Country musician Jason DeShaw combines his songs and his personal story to bring awareness of mental health challenges to audiences across Big Sky country.
Growing up in rural Montana, Jason DeShaw set his eyes on the prize of country music stardom. Inspired by legends like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, he was writing songs, playing guitar, and looking for opportunities to perform while still in college.
He dates his “official” start in the music business to a sold-out show at Helena’s Myrna Loy Theater in 2003—the same year he graduated.
After doing the college concert circuit, he moved to Nashville for a couple years and got himself an agent. He got some notice and some prestigious gigs, opening for big-name acts like the Oak Ridge Boys, Little Big Town, and Jason Isbell. Even after relocating back home to work with his dad, he spent most of his time on the road, touring across the U.S. and in Europe.
A career based on constant traveling, an erratic schedule, and easy access to alcohol wasn’t ideal after DeShaw had his first manic episode in 2010. He kept it up for a while, recruiting a friend he calls “Big John” to drive him to his shows when he just couldn’t handle it. He released his fifth album, Atmosphere, in 2012, studio-produced with a roster of veteran backup players.
Within a year, though, DeShaw re-directed his guitar, song list, and laid-back charm toward another lofty goal: becoming an ambassador for folks with mental health challenges, while challenging the stereotypes of cowboy culture.
Now when he ambles out on stage and utters “Howdy,” he might go on to introduce himself as a “bipolar country-singing son of a gun.” He wants to call attention to his mental health condition while also establishing some normalcy around it.
“The brain is another organ in the body, just like the heart,” says DeShaw, 39. “But if you have a heart attack, people don’t turn their back on you. No, they’d probably bring you flowers. Well, I’ve never gotten a balloon or casserole for having mental illness.”
He’s shepherded his message to audiences in prisons, schools, veterans’ hospitals, community venues, and the Montana legislature. In 2014, DeShaw received the Lionel Aldridge Champions Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for exhibiting courage, strength, and leadership on behalf of those living with a serious mental illness.
“I want people to know they’re not alone with mental illness and addiction,” he says, adding, “Stigma is just a softer word for discrimination. When there’s love and compassion, there’s no room for stigma to exist.”
DeShaw lives in Montana’s state capital, Helena, but he grew up close to the North Dakota border in Plentywood, population 1,800.
He comes by his cowboy credentials honestly, having worked on a spread that was both wheat farm and cattle ranch.
Or as he puts it, tongue-in-cheek: “I spent many years as a bovine deposit dispersal engineer.” (Translation for city folks: He’s talking about cow dung.)
But DeShaw describes himself as “equal parts hippie and cowboy.” He says “Buddhism found me” when he was exploring different faith traditions after attending Carroll College, a Catholic institution in Helena.
With a major in business and marketing, DeShaw approached his country music career with entrepreneurial zeal. He spins some amusing anecdotes about his sometimes bumpy start in the wide-open spaces of the West.
“My first paid gig was for $500, and I had to drive 500 miles to Wyoming to get there,” he recalls. “I accidentally collided with a deer on the highway and that caused $7,000 in damage to my truck. It wasn’t a money-making job.”
A man with a methodical plan, he spent endless hours on the phone to identify potential bookings at fairs, rodeos, and anywhere else he could think of.
“I rang up an $840 phone bill one month,” DeShaw says. “My cell company said no roaming, and by God there was roaming.”
Selling crop insurance with his father helped pay the bills—another way to apply his college-honed business acumen.
THE GOOD FIGHT
Depressive symptoms kept DeShaw company along the way, but he never thought too much about his low moments and self-doubts. If anything, he assumed they stemmed from the pressure he put on himself to do and be more, and the physical and mental demands of an up-and-coming performer’s unrelenting schedule.
Drinking was a way to blow off stress, one with a stamp of approval in the environment he grew up in and the circles he was moving in.
“Light beer is currency in part of Montana,” he says.
A bottle of Canadian whiskey was involved in triggering that first manic episode, DeShaw notes. He was on tour, hunkered down in Regina, Saskatchewan, and had more than a few rounds after hearing about a friend’s tragic death.
Mania hit him like a freight train, he says. At the time, he explains in the short documentary Call Me Crazy, he “didn’t have a clue on what it could be” because he’d never heard mental health conditions talked about.
“I didn’t have a word to define it. I felt so alone—not like myself anymore,” he says.
DeShaw has the words now: a dual diagnosis of bipolar I and substance use disorder.
“You can’t talk about one and not the other, and if you treat only one, that’s destined to fail,” he says.
