It’s just your typical Music City story.
A frequently homeless, 62-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist gets discovered at a Nashville food pantry by a Swedish country music star, who helps him from the streets to superstardom in a country best known for Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and the like.
“What’s Abba?” asks Doug Seegers, in a voice free of irony.
Seegers isn’t much into pop music. He grew up on the hard-country sounds of Hank Williams, and came to adore the heart-first country-rock that Gram Parsons made with the assistance of young harmony vocalist Emmylou Harris.
Those influences are present on Seegers’ remarkable debut album, Going Down To The River, a fully realized version of the music he has been making on Nashville streets for decades. Before that, he was making it in New York, Austin and other locales.
“I’ve made a ton of money playing out in the street,” he says, slight Southern flair dosing the accent of his Long Island youth and his post-grad years in the Big Apple, where he lived in abandoned buildings, “ate and breathed everything John Lennon” while playing for tips in downtown Manhattan.
Guided by his guitar, he wound his way to Austin, Texas, where he became “Duke the Drifter” – a playful twist on Hank Williams’ “Luke the Drifter” moniker, the name under which country’s often-impaired superstar delivered Christian music and recitation.
In Austin, Doug/Duke teamed up with now-Nashville (music) and Nashville (the television show) Grammy-honored musician Buddy Miller. (That friendship, by the way, was recently reignited thanks to the Swedish recording project on which Miller, who is among Seegers’ ardent backers, appears.)
In Austin, the former John Lennon wannabe came under the spell of not only Parsons and Harris but of other country-rock-stylists like Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and The Byrds. “They took me back to country music,” he joyfully testifies.
Somewhere in the timeline “I left Austin to go home and get married and raise my children in Upstate New York. I stayed with my wife quite awhile.”
But he dreamed of Nashville. “Right after my son grew up, maybe 16; I decided it was time to go to Nashville. I had two kids and I wasn’t about to leave them.
“So I went out for a ride with my son one day, and I asked him what he thought about me moving to Nashville to play music. He said he was cool with it.”
The lamentation in his voice is perhaps because he misses his son. Or perhaps it’s because he’s calling from Sweden and he misses his Nashville street corners.“I played all over Nashville. But one of my favorite spots is sitting in front of the Goodwill at Charlotte and 54th (in West Nashville), just across from a record store and a Laundromat.
“Goodwill is a Christian organization. I’ve been sitting in front of that store for 18 years. Only on Saturdays, though, and only if it’s nice and warm.”
Plenty of time also was spent among the buskers who open guitar cases and sing for tips in Nashville’s neonlit Lower Broadway tourist district. He was among the faceless chasing the impossible dream, most-often hurried past to an accompaniment of hushed tones by tourists and musical elite. Brilliant, with a satchel of magical, big-time-writer-worthy life-songs, he went virtually unnoticed.
In an era when country music brass find stars on televised singing competitions, Doug, musical brilliance hiding in plain sight, went ignored while his crystal-country voice offered songs from the heart rather than the Music Row assembly line.
“Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, well, they are songwriters. I’m just a person that likes to write songs. That’s a big difference,” Doug says, when complimented on the collection on the album that made him a star in Sweden and, he hopes, will finally launch a real career in the States.
Even so, he admits joy in the process of rhyming words to acoustic accompaniment. “It’s a free therapy session. That’s pretty much how I describe my craft if someone was to ask me how I define songwriting in general.
“Everyone is different, there’s so many approaches to writing words, whether it is a poem or a letter to a girlfriend.” One of the tracks on his album, “Angie’s Song,” is a little of both. “I woke up one morning and I was really sad that she was in jail.
My heart was mourning for her. I said I wish there was some way I could make this girl feel better while she is in jail.
“All the songs on this album are important to me but I guess if I was going to narrow down one song it would have to be ‘Angie’s Song.’ She has some bad habits, as do I.”
It’s one of the songs grabbing Swedish hearts. “Been here, playing every day,” he says. “I’m way up in North Sweden. I really don’t know the names of these places. I just get led around by my booking agent guy who I’m traveling with. He brings me to the club, shows me where it is.”
