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[whitespace] Red Meat Raw Meat: "I have to keep resetting my goals because I keep getting the things I want. Drunk, I wouldn't have been capable of any of it."

Behind the Music

Beneath Red Meat's twangy exterior lies a history of addiction and recovery

By Martha McPartlin

When Smelley Kelley, in his big, black cowboy hat and purple rhinestone suit, steps up to the mic to speak--as he does between almost all of Red Meat's old-style, honky-tonk country songs--the audience listens. Because more often than not they are treated to an anecdote, an observation or, if they're lucky, a good old-fashioned dirty joke, of the sort it seems only Smelley can get away with in this ultra-PC city. (Like the one about Dolly Parton, the Queen of England and Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven. Unfortunately, obscenity laws prevent further elaboration here.)

The onstage charisma and showmanship of Smelley, along with the musicianship of the band and their authentic songwriting, have made Red Meat one of the most popular local bands. For seven years they have been at the forefront of classic-style country music.

"There's these magical moments when you've got the whole place just going, and you've got everybody's attention and they're all into it, and none of them are thinking about their day-to-day shit," Smelley says in his rapid-fire Midwestern twang. "If you can give somebody that sort of forgetfulness--even for a bit--if you can do that for a whole room, that's something heavy."

He remembers a time in San Francisco, not so long ago, when the mere hint of a country twang from a band would clear a room.

With two albums and multiple tours under his belt, the 42-year-old Smelley has attained personal successes that 12 years ago, in the depths of his alcoholism, he says would have been impossible.

"I have to keep resetting my goals because I keep getting the things that I want," he says. "Drunk, I wouldn't have been capable of any of it."

It's been 20 years since David Kelley, aspiring poet, left Keokuk, Iowa, for good and settled in San Francisco. He calls his corn-farming kind "plowboys," as opposed to cowboys. And he's been "Smelley" since his Iowa days.

"Me and my buddies all had nicknames. We were a bunch of Harley-riding, crazy-partying guys, and mine stuck," he says. He's kept it ever since--offstage and on--because "it works, it rhymes, it sticks in people's heads."

In the 1970s factories were closing all around his hometown, and job opportunities were limited. Come each summer, when the steel shop would inevitably lay him off, Smelley would travel west to San Francisco.

"We had friends from Iowa that lived out here. I had a friend who had a crawl space underneath his house; it was an old pre-earthquake house, and it had a potato bin underneath it. And that was my potato bin--I would go and sleep in there when I came to visit," says Smelley, a born storyteller who pauses only for the time it takes to light another cigarette.

"There was a real heavy party going on here at the time in the mid-'70s. It was nuts," he says. "This was the first place I realized that wine didn't have screw-off tops."

In search of the wild life he had read about, and idealized, in books by writers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, he ran with a biker crowd that was heavily into cocaine. One night he met a biker who was shooting it up. Smelley found out the high was a lot better that way.

After moving to San Francisco, Smelley soon "discovered the beauty of speedballs"--taking cocaine and heroin at the same time. His heroin use continued on and off for about a year and a half.

"The first time I did [heroin] I knew. I said, This is too good, I should not be doing this," he says. "I knew I needed to quit doing junk and doing coke if I was going to stay alive to drink. So for six months I drank pretty heavily trying to keep my monkey at bay."

One day, after he had missed days of work, a friend came to check on him. She found him lying in his bedroom unable to move and suffering from alcohol withdrawal. Sips from a bottle of wine, in an effort to make the pain go away, were all he had consumed in days. She dragged him to the hospital. The years of alcohol and drug abuse had resulted in hepatitis, from using dirty needles, and cirrhosis of the liver.

"By this time I was in full hallucinations, dying from malnutrition, dehydration," he says. "As I was in the hospital I realized that I had a choice to make--whether on not I wanted to get out of there, wanted to take my last breath, wanted to continue with the partying and just die," he says.

Sobriety wasn't an easy path to choose. "I remember the first gig we had to do [with a previous band], at the Albion. I had to stand with my hands clasped behind my back for the whole gig because I was shaking so hard," he says. "I could always see the bottles of whiskey out of my peripheral vision, and it made me really buggy."

It got easier after the first year. He is as candid and honest on stage as he is one-on-one and--while announcing his teetotalling ways--will encourage the crowd to tip the bartenders well.

"When we go on a break and I don't sing for over a week, I begin to get antsy and angry and start feeling like I want to hit something," he says of living with his alcoholism today. "And those are the feelings that you have just prior to going 'Fuck this, fuck the world, I'm going to have a drink.' "

His deterrent to taking that drink is a 2-inch-long 12-gauge deer slug.

"I made an agreement with myself that if I fell off the wagon ever again that I would get 12 hours in which to party, and then I would never experience another hangover again," he says, "The good side of myself told the bad side of myself that if the bad side ever got out and took over again, then I'd only have 12 hours to live."

It's kept nearby in a cupboard. He's only had to take it out five times over the last 12 years, set it down front of him and think seriously about it. Each time he came to the conclusion that tomorrow is worth waiting for.

And the success of Red Meat is a large part of that tomorrow. Because, as Smelley says, "I know for a fact that music keeps me sober" .

Red Meat appears with Buck Owens on Sept. 29 at Bimbo's.

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From the September 27, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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