Still, finding the keys to stability and sobriety took a while. DeShaw was hospitalized more than a dozen times for mania, depression, and “exhaustion,” though he adds: “Who knows what was really going on?” He also checked himself into addiction treatment centers four times.
The programs never really took until he finally encountered a counselor “who looked at me and said, ‘You have to learn how to survive this thing because you have something important to give the world.’ … Everyone else treated me like a patient, not a human being.”
The arduous struggle to find a good mix of medications also made his recovery harder.
“Finally, the 26th one worked just fine,” he says with understated humor.
Despite the setbacks, DeShaw never gave up on treatment. For years, he drove 520 miles one-way to see his psychiatrist. He still checks in with that doctor and another psychiatrist, along with two other counselors and his primary care physician.
DeShaw describes his bipolar as an “energy disorder.” He explains, “I was either nervous or frantic, or there was nothing at all. It took me 10 years to master the flow.”
As he sees it, there was no other option but to stick with it.
“I’ve fought for every ounce of sobriety and sanity, and I know that if I don’t take care of myself, who’s going to?” he says.
“We are our own keepers. We can be the people we were destined to be, to take good care of our families, friends, and operate from a basis of love instead of fear.”
Maintaining his mental health while managing a performing career became less and less appealing— or realistic. An invitation in 2013 to meet with prominent Montana mental health advocates inspired him in a new direction.
“These people had been fighting in the trenches for years,” he says. “I asked them, ‘How can I help? And what if I combine my story with songs I’ve written during the highs and lows of my life?’”
The idea came to DeShaw when he was mired in a depression. He explains his thinking this way: “If I can have something good that comes out of all the bad, then everyone is better off.”
So DeShaw channeled his stumbles and successes into a powerful presentation he calls “Serenity in the Storm.” (He released a recorded version a few years ago under the same title.) The show became the focus of a study published in TheJournal of Rural Mental Health in 2019.
Montana State University researchers looked at whether “combining personal account with musical performance” had any effect on attitudes among high school students. They found that the presentation, seen by more than 20,000 teens over the years, significantly decreased stigma and increased the likelihood that they’d ask for help.
DeShaw believes it’s critical to provide education before a mental health crisis presents itself, especially since Montana has consistently had the highest suiclde rate per capita in the U.S. He says most kids at his gym assemblies “have never heard anyone speak about mental illness before, much less say they have it.”
He knows that audiences who can benefit from what he has to say—and sing— aren’t found only in smoky bars and music halls.
“I discovered hope needs to be shared everywhere, and I hit the road a-runnin,’“ he says.
His urge to help extends into practical areas, too. In response to the pandemic, he ran right into creating a friendly competition among rival schools to raise money for his state’s food bank and emergency scholarships.
DeShaw also co-founded Realize Hope, a nonprofit to help combat hunger and help people who have psychiatric conditions in Big Sky country.
“We can’t expect people to have good mental health if they’re worried about putting food on their table,” he says. “Any struggle is best fought together.”
EMBRACE THE MOMENT
Doing good is a form of self-care for DeShaw, who regularly reminds himself to “forget about ‘me.’” Sometimes he sits outside and stares at the aspen trees, armed with copious amounts of ice water or iced tea, “contemplating how to make the world a better place today.”
Meanwhile, he’s been making the most of spending time with longtime partner and toddler son, who turns 2 in January 2021. And he dotes on his 3-year-old service dog, Holly, a Golden Retriever/English Cocker Spaniel mix.
“We walk around the hills and I look for arrowheads. I just found the most beautiful rock, a Yellowstone River agate,” he relates.
Gratitude for such gifts makes up another form of self-care.
“I do everything in my power to embrace the moment that’s only given to us once … it’s sacred,” he says. “I look at the blue in the sky and say, ‘Thank you.’
“And I understand that we’re all just trying to get through and find our way home. … At the end of my days, I just hope to hang my hat and say ‘That was a job well done.’“
* * * * *
What Works for Jason DeShaw
SOUND PRACTICE: Music plays a big part in DeShaw’s self-care. Some days, he meditates to The Godfather soundtrack, a mix of songbook standards and classical excerpts.
BATH TIME: DeShaw takes a daily salt and mineral bath, or sometimes two baths “if it’s been a hard day with anxiety.” While soaking in a tub enriched with his favorite brand of bath powders, he’ll listen to old movie soundtracks or tunes by the late reggae master Bob Marley.
EARTH DAYS: Sheltering at home during the quarantine gave DeShaw an opportunity to landscape his yard, despite “wishing those plants would plant themselves,” he says. “But having hands in dirt and bare feet on grass is a grounding experience that connects me with the earth.”
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