“I’m two years sober today,” singer-songwriter and new Nashvillian Langhorne Slim says over the phone from Kentucky, where he and his band, The Law, are in the home stretch of the first leg of a tour supporting their new record, The Spirit Moves.
“Today’s my 35th birthday,” Slim, born Sean Scolnick, says, looking forward to returning to his newly purchased home in East Nashville for the final few shows before he and the band rest up and do it all over again.
A few nights later, when he introduces his mother and grandmother to a crowd at The Mercy Lounge, he says that now the two of them will be able to see his place fully furnished. Though he’s lived in Nashville for a few years, like so many others here, he says he’s been pretty transient since setting down roots here. “Being still for me is fucking difficult. I’ve started to meditate since I quit drinking and taking drugs. I’m really working on it, but still is really tricky for me. From day one, though, Nashville has treated me incredibly well. I immediately found myself feeling more at home here than I had felt really anywhere else. And I stayed.”
Two years ago, on his 33rd birthday, Slim and the band, who’d been together ten-plus years at that point, were in Ham Lake, Minnesota to play an Alzheimer’s benefit show. It was a situation already made strange by the setting, a golf course in the middle of nowhere, and an early evening set time with no opener, on top of what Slim had been privately battling.
It wasn’t that his bandmates, who are some of Slim’s closest friends, didn’t know about his drinking. “It was no big secret that it was something I was living in,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot of shit together.” What they likely didn’t realize was that their bandleader was seriously considering sobriety.
“I remember trying to shift my drinking, just drink a certain way,” Slim says. “It was classic addict shit. We’d gotten taken on tour in Europe with The Lumineers, and I told myself, don’t drink some of the shows. But I drank every show.”
During subsequent festivals, beginning with the Newport Folk Festival, Slim says he managed not to drink at all. It was the first time he can recall performing music or anything, for that matter, sober since he was in high school and taking pills or whatever was around before hitting the stage for plays or, basically, being in front of people in any capacity. “I’d always taken something to be a little bit high.”
But in those shows, having a go at sobriety, something happened.
“Immediately I felt like my heart was stronger. That’s really the best way I can put it,” he says. “My voice was stronger. The feet I was standing and dancing on felt stronger. I got a taste of what that was like, and I felt good and clear and had more energy for the whole experience.”
It came as a surprise, but Slim says he found that when he started experimenting with not being drunk during the shows, he was reaching a level of intimacy with the audience more often than he had before. “That was a great motivation to keep on going,” he says.
“It had been coming close to the end for a while,” Slim says of the day in Ham Lake. “For years I knew that my love for life, my love for love, my love for music and all was being shaded, and I wasn’t giving it more feeling or more realness. I was pissing on my soul’s fire. And that’s not something to take lightly.”
He stops here and says a second time in our conversation, “I’m not preaching sobriety. If I could do it a way that wasn’t dark, I’d stand by it. People ask, ‘Why did you quit drinking?’ I say, because I drank too much. Most people don’t quit unless they really have to.”
As he and the band loaded into the golf course that evening, he remembers keeping to himself, just staying really quiet.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone until it was the real deal. I didn’t want to let myself down. I didn’t want to let other people down.”
Immediately after he stopped, which he did completely and all at once, something he says is “really not recommended by doctors,” he had to deal with what he perceived to be “some really dark energy. I felt like there was a darkness trying to hold on to me—that didn’t want me to enter into another phase of my life. But if you feel like some shit is getting you down and you keep going with it for years, that weighs on a soul.”
After that darkness passed, Slim says, “I felt freer than I had being that I had been a bitch to something for so long. It’s immediately improved my life.”
“We've come and we're here. We made it home,” Slim tells the Nashville crowd a few days after his birthday. He dances in place at the mic and leans over the dance floor, looking into the audience instead of over the top of it. It’s a loud and tender show reminiscent of the dichotomy in the song, one of Slim’s personal favorites from The Spirit Moves, “Wolves,” that goes, “I’m tough enough to run with the bulls / Yet I’m too gentle to live amongst wolves.” This tension between tough and vulnerable speaks to Slim’s whole aesthetic musically, spiritually and otherwise. Even in conversation he balances between soft and thoughtful listener to direct, well-spoken truth teller.
Early in the set the snare bangs the band into “Put it Together” a swinging piano-driven song about a repaired heart. Slim pushes his t-shirt sleeves up and sings, “I lost my direction / on the day I was born. / I felt disconnected / since they cut the cord. / If I learn my lesson / I’ll find me some peace. / ‘Cause I need protection from this heart on my sleeve.”
