While the 2020 pandemic spelled doom and gloom for many a musician, it signified a new beginning for Boulder-based roots artist Andrew McConathy.
The guitar-playing frontman, lead singer and primary songwriter of the group formerly known as The Drunken Hearts initially thought a worldwide calamity meant the beginning of the end to a career he’s pursued since 2010. Then an angel of mercy from his past emerged, giving him a second chance to make things right in his life and his songs.
McConathy’s story of give and take, rise and fall, and hope lost and found gets the personal treatment on Reckless Ways of Living, his new album coming out June 9, with a release show on June 10 at Meow Wolf in Denver.
Along the way to this career resurgence, he dropped the three-letter word from his band’s name, going solo as Andrew McConathy for a short time.
Previously presiding over a group of ever-changing members through 2019, his evolution continues as essentially a one-man band that enlists guest players in the studio or on the road when he needs them. “The pandemic really tore the doors off of "The"
Drunken Hearts,” he maintains.
“It’s difficult to make this an actual career that pays the bills,” McConathy concedes. “Even before COVID-19, I could have finally given up after dealing with several tragic experiences,” such as the 2014 death of Ted Welles, The Drunken Hearts’ cofounding member and drummer. Instead, a renewed sense of faith in his abilities and songs followed. Finding another album within as the pandemic dust cleared, McConathy realized, “There is something cathartic about putting everything that you have into something.”
After releasing the Wildflower Sessions EP in February 2022, McConathy basically relied on a new cast of characters with a few familiar folks for Reckless Ways of Living. He called that album “a last-ditch effort to preserve my dream in this musical life. … I’ve put every last dollar and every atom of my being into this record.”
McConathy and his future producer/cowriter Dave Pahanish, who has helped pen No. 1 Billboard country singles for the likes of Toby Keith, Keith Urban, and Jimmy Wayne, didn’t know each other until a mutual connection put them together. In January 2021, McConathy initially planned to celebrate the 90th birthday of his grandmother, Bettye McConathy, with other family members in Nashville. He was looking to line up a show of his own so they could see him perform as part of the weekend’s festivities.
Seeking assistance, he turned to his agent Derek Smith, a former drummer whose suggestion was an old friend from their high school punk band days in McMurray, Pennsylvania — Pahanish. After the omicron variant interrupted those birthday plans, Pahanish made up for the failed attempt by presenting McConathy with a songwriting session at his home in Lebanon, Tennessee, a short drive from Nashville.
Their partnership yielded results the first time they got together last June to write “Falling Stars.” The moving song about fallout from “living fast, dying hard” was completed “in maybe two hours, maybe less,” according to McConathy.
Pahanish agreed to produce, engineer and mix the album at his Panfish Studios, describing it as “a really trippy, psychedelic barn” on his property. McConathy supplied his brawny baritone voice that has drawn comparisons to Eddie Vedder. He also discovered“a phenomenal musician” in Pahanish, who played acoustic guitar, bass, mellotron and percussion.
They ultimately shared songwriting credits on all 10 tracks, with The String Cheese Incident’s Keith Moseley (“Never Say
Goodbye”), and Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman (“100 Proof”) assisting on one track each.
McConathy contends the final product is “our best yet,” adding, “the songs are reasonably more of an honest representation of me as a songwriter. … And I think Dave’s production style is great.”
Featured guest artists include American Aquarium’s Neil Jones (who excels throughout on pedal steel), international banjo
champion Kyle Tuttle (Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway) and Lindsay Lou (backing vocals) on “Forever Highway,” fiddler Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band) on “Dark Times,” and Herman’s son Silas on mandolin for three songs. Among the Drunken Hearts musicians contributing were Alex Johnson (drums), James Dumm (electric guitar) and Tyler Adams (keys/organ).
The lyrics might dig deepest on “Good Graces,” McConathy’s redemption song that serves as a painful reminder of October 25, 2014, when Welles died a few days after he fired him.
“We were very, very, very close friends,” offers McConathy, who still can’t comprehend that senseless tragedy. “[Teddy] didn’t necessarily have the drive, or the need, to make music his life. … I think about him every day, as well as several others we have lost along the way, almost every time I pick up the guitar.”
While vowing to make music “my real profession” from that point, McConathy admits, “That part of it certainly has been a struggle.”
“The Bright” is another song written “specifically about people in my life that I’ve lost.” It includes lyrics adapted from a sermon during his grandfather’s 2022 funeral in Shreveport, Louisiana, where McConathy was born. Admitting they weren’t “extremely close,” he still found a way to honor Milton Chapman (who passed due to complications from COVID), “a legendary physician and true hero,” with “The Bright,” opening with:
When the light is dim / And death’s by my side / To walk among the angels / And sing with the choir
— Lyrics from “The Bright”
“The Bright” obviously hits close to home for McConathy’s relatives, especially his mom, Tricia McConathy, who “cries every time she hears it now,” he divulges. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Comeback King of Drunken Hearts is finding peace, redemption, and resolution, firmly believing that once-tattered relationship with his grandfather is now blessed by the man who walks among the angels.