tank is empty. But a month later, a chord pattern might come out. And then I’ll start mumbling a melody into a recorder and then the lyrics start coming,” Byrd says. “And after Clean Getaway, I found out I was writing about a lot of the same things, so I just went with it. The one thing I did want to do on this one is widen the lane a bit, so it could be [applicable] to other things in life as well.”
Byrd had been performing much of the material as a self-described “Recovery Troubadour.” He regularly plays acoustically at recovery gatherings, treatment centers, and conferences for fellow recovering addicts and medical professionals, mixing his life story, music, and inspirational words to his audiences while opening up a conversation.
“I do my Recovery Music Groups in these facilities and juvenile detention centers and would throw [songs] out there to see if I got a reaction. It’s like taking a show on the road before you get to Broadway,” Byrd says. “I’m not trying to write hit songs. I want to identify things to people to help change their lives. But it’s not all serious—there’s some humor in there too! It’s still a loud rock and roll record.”
As for his own story, Byrd says there wasn’t some Big Movie Moment where he saw hit rock bottom and changed immediately and successfully within an instant. “I didn’t have a ‘white light moment,’ I just knew I was out of dance tickets,” he says. “I was looking into the mirror at the end of a long night and just thought ‘This is not going to end well.’ That’s when I called someone who was in recovery and he took me to my first community support group meeting. That was the beginning, and I love the camaraderie. Come to think if it, that’s also probably the reason I joined a band in the first place!”
As to how his chosen profession might have contributed to his past addictions in a way that wouldn’t be the case with, say, another job, Byrd concedes that access to drugs and alcohol was far easier. “When you’re on the road, everyone wants to get the guitar player high,” he offers. Byrd also notes alcoholism runs in his family: his father and grandfather both died “as a direct result” of the disease, and his uncle has been in recovery for more than four decades.
Byrd has even gone steps further and is now a both a CASAC T (Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor) and CARC (Certified Addiction Recovery Coach), winning numerous awards for his work. In “Just Like You,” Byrd sings “To get to that feelin’ of feelin’ numb/There ain’t nothing you won’t do/I know that you think you’re the only one/I was just like you.” He estimates he’s given away about 2,500 of copies of Clean Getaway at recovery-related events, and plans to do the same with Sobering Times, hoping that other purchases will help balance out the cost.
Of course, Ricky Byrd is best known as a member of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts from 1981-1991. He played on the band’s classic era hits like “Light of Day,” “I Hate Myself of Loving You,” “Fake Friends,” “The French Song,” “Backlash,” and hit covers of “Everyday People” (Sly & the Family Stone), “Crimson and Clover” (Tommy James and the Shondells), and the band’s biggest and most enduring hit, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” (The Arrows).
Byrd would often play it in New York clubs with Arrows singer/bassist Alan Merrill, who co-wrote the song with guitarist Jake Hooker. Merrill died in March 2020 at the age of 69 from COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.
“We recorded it, and then we hit the road. The record came out and climbed higher and higher until it hit #1. We were in this kind of tornado,” Byrd says. “And the crowds got bigger. Then we went from touring in a Winnebago to a tour bus, and then two tour buses. But it’s a great song and of the time. Not much sounded like it on the radio at the time, it was raw, crunchy rock and roll. And it’s got an anthemic chorus with a really simple riff.”
Byrd says the song might even prompt a call from a close relative—his mother. “My mom lives in Florida, and she’ll tell me ‘I heard the song in Publix!’” Byrd laughs. “And she has no problem stopping people in the frozen food section and going ‘That’s my son!’”
For more on Ricky Byrd or to order an autographed copy of Sobering Times, visit RickyByrd.com
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.