Maybe drinking protected Slim from the heart on his sleeve. It seems like it’s solely the music that does now. His sweat-worn Martin acoustic distorts a Fender electric guitar amp. His hat falls off and he tries to kick it back onto his head. It’s all part of the show and he’s giving every part of himself to it.
During one of the final songs he jumps down off the stage and winds his way through the audience. “It's nice to see your faces,” he tells everyone. He’s sung himself hoarse and you can hear his voice break. “I’m going to open up my heart and see what happens,” he says to everyone.
Slim grew up with his brother and mother and grandparents in small suburb of Philadelphia and remembers feeling weird, “weird and strange for that place at least,” he says and recalls being a happy enough kid. But as he got older he says, “I didn’t feel like I fit the fuck in. I felt like an alien. But I didn’t have a spaceship. Eventually, when my mom picked up a guitar, I started playing that and then I started buying six packs of Yuengling and drinking those and smoking weed, and then from that you start doing the other things that are around.”
“I guess I was trying to get deeper within that feeling. I always wanted to feel the thing. I think that was intriguing to me at the time.”
So, along with improving on the guitar, he says, “I got very good at drinking and other drugs,” he says and acknowledges that even as a kid he knew he would have to quit some day.
“I can remember being 15-years-old in my high school sweetheart Becky’s parents’ basement drinking beers and thinking to myself, this is either going to take me down someday or I’m going to have to stop. I like this too much.”
The Spirit Moves was recorded just a few minutes from Slim’s house at Andrija Tokic’s The Bomb Shelter. Slim had been searching for a studio, and in addition to proximity factoring into his choice, The Bomb Shelter was commended to him by his good friend, Andrew Katz of the band Clear Plastic Masks. “Plus, The Deslondes recorded there,” Slim says. “They’re one of the best bands making music right now,” he says of the New Orleans band.
With Tokic handling engineering duties, Slim’s longtime producer Kenny Siegal flew in from New York to handle, as he terms it, the role of “Rock 'n Roll Rabbi.”
“Andrija was handling the technical stuff,” Siegal says. “So my mind was free to wander more into the abstract. I was able to concentrate more on the musical ‘feel’, assessing performances, judging whether ‘the Spirit’ had arrived or the band needed to do another take.”
After a break-up that had rendered Slim single for the first time as an adult and kicking booze and moving, there was a lot to fuel the record. Maybe too much, even. In the end, Siegal helped untangle and complete a majority of the songs, co-writing 8 of the 12 songs in a process that Siegal downplays his own role, saying, “For this record I had the distinct honor of helping Slim finish some of the tunes from time to time.”
Every few months the two got together for songwriting sessions at Old Soul, Siegal’s studio in upstate New York. “Slim would show up with all of these really strong ideas that were developed, but only to a point,” Siegal says. “So the task at hand was really trying to finish the tunes without ruining them. Sometimes getting from 75% of a tune to 100% can be really difficult, but it's the work I love to do.”
“I had a lot to prove to myself,” Slim says. “I’d never done a record without the quote/unquote assistance of drinking and drugs.”
At the show, Slim says for the second or third time that by all accounts he and The Law should be back on stage the next night. But for now, he’s ready to go to bed, he says, plays an encore, and retreats backstage.
People linger with show posters in hand, hoping for autographs or to talk to Slim. He played an amazing set with all the punk rock explosiveness and tender, throat-raw acoustic numbers he’s been known for and honed with his band over the past decade. It’s what’s captured on the new album, the lightning in a bottle Siegal talks about chasing with Slim and the band in the studio. It’s all about that feeling, that love of life that’s been there from beginning with Langhorne Slim. A transcendent place. That brain off, heart on moment that maybe comes on now by way of the spiritual.
“Some of my spiritual vision, is unsayable,” Slim says but knows that through “allowing certain channels to open” he feels a deeper connection to his spiritual life. “But how the fuck to make sense of that? I don’t know. I feel very much in the spirit,” he finally says.
A lot of the crowd sticks around to drink and talk. After a while, once the rush of smokers are back inside the bar, Slim comes out of the side door of the club alone. His mother and grandmother have pulled a black sedan to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the club. Slim comes off the stairs and opens the car door, takes his hat off sets it on the dash, and drops into the passenger’s seat and the three of them take off for home.