If you pay attention to the local music scene, you know that the Southern Drawl Band dropped off the radar for a little bit in late spring/early summer.
The band, which we wrote a cover story about exactly a year ago, formed around “Nashville” Mike Nash, a singin’, songwritin’ dude who quickly established the band as something special. Playing a mix of hard-driving country and Southern rock with a nod to the classics and some trop-rock flourishes, the group established a monstrous local fanbase, got booked at untold numbers of local venues and even cut a rocked-up, barn-burning version of “Rocky Top,” the video for which got played at Neyland Stadium last season and featured beloved former UT Vols coach Phil Fulmer.
Well, word got out that Mike was sitting in a Florida jail cell, and sure enough, the rumors started flying. Upon his return, they continued to circulate, and while he’s put what happened behind him, he’s pretty well done with the whispers about what went down and agreed to set the record straight. After all, he said, it’s not half as bad as what’s been made up about him.
Mike’s side of the story starts back in 2006, around the same time his music career began. He’d grown up in Nashville and had always played but never thought he could make a living doing it until a July 4th gig at a Cocoa Beach bar netted him some cash. He threw himself into music, but at the same time, he was battling a cocaine addiction, he said.
“I was a high-functioning addict, but I spent a big chunk of my money on drugs,” he said. “I was doing cocaine three or four times a week, because it was all around me in the music scene. And my perception was, I’m not hurting anybody, and I’m not robbing or stealing, so that allowed me to keep going.”
Everything seemed like one big party until he was pulled over one night with a gram of powder and was promptly arrested.
“The thing about it was, they didn’t really make a big deal about it,” he said. “If they’d thrown the book at me, it might have been the catalyst I needed to clean up. But the officer told me, ‘You roll over on three people and we’ll make this go away.’ And I didn’t do that, but the concept behind it kind of minimizes what you’ve done, and that kind of set the tone for me right off the bat. It wasn’t the wake-up call I needed it to be, therefore I didn’t stop doing drugs, even though I was on probation after that. I kept gaming the system.”
The wake-up call that made him put the drugs down came in the form of a phone call on Memorial Day, 2010. His father — 67 “and the picture of health,” Nash said — had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. With his father’s health failing fast, Nash was informed that if he left the state, he would be in violation of his probation. He would be granted a pass to leave temporarily so he could attend the funeral, however.
His reaction: “Are you serious?”
“Here I am, stuck in Florida with my father dying, and I’m trying to go about it the right way and get permission,” he said. “Well, my lawyer called while I was on my way to court and told me my probation officer was pissed that I was going to ask for permission because she thought I was full of it. My lawyer told me, ‘When you get down here, she’s going to try and get you locked up.’
“I thought, ‘I don’t have a choice.’ I rushed home, threw everything I could fit into my truck and split two hours later. You talk about rock bottom — I had moved to Florida because I grew up on beach music and Jimmy Buffett, and I was living my dream down there playing in beach bars. To have it all fall apart in one afternoon was enough of a rock bottom to make me quit drugs for good.”
Nash arrived back home in Tennessee on a Tuesday. His dad died the following Sunday, only two months after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I got to spend his last six days with him, and I got to say everything that I needed to say,” he said.
In the aftermath, he rejected the idea of going back to Florida. His attorney at the time, he said, convinced him he was looking at serious prison time if he returned; besides, his family needed him back home.
“My logic was, ‘I screwed up really bad this time, and I’m going to have to face it one day, but now is not the time to face it,’” he said. “So I moved in with my mom, took care of her and the yard and kept playing music.”
He eventually came to Knoxville, started out doing solo shows and quickly established Southern Drawl. He credits his renewed focus and quitting drugs for much of the band’s success.
“That’s been one of my biggest drives, the thinking that I’ve got time to make up for, that I’ve got to make up for the eight years I wasted,” he said. “And in my mind, I thought if I could get to some level of fame or fortune, I could write a check and make the whole thing go away. I knew I’d have to face it one day, but it was easier to not think about.”
Fast forward to April 18 of this year: The Southern Drawl Band was rocking the house at a bar in Destin, Fla. It was not the first time the group had played in the state, and after returning for gigs with his new group, Nash had pretty much assumed Florida authorities had forgotten about him. It even took a minute when three police officers walked into the establishment, walked up to the stage and motioned for the band to cut the music.
“I leaned down and said, ‘Are we too loud or something?’” he said with a chuckle. “One of the officers said, ‘You and me need to go talk.’ And I thought, ‘Uh oh. I know what this is about.’”
He’d informed (most) of his bandmates, so they were aware of his past troubles. They tried to figure out what to do while Nash was cuffed and stuffed. Nash himself was reeling. Like many times before in his life, however, music provided reassurance.
“I’m sitting in the van while they’re writing up the papers, and my whole world has just collapsed, when on the radio came ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain,’” he said. “That was my dad’s funeral song. As soon as I heard that, it was a rush of relief, because I felt like that was my father telling me that it’s going to be OK.”
At first, the judicial system treated him like a fugitive, he said; because he’d been performing for a while as “Nashville Mike,” they accused him of adopting an assumed name and staying on the run. His new lawyer kept reassuring him, but the first available court date was June 11 — and that date came and went because the judge was involved in another trial. It appeared as if he would remain in jail until Aug. 3, but his lawyer finally scheduled a hearing, and Nash went before the judge to plead his case.
“My family was there, my agent was there, and after I told the judge my story, he said, ‘You’re done,’” Nash said. “I just started crying, thanking him for giving me my life back, because I feel like I’ve earned it. I’ve worked so hard to build this, and I’ve done it the right way. I’ve had some falling outs, but I’ve patched things up with (former members) Rich (Killingsworth) and Melanie (Howe). Now it’s all over, and my life will be mine again for the first time in five years — and really, for the first time in 14 years, since I started cocaine.
“My life is finally on track, and I’ve earned everything I have now. I’ve worked hard, and I’m happy. I’m living my dream — touring the country and playing my music for the people who want to hear it.”
The Southern Drawl Band is currently touring the country, performing in North Dakota this weekend before heading down to Texas, California and Florida, finally winding back home in East Tennessee at the end of the month. The next East Tennessee performance is Sept. 5 at Quaker Steak and Lube in Knoxville, followed by a performance at the Tennessee Valley Fair on Sept. 14.