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Music As God: Bryan Hicks' Journey From Addiction And Homelessness To Recovery

Paul Andrews
Bryan Hicks hosting a weekly Sunday jam session at YJ's in the Crossroads

When alcoholism and addiction landed Bryan Hicks on the streets, it wasn't a spiritual epiphany that sent him searching for help. It was the realization that if he didn't get help, he was going to die.

In those days, his view of Kansas City consisted mostly of cracks in the sidewalks because his head was always hung low, looking for change, a discarded piece of pizza or half a beer left behind by a Westport reveler. Occasional hospital stays felt like spa getaways.

He'd been having seizures. He'd started coughing up blood.

This was a guy who'd played in a band with local jazz great Ida McBeth. He was a founding member of beloved local groups like the Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band and later, the Malachy Papers.  He'd even performed with the likes of Mose Allison, Karrin Allyson, Jimmy Whitherspoon and Charlie Mussellwhite. 

But Bryan's journey into addiction had begun almost as early as his musical training.

He got his first guitar for his birthday, when he was nine or 10 years old, in Kansas City, Kansas. He and his dad used to go through a songbook of country and western greatest hits. But he was just sort of lukewarm on his music lessons.

Then he heard jazz. 

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

He started going to debaucherous late night jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 18th and Vine when he was in junior high, in the mid-1970s.

"I shouldn't have been there, but I was and it changed my life," he says. "Musically, it was a lot to take in. I remember seeing Sonny Kenner and seeing him play a blues ... I remember watching him change chords every two bars, he'd have all these passing chords and I just did not understand that at all, but I wanted to. I really wanted to. It opened up a whole new world of music. And life, really."

It was a fantasy world, and that included a lot of booze-swilling and pot-smoking. 

"I was always a little insecure and a little afraid, or a lot insecure and a lot afraid, but I noticed those things made me less insecure and less afraid."

After one year in college, Bryan fell out of the program. He set off on a hitch-hiking adventure, which eventually landed him in Kansas City's music scene — as well as a pattern of addiction, recovery and relapse.

During a period of recovery, he met his wife, a woman with a young daughter. Not ready to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, and a little surprised by the suddenness of fatherhood in his life, Bryan panicked and acted out. Which brings us back to the part of the story that finds him on the street, fearing for his life.

And deciding it was time to go home and clean up.

"One week I'm stealing Vodka from Sunfresh, the next week I'm sleeping in a bed, walking (my daughter) Jorden to the park. Sometimes it was just unbelievable. At the time, I made a deal with God that I would be a good dad and not drink in exchange for something else. It was a good start."

There were other reunions as well. Including a significant one with his mother.

"When I was on the street, I didn't think I'd ever see anybody in my family again. I had kind of gotten used to that idea. It was just something I tucked away in a cubbyhole in my addled brain. So when I sobered up, I saw her once, right before Thanksgiving, and then she passed away November 30."

He also reunited with music, writing a haunting song called Novemberright after his mother's death.

As for the role of music in his recovery?

"Well it sure is sweet. ... When I was young, music was a way to impress people, it was a way to receive some kind of affirmation from people. ... I wanted to be told how special I was."

What is it now?

"It's God."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.