By Brian Panowich
In April of 2016, I was in a hotel room in Los Angeles.
I’d been nominated for The LA Times Book Prize. My first novel had been released the year before to a wealth of accolades and my career as a successful writer seemed to be taking off at a rate that exceeded everyone’s expectations—including my own. At that exact moment in time, however, the rest of my life was a complete disaster. My decade-long marriage was spiraling toward a hard and painful end, my self-medicating to deal with it was at an all-time high, and my ability to believe in myself, or anything else for that matter, had reached an all-time low. I didn’t recognize the man in the mirror staring back at me. That person was nothing like the one I’d spent my life trying to become. I was lost. I was tired. I was alone. And I was hurting.
I remember staring out through the windows of that hotel room and down at the lights of the city. I was there for one of the most prestigious awards in the world of literature — not bad for a Georgia boy — yet I still felt like a complete failure — as a husband, a father, a son, and as a man. Everything was upside down and I didn’t see it ever being any different.
Now, I’m not saying that I wanted to die that night, but I did find myself thinking about just how much booze in the minibar I’d need to fall asleep and never have to wake up feeling that way again.
Luckily for me, along came Travis Meadows.
Several months before that night in LA, a friend of mine had sent me a link to an album called “Killin’ Uncle Buzzy” and claimed it was one of the best pieces of recorded music he’d ever heard. I didn’t listen to it at the time, but for some reason, that night, I sat on the edge of that bed and hit play. I listened to Travis Meadows sing a song called Minefield — and I cried — a lot.
I had already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to attend any ceremony that weekend. In fact, I had no plans of leaving that room, but by the time I’d finished listening to that album, I’d cried most of that isolation away. It felt like Travis Meadows had written that record just for me. It was as if he had already gone through everything I was feeling first, so he could write a collection of songs that would serve as a road map out of my own personal hell.
Songs like, Grown Up Clothes, where he spoke unabashedly about the death of his father and never quite coming to terms with losing him. I lost my father in 2002 and still haven’t fully recovered, so I got it. Or Good Intentions, where Travis owns out loud his shortcomings as a husband and father. The honesty was brutal to hear. Meadows had laid his soul bare for the world to listen to — and to learn from.
Some people might call it fate that I picked that night to discover the magic of Travis Meadows, but I prefer to call it divine intervention. I didn’t dive into the minibar that night. I didn’t even want to. Instead, I listened to every Travis Meadows song I could find until I fell asleep. I got up the next morning, made my bed, washed my face, and walked out of that room with every intention of being the man my kids needed me to be. It hasn’t been a walk in the park since, but I can say without a doubt that Travis’s music saved my life that night and would again and again over the next several years.
Not long after that trip to California, I reached out to Meadows. I didn’t just want to thank him, but I wanted to know him. I felt in that complete stranger a kindred spirit. I was surprised and starstruck when he reached back. His demeanor was as warm and welcoming as his music. Over the years we have become friends, and his friendship is something I cherish. I’ve come to love Travis for the size of his heart and his capacity to shine light and hope on his friends and fans despite whatever hardships he may be going through himself.
So, you can imagine that when I heard of Travis’s own crisis, I didn’t just feel obligated to help out, but a fundamental urgency to do everything I could to help a man who had given so much of himself to me and so many others.
Travis had been putting off a much-needed surgery on his back, so he could continue to write and record the songs that so many of us out here depend on. At the urging of his beautiful wife, Katy, and with her by his side, he finally scheduled what should’ve been a simple surgery.
That’s when a lot of things went a lot of wrong.
Another issue came up, one infinity more frightening, in his neck and another emergency surgery was scheduled. He only spent a few hours in recovery from that second operation before it got even worse, and he started to show symptoms that were not only threatening to Travis’s quality of life but were also threatening to his one gift to the world — his voice.
My friend and brother, laid in a hospital bed and had to relearn how to swallow as we all waited patiently for news about his recovery. All the while, he didn’t ask anyone for a thing.
Someone told me recently that when the collapse of society comes, the artists are the first to go. Now I don’t know if that’s the quote verbatim, and I don’t care, because it rings true regardless. This pandemic or social climate may not be as dramatic as a total collapse of the world as we know it, but it is dire enough that we protect the voices, health, and ideas, of the ones that uplift and keep us alive through the darkest hours. For me it is people like Travis Meadows — or the artist who contributed his likeness to this column, my daughter, Talia Panowich. For y’all, it could be anyone, but each of you are well aware of who they are. So, please — reach out. Build them up. They are all waiting to hear from you.
My daughter and I both will be donating our contributor’s fees from this column to Travis Meadows: A Fund-(Riser) at GoFundMe.com and I hope that all y’all can find a way to give back to the folks that give some of themselves to get you through.
They are depending on it.
Illustration by Talia
Appears in the May 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.