How This Country Music Singer Overcame Alcohol Addiction

Ricky Van Shelton recalls how God released him from addiction and gave him self-respect.

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Rickie Van Shelton performing, Chicago, Illinois, August 2, 1988.

You might not believe part of the story I'm going to tell you. In fact, if it hadn’t happened to me, I myself might find it pretty hard to swallow. All I know is my life got turned around when I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on living.

In 1991 I was at the height of my career. I had a hit album, had been named The Nashville Network/Music City News Entertainer of the Year and Male Artist of the Year, and had received 16 other awards in five years. It was a dream come true, one I’d worked hard for. But my life was a mess. I was addicted to alcohol, my marriage was in shambles, and I was so depressed that even music meant nothing to me.

And music had always been the center of my life. I grew up in Grit, Va., a small town near Lynchburg, the youngest of the five Shelton children. My daddy worked in a factory, my mama raised us kids. 

Faith was important to our family; we went to church more than most people went to work. I started singing when I was so tiny that I couldn’t see over the altar rail. My folks would just pick me up, stand me on top of it, hit a few chords on the piano, and I’d let loose with a chorus of “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” I knew for certain, with the faith of a child, that God was real and there was a place for me in heaven. My daddy’s favorite song was “Don’t Overlook Salvation,” which I sang loud and strong.

When I became a teenager, my taste broadened to include popular music. By the time I was 14, I’d mastered 25 chords on the guitar.

Then my older brother Ronnie bought a mandolin. He’d go over to a friend’s house, where a group sat around the kitchen table playing the same country songs all night. When Ronnie asked me to come along, I said, “No, thanks.” But when he said he’d let me drive his car, that got me interested. I started hanging around with the group, and in the process, I fell in love with country music.

Soon I was hooked on old standards like “Hello Darlin’” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” While other kids were playing basketball or baseball, I was playing guitar and singing. When my friends went to the junior-senior prom, I played a gig with my brother in some beat-up barn.

The summer I was 18 I had a real personal relationship with God. But that fall I rebelled and quit going to church. After I got out of high school, I pumped gas and worked as a pipe fitter, plumber—even a car salesman. I always carried my guitar with me, just in case somebody wanted to hear a song after work. If I had a gig out of town and my boss wouldn’t let me leave early, I’d quit my job. No contest.

It was in Grit that I met Bettye, the girl who became my wife. Often we talked about how great it would be to move to Nashville, the country-music capital of the world. We could start fresh, and I could try to make something of my music.

In 1984 Bettye was offered a job in Nashville. She said, “Ricky, what have we got to lose? Let’s do it.” I said, “Darlin’, my bags are packed.”

In Nashville I played in the little clubs around town, just like thousands of other hopefuls. After a year and a half I was getting pretty discouraged. Then the husband of a woman Bettye worked with heard me sing and said he had the connections to set up an audition with CBS Records. Two weeks later I was in the studio cutting my first album. It took off and went platinum—sold a million copies—and five of the songs ended up number one on the charts.

Suddenly there were managers, band members, and roadies who followed me around. Instead of singing in some dive, I was on national television. I began touring. In 1988 I was home only 20 days. Whenever we played, I had a strict rule for the band and the roadies: If you’re wired, you’re fired. No drugs or alcohol before a show.

After a show, however, it was anything goes. And eventually alcohol took control of my life. When I was drinking it was easy to forget Bettye waiting at home so far away. Even when I was at home I’d do my chores as quickly as possible so I could pick up a beer. Or two. Or three.

By 1991 I knew I was addicted. Once when Bettye asked me what was wrong between us, I admitted I’d betrayed our wedding vows—when I was drunk I had no self-control. Instead of leaving me, Bettye and one of her friends prayed for me and for our marriage. I’d come to hate my life, to hate the power that alcohol had over me. Oh, it never interfered with my professional obligations—I stayed sober to perform—but it sure made a shambles of my personal relationships and my self-esteem.

Yet Bettye loved me, and so did my parents. Every time I talked to Mama and Daddy on the phone, the last thing they always said was, “We’re praying for you, Son.” Their love and the memory of my happy childhood days in church made me decide to do a gospel album and record all those old-time favorite gospel songs. It was a present for Daddy and Mama.

Those hymns brought back memories of when God was my companion, my best friend. But my own way to God seemed blocked. The price of going back to him seemed too great: I’d have to give up my fun, my friends, my parties. I continued my downhill slide, and despair became a way of life. Seldom did I remember the next morning what I’d done the night before. I got to the point where I didn’t want to be married. I didn’t want to perform. I didn’t want to do anything ... even go on living.

Everything came crashing down one night in California. I woke up in the back of my tour bus, drunk, filled with guilt and shame. Once again I faced the humiliation of knowing I had lost yet another battle. I sat bolt upright, my heart pounding. I felt like I was losing my mind—and maybe I was. If there had been a gun around, I think I’d have shot myself just to stop the misery. “This is it,” I said. “I can’t handle this anymore.”

I picked up the phone and called Murphy, my bus driver, who was sound asleep in a nearby motel. “Ricky, it’s the middle of the night,” he said. “You sure this can’t wait till morning?”

“Murphy,” I said, “get over here and take me home.” Murphy had been with me for five years, and he could tell from the sound of my voice that I was serious. He showed up, took one look at my face and got behind the wheel of the bus and headed cross-country for Tennessee.

Through three states I lay on my bed in the back of the bus. By the time it was midday we were in Oklahoma and I was stone sober, but I still wanted to die. I kept begging God for help, but frankly I didn’t know what he, or anybody else, could do to end my pain.

All of a sudden there seemed to be a cloud floating above me. And then right in front of my eyes appeared what I can only describe as the face of the devil. It sounds unbelievable, but I know what I saw. That face kept coming closer and closer—ugly, overpowering, evil. I was terrified. The face was smirking, as if to say, “I’ve got you now, boy. You’re mine.”

It was true I’d messed up pretty bad. But I would not believe that the devil had me. I started crying and hitting at that horrible face, punching hard like a boxer. It didn’t work. I began to sob as the face came still closer. “You can’t beat me,” it seemed to say.

And then I heard words coming out of my mouth, strong and sure, as though they had been inside me all along just waiting for the chance to get out. “Maybe I can’t beat you,” I shouted, “but I know who can. God can beat you.” In an instant that devilish face recoiled with a look of pure terror. It shriveled up right before my eyes and was gone.

I fell back on the bed, gasping for breath. I knew I’d connected with God again. And he had shown me his power, and what his holy name could do. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since that day. God took my addiction away and gave me back my self-respect. In the months after I got home, I thanked God that his gentle grace and the prayers of my loved ones had kept me going.

Funny thing is, I’d kept hearing that the gospel album I had recorded the year before my life-changing ride in the back of the bus—the one with all the old favorite hymns—was affecting a lot of people’s lives. I had called that album Don’t Overlook Salvation. And finally I’d followed my own good advice.

This story first appeared in the August 1994 issue of Guideposts magazine.

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