Lady A’s Charles Kelley Has a Smart Approach to Staying Sober
THE PROS and cons of being a sober country star are well-balanced. On one hand: If you slip up, some guy in some bar who is quick with his phone will make sure everyone knows it. On the other hand: The resources available to you are unbounded, and you can call up Tim McGraw for advice.
But the refrains of sobriety often sound the same whether you’re 41-year-old Charles Kelley, colead singer of Lady A, or one of the folks in his audience. “In almost every story, there’s a tinge of similarity,” Kelley says. He’s been attending men’s recovery meetings for several months now, listening to the stories of others. “How you can justify it. How you hide your drinking. How you say, ‘Oh, I just had a couple on the golf course.’ Which really meant . . . six.”
Likewise with “just one glass of wine,” which is what Kelley told his wife, Cassie McConnell Kelley, over dinner in Paris this past spring. He had been trying to quit drinking “on my own,” he says, since January 2022. It was his third attempt at sobriety. The first was six or seven years ago, at the urging of his bandmates, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood. After that dinner, he slipped back into a cycle of escalating drinking—once he was home, it was two glasses, then three, then he was right back in it—that jammed to a halt this past summer, when he and Cassie were on vacation with friends in Greece. Kelley doesn’t feel that he ever hit the proverbial “crashing a car in a ditch” rock bottom. But this time, his decision to stop drinking felt different. “This is the first time I actually put tools in place,” he told his bandmates, who were supportive but skeptical after witnessing previous attempts. There would be no more “on my own.”
When we speak one morning in October, Kelley has been sober for a little more than three months, a triumph he largely attributes to the support of the people around him. He is sitting in his high–ceilinged home in Nashville, framed by two big, arched, white-grilled windows with white curtains, next to an ornate gold lamp with a black shade. A best dad ever plaque sits on a table behind him—the Kelleys have a six-year-old son. Kelley wears a gray hoodie and looks very awake, partly because he’s been sleeping much better these past few months.
“It’s amazing what not drinking will do. You save yourself, I’m ashamed to say, anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 calories a day in booze—you’re bound to lose some weight. But I look back at pictures from just three months ago. It’s my face, my midsection. I’ve found that it all goes hand in hand. When I’m not drinking, I feel better. So then I work out.” He exercises six days a week now. As 5:00 approaches, with its shafts of warm golden-hour light, perhaps previously enjoyed with a glass of wine, Kelley often goes for a run to distract himself. “Little by little, these habits come in and then you’re naturally like, Well, I’m working out, not drinking. I’m starting to see results.” (He does have one indulgence: “My wife bought me an ice cream maker, and I unapologetically every night will destroy almost a pint of ice cream. I’m just like, ‘Listen, I gotta have something.’ ” He also estimates he now drinks about 15 cans of LaCroix water a day.)
When Kelley and his wife returned from Greece, they immediately shared his decision with one of Lady A’s managers, Callie Cunningham Nobel. Nobel knew she was out of her depth, she says—she had no experience shepherding clients on the road to recovery. “My personality is to fix a problem when it arises,” she says, “and so what I’ve had to come to terms with is that I definitely cannot fix this.” But she did have a wide network, and she quickly called upon a contact at Porter’s Call, a Tennessee nonprofit that provides resources for artists. A day later, Kelley was headed to a treatment center.
Nobel is now working on the logistical scaffolding that will allow Lady A to tour again, since the band postponed its “Request Line” tour so that Kelley could focus on recovery. The tour will be dry, he says, adding quickly that that does not extend to the audience. He remembers finding it odd, when he was younger, when Lady A would open for artists who had no alcohol on the bus, backstage, or in the dressing rooms. Now he gets it. “They’ve been doing this thing for 15, 20 years and are in the same spot that I’m in right now,” he says. “What do you want out of this life? Do you want to wreck your family and your career? Or do you want to put some things into place to keep it successful?”
Cassie, too, has oriented her life around recovery. A few weeks after her husband ntered treatment, the facility held a “family week,” which she attended. “When you start sort of taking away the layers of ‘this is the family disease of alcoholism,’ I have to do as much work as he does. My first reaction was ‘Well, this doesn’t seem very fair,’ ” she says, laughing. As she has attended meetings and learned more about recovery, the scope of alcoholism’s effects on a person’s life—even, or especially, on a spouse’s—has shocked her. She has focused on “benevolent detachment,” a strategy that discourages those close to an alcoholic from trying to control their behavior, instead prioritizing their own well-being, which is much easier said than done.
“The way I’d kind of handled it prior was like ‘Oh gosh, I have to control this more, and I have to try to control his surroundings and who he’s with.’ You end up driving yourself crazy, trying to control another person in every aspect of their life, when in fact that’s not what works. You have to detach more and just let them make their own decisions, good or bad, and then let them face the consequences, good or bad.”
Kelley realized that although he could white-knuckle it for three months, maybe even a year, on self-determination and willpower alone, he needed help. But he has longevity in mind—as well as his son, for whom he is determined to be a sober dad—and he knows he needs support to get there. “It’s my second half of life. I’ve lived 25 years one way, and it was really freaking fun. It was awesome,” he says, with the caveat that there were some dark moments, too. “Now I’ve got this whole second half. All right, that was fun. I did that. Now I’m ready to do this.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
Lauren Larson lives in Austin and is a features editor at Texas Monthly magazine.
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