But this isn’t strictly a club tour. Other times he’ll open for Neil Young or Dwight Yoakam, appropriately rootsy stage companions.
“I’ve been doing these sold-out shows, where people are coming up to me and wanting my autograph.” Often pleasing, it’s sometimes baffling to a guy who spent much of his life either on the streets … or at least teetering on half-empty vodka bottles at the brink of homelessness.
It was in seeking redemption that he was “discovered.” He’d decided he could put down the booze and take his best shot at the Nashville dream or he could flourish as a drunken street performer in a town filled with such souls.
“I am totally done with the drugs and the drinking. … And I made my commitment to God and God started shining in my life.”
During his self-reclamation, Doug received encouragement (and food and guitar strings) from Stacy Downey, who runs “The Little Pantry That Could,” a charity serving the hungry of West Nashville.
Jill Johnson, the previously mentioned Swedish country star, in Nashville to do a documentary about down-and-out musicians, learned of Downey’s charity and was especially interested in the Pantry’s singer-songwriter nights, where Doug and kindred spirits entertained and encouraged each other.
Downey knew many fellows with worn guitars, busted strings and frayed hopes, but one person she was sure the Swede should meet was Doug.
Today’s Swedish superstardom was born when Doug sat on the grass by Johnson and sang “I’m going down to the river, to wash my soul again/I been running with the devil, and I know he is not my friend.”
The startlingly powerful song and pure voice changed Johnson’s mission. Her focus became this man, weathered of soul and spirit, so she took him to the Cash Cabin – where John and June created magic – to record the rough-edged fairy tale of redemption.
Going Down To The River became an instant sensation when it was rolled out in Sweden, topping the iTunes chart. This guy Johnson found on the streets of Nashville, a gentle but battered soul who was both unheard-of and unheard in Music Row’s corporate suites, was an overnight sensation in Scandinavia.
And that success fueled a desire to capture more of Doug’s music. A three-day flurry of recording followed at Nashville’s legendary Sound Emporium – an iconic studio founded by the late Cowboy Jack Clement, a Country Music Hall of Fame member and pal of Johnny Cash, who, of course, had recorded there. So had Emmylou, Taylor Swift, Elvis Costello and so many greats. The formerly homeless street singer was making music in hallowed space.
Produced by Will Kimbrough, the album features a duet with Country Music Hall of Famer Harris on Parsons’ “She,” which features instrumental assistance from members of Emmylou’s Red Dirt Boys Band and from steel guitar legend Al Perkins.
And then there’s Miller, whose participation was a lucky accident. During his own musical rambling that eventually brought him to Nashville, where he is widely and wildly regarded as a kingpin of Americana as well as about every other form of music, he’d lost track of Duke the Drifter, a regular houseguest back in their Austin days.
When Kimbrough, another highly regarded citizen of Music City, began to produce this album, he reached out to Miller, who he hoped would sing and play a bit of guitar during these sessions he was producing by a formerly homeless busker who had been featured on Swedish TV and had this MONSTER hit in Scandinavia.
Miller politely declined (he’s as polite as he is busy) Kimbrough’s request…. until a follow-up message pointed out that Doug the busker was Miller’s long-ago pal “Duke the Drifter.”
Miller not only participated, he became a tireless advocate.
While “She” and title song “Going Down to the River” carry the most emotional weight, the album includes everything from Texas swing dance-floor gem in “Hard-Working Man” to woe-is-me heartacher in “Pour Me” to shuffling “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again” … songs sampling steel, sadness and celebration.
Every song on the album would be right at home on nicotine-stained jukeboxes in every roadhouse in America. They also, of course, have helped this hard-timer conquer stages in Sweden, tuning him up for success in his homeland as well.
This stardom thing, well, predictably it’s tough for this country-and-western Pygmalion, literally lifted from the streets of Guitar Town and whisked off to Scandinavian superstardom.
“I’ve always wanted to be someone who has the opportunity to get his music heard. If there was some other way to do it, I would totally be interested in it,” says Doug.
“But there are good things about fame. When you have a reputation for yourself, people spend more time listening to your music.”