Homeless In Nashville, Huge In Sweden

Originally published on October 9, 2014 9:01 am

Country music fans were introduced to a new face at last month's Americana Music Awards in Nashville, when 62-year-old Doug Seegers opened the show with a song from his debut album, Going Down to the River.

Seegers is originally from Long Island, N.Y., but says he wanted to be a country singer from Day One. He wrote his first song at 16, and, after finishing high school, joined a country band and moved to Austin, Texas, performing under the stage name Duke the Drifter.

"We were not drawing crowds into clubs," Seegers remembers. "I mean, we were playing clubs for $100 a night — that we had to split between the four of us, you know? It was hard. We were living real poor, playing music."

One day, Duke the Drifter just split.

"I didn't even say goodbye to anybody," Seegers says. "For Pete's sake. I just, like, hitchhiked down the road."

He headed back to New York, learned a trade and started a family — but the music bug never left him. Some 20 years later, Seegers said goodbye to his now-grown children and former wife, and headed for Nashville, Tenn., to play music. But again, his music career stalled.

"I didn't feel like I was good enough, to be honest," Seegers says. "When I got to hearing all these musicians and stuff I thought, 'Oh, man, I'm just going to lay back for a few years, and just maybe I'll eventually get up the courage to get out and do something."

Another 17 years passed — and after many years of unsteady work, Seegers ended up homeless, living under a bridge and busking for coins.

Then, last fall, something incredible happened. Jill Johnson, a Swedish singer with her own TV show, came through town. She was shooting footage for a segment about down-and-out musicians and visited a food pantry where Seegers hung out.

"He sat down very calmly and picked up his guitar and just played us this amazing tune, 'Going Down to the River,' " Johnson says, "which made us all just fall into tears. I'm speechless today, still. It was just overwhelming and so beautiful and so real and genuine."

Before he knew it, Seegers was whisked off to a studio to record the song for the show. Days after it aired, the song went to No. 1 on Swedish iTunes.

"I was slapping myself in the face," Seegers says. "I kept saying, 'Am I dreaming? When am I going to wake up and go back to living under the bridge?' "

Sweden lacks for country music fans, but Johnson says something about Seegers seemed to moved people.

"I think it's the Cinderella story," she says. "They call him the Cinderella man."

People started sending money to help Seegers. A Swedish label offered him a record deal. A prominent record producer back in Nashville — along with a lot of big-deal session guys — signed on to make the record, and they finished it in three days.

For one track, someone called in a favor with one of Seegers' longtime heroes, Emmylou Harris. Harris recorded her tracks separately — but she was so moved by Seegers' voice that she called him to let him know.

"I pick up the phone and she says, 'Doug, this is Emmylou Harris,' " Seegers says. "And I immediately start crying. I couldn't even talk, I was crying so hard. It was a dream come true for me."

When it was released in Sweden, Seegers' album went to No. 1 and stayed in the top five for 10 weeks. Seegers toured the country, selling out 60 shows. Everywhere he went, he says, people would ask him how he was doing in the United States.

"I made them laugh," he says, "when I answered them by saying: 'They don't know me in America at all.' "

But they may soon. Going Down to the River comes out in U.S. this week.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have two stories of success. One is a dream of success, the other is a dream much delayed.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We begin in Nashville at last month's Americana Honors and Awards Ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

DOUG SEEGERS: (Singing) Come out to the country, going to bury my head in the creek.

MARTIN: The performer was Doug Seegers. At age 62, he just put on an album, his first.

INSKEEP: One year ago, Doug Seegers didn't have a job or even a roof over his head.

MARTIN: To feel what his success means, you have to hear his story from the beginning. Here's NPR's Vince Pearson.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS: (Singing) Well, I work two jobs seven days a week.

VINCE PEARSON, BYLINE: Doug Seegers may be from Long Island, but he's been a country singer since day one.

SEEGERS: When I came out of my momma's womb...

PEARSON: At 16, he wrote his first song, "Rikers Island Blues."

SEEGERS: First song, a jail song. (Laughter). That's country to the bone right there. (Laughter).

