In the isolation of a global pandemic, 38-year-old country singer Rich O’Toole, learned two important lessons; the first was how to take his mental health as seriously as an athlete treats a broken bone.
One night in Nashville, he was set to play a show to promote the release of his new single “Wild Horses,” but a long day of meet and greets and radio appearances had cranked O’Toole’s anxiety to critical levels. He found himself backstage in the green room, on the verge of a panic attack, so he started pounding back beers. Buzzed, he sauntered his way to the stage and fumbled his way through his set. “It was noticeable and it really wasn’t a good look,” O’Toole, a Houston native, admits.
After the show, he immediately knew he had to do something. When the performer got back to the green room, he turned to a woman who works at his record label (Buffalo Roam Records), and took accountability, saying out loud, “I need to get some help!” He went to a nearby rehab facility and checked himself in. Or, at least, he tried. “When I got there, it was past midnight and the facility was closed,” recounts O’Toole. “So, I saw a therapist in the morning. The therapist was like, ‘I don’t think you’re an alcoholic. You have a major anxiety disorder, and you’re using alcohol to cover it up.’”
O’Toole was also able to pinpoint the genesis of his anxiety struggles: a sudden ending to his big-league baseball dreams in high school. He was offered a scholarship to McMurry State in Abilene after he graduated from Stratford High School, just outside the Beltway, in 2001. “But I blew my elbow out, and I didn’t think I was good enough to get into the minor leagues, so I went to Texas A&M,” he recalls. “I never had anxiety as a pitcher because I was always in control,” O’Toole says. “When you’re a musician, the audience is in control.” Not only did he lose that sense of power, he also lost his greatest passion. It forced him to look, as many of us arguably have, to performer Bruce Springsteen for further inspiration.
O’Toole, like Springsteen, came from a lower-middle-class family, and loved baseball (see: The Boss’ music video for “Glory Days”) before picking up a guitar. “The moment I couldn’t play baseball, I immediately switched my passion over to guitar. If [Springsteen] could do it,” O’Toole thought, “I could do it.”
Since releasing his debut album, Seventeen, in 2006, O’Toole racked up several hits on the Texas Country charts, and collaborations with stars of the genre like Pat Green and Josh Abbott; he had established himself as a fixture of the scene, but his anxiety had only grown more untamed. Combine his mental health struggle with the pressure of trying to release and promote new music in a pandemic, and you have the perfect conditions for what Tom Petty would surely call a breakdown. Instead of going on a promo tour for his new single, O’Toole stayed at a friend’s place in Nashville for a few days to sober up, and then he flew back to Houston, and stayed home. It was the time spent at home, bonding with his parents, texting with close friends (like rapper Bun B and comedian Jenny Johnson), and meditating, that has helped O’Toole better manage his anxiety.
It ultimately led the singer to the second important lesson he learned: how to relate to the younger versions of his mother and father. “I spend way more time with my parents now than I ever did,” he says. “When you’re younger it’s harder to appreciate and understand what they are going through. Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘Oh, you were going through some real shit.’ I have a lot more empathy for my parents now.”
While at home he released his lone 2021 single, “17 Wild Horses,” which cracked the top 30 on the Texas Country charts. The song was inspired by John Dutton, a big-time Montana rancher played by Kevin Costner in the Emmy-nominated, Paramount+ drama Yellowstone. In the song O’Toole imagines how a Dutton-like character would navigate falling in love with a free-spirited woman, and though she seems to have no intention of settling down, the protagonist dreams of riding off into the sunset with her anyway. Sonically, it owes much to Tom Petty, with its warm guitar chords and its road trip-ready, four-on-the-floor drums. “To me it’s like Tom Petty meets Brooks & Dunn,” he says. But that voice, wistful and rugged, is unmistakably O’Toole’s. “She came in like seventeen wild horses, blazing a trail of sin,” he croons.
O’Toole has come to the realization that anxiety, like wild horses, can be tamed by the intrepid, but never fully controlled. It’s in a person’s genetic makeup. “Will I still maybe have a beer before a show?” asks O’Toole. “Yeah. I just don’t want to have seven before a show. So many musicians you hear about doing the same thing, using booze to fight off anxiety attacks, and they hide it from the people around them, and then one day they just get real sick and die.”
I wonder aloud what John Dutton’s advice for Rich would be, what could Dutton say to help Rich manage that anxiety? He has an idea. “I think it would be some fatherly advice,” he postulates. “He’d say, ‘The panic isn’t going to last forever, so you should tough it out, because you love it.’