PEARSON: After high school, he joined a country band and moved to Austin, Texas. His stage name - Duke The Drifter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS: (Singing) She's my easy-loving woman, I'm her hard-working man.

We were not drawing crowds into clubs. I mean, we were playing clubs for $100 a night, you know, that we had a split between the four of us. You know, and it was hard; we were living real poor playing music.

PEARSON: It finally got to a point where he couldn't do it anymore. He walked away from the Austin music scene and went back to New York.

SEEGERS: I didn't even say goodbye to anybody, for Pete's sake. I just, like, hitchhiked down the road, you know.

PEARSON: In New York, Seegers learned a trade and started a family, but the music bug wouldn't let go of him. And one day a couple of decades later, Seegers had to try it again. He said goodbye to his ex-wife and their kids and headed for Nashville, but once again he couldn't make it work.

SEEGERS: I didn't feel like I was good enough, to be honest with you. I mean, when I got to hearing all these musicians and stuff I thought, oh, man, I'm just going to just lay back for a few years and just maybe I'll eventually the courage to get out there and do something, you know.

PEARSON: After many years in Nashville living on the margins, working day jobs, Seegers found himself homeless living under a bridge and busking for coins.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS: (Singing) Well, my name is Mr. Weeble, but my best friends all call me Bo.

PEARSON: But last fall, something happened; a Swedish singer with her own TV show came through town. Her name was Jill Johnson, and she was shooting footage for a segment about down-and-out musicians, and she visited a food pantry where Seegers hung out.

JILL JOHNSON: And he sat down very calmly and picked up his guitar and just played us this amazing tune "Going Down To The River," which made us all just fall in tears. And I am speechless still today. It was just overwhelming and so beautiful and so real and genuine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING DOWN TO THE RIVER")

SEEGERS: (Singing) I'm going down the river, going to wash my soul again. I've been running with the devil, and I know that he's not my friend.

PEARSON: Before he knew it, Seegers was standing in a studio recording that song for Swedish TV, and days after it aired, the song went to number one on Swedish iTunes.

SEEGERS: I was slapping myself in my face; I kept saying, am I dreaming? When am I going to wake up and go back to living under the bridge? You know? (Laughter).

PEARSON: Now, as you can imagine, Sweden is not a place with lots of country music fans, but something about Seegers seemed to move people, says Johnson.

JOHNSON: I think it's the "Cinderella" story. I mean, they call him The Cinderella Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS: (Singing) If I don't get me some restoration soon, going to end up in a casket.

PEARSON: Phones started ringing off the hook and people started sending money to help Seegers. He was offered a record deal with a Swedish label. And a prominent Nashville record producer signed on along with lots of big-deal Nashville session guys, including a guitarist who'd been Seegers' band mate in Austin back in the '70s. Buddy Miller recalls hearing Seegers sing after all those years.

BUDDY MILLER: You know, a lot of voices change over time, and sometimes they just get more craggily and they actually just sound like they've lost interest. Doug's voice just told a story of where he's been. I mean, it was deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS: (Singing) She, she came from the land of the cotton; land that was nearly forgotten by everyone.

PEARSON: They made the record in just three days. And for one track, Miller called in a favor with one of Seegers' longtime heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) And she never knew what her love had to give.

PEARSON: Emmylou Harris recorded her track separately, but was so moved by Seegers' voice that she called him to let him know.

SEEGERS: I picked up my phone, and she says, Doug, this is Emmylou Harris. And I just immediately just started just crying, like, I couldn't even talk. I was, like, crying so hard. It was a dream come true for me, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG SEEGERS SONG)

SEEGERS AND HARRIS: (Singing) Oh, but she sure could sing. Yeah, she sure could sing.

PEARSON: Seegers' album went to number one in Sweden and stayed in the top five for 10 weeks, and when Seegers did a tour of the country, all 60 shows sold out. And he says everywhere he went people would ask him how he was doing in the United States.

SEEGERS: I made them laugh when I answered them by saying they don't know me in America at all. (Laughter).

PEARSON: But they may soon. His new album comes out in the U.S. this week. Vince Pearson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.