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Nathaniel Rateliff: Music on the edge

The unique sound of Nathaniel Rateliff
The unique sound of Nathaniel Rateliff 06:10

For the Colorado-based band Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, taking the stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre is always a kind of homecoming: "It was another one of those places that seemed like a dream if we could ever even play there," Rateliff said. "And now, I'm not even sure how many times I've played there!"

Success has come late for the 44-year-old Rateliff and his band. He's sung with Paul Simon at the Newport Folk Festival; with Willie Nelson at Outlaw Fest; and been the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live."

"I just didn't think it was ever going to happen," Rateliff said.

Correspondent Anthony Mason asked, "How come?"

Success has come late for the 44-year-old front man of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. But nothing has come easily for the rocker, who has confronted alcoholism and personal tragedies - and you can hear all of it in his music. CBS News

"I don't know. I'm sure somewhere in there it's because I don't feel like I deserve it. You know, like, experiencing joy is not always easy." 

Nothing has come easily for Rateliff, who was raised in a deeply religious family in Missouri, a dot signifying his hometown of Hermann tattooed on his arm. At 18, Rateliff moved to Denver with his friend, Joseph Pope III. "We moved out here to work with a missionary organization," Rateliff explained.

But they were quickly disillusioned, and started playing bars, like the Hi-Dive, at night. "This is where we really cut our teeth," Rateliff said.

By day, they got jobs at a truck depot. Rateliff said, "I'm sure he wasn't stoked about hiring us. We looked like ding dongs." 

"We've come a long way?" laughed Pope. "It was a great way to write, like, singing to yourself on a truck, singing on a forklift."

"Yeah, I would have my tape recorder when I worked in the yard," Rateliff said.

The two had started collaborating musically back in Hermann. Pope recalled, "I was in fifth grade; he was in sixth grade, and we were in honors choir, and we didn't really know each other yet. But it's the first real memory I have of singing, like, What should we do with a drunken sailor?" 

Pope has played in all of Rateliff's bands.

Mason asked, "What's it meant for you to have each other going through all this?"

"You know, I think at times we used each other as a crutch to make it through, just kind of limp through whatever tragedy we were going through," Rateliff said.

Nathaniel Rateliff and Joseph Pope III, with correspondent Anthony Mason, at the Hi-Dive in Denver. CBS News

In 2002, it was Pope's testicular cancer: "I was going through chemo, and we were rehearsing in the back of this house down the street. And I remember my hair started to fall out. And we stopped practice right there. And Nathaniel shaved his head." 

"In solidarity?" Mason asked.

"We made it through," Pope noted.

Their first band, Born in the Flood, built a big following in Denver. "I think one of our songs was like 40 minutes long!" Rateliff laughed.

Low Flying Clouds by Born in the Flood - Topic on YouTube

But he tired of that sound. "I actually turned down a record deal for it."

"You turned down a record deal?" asked Mason.

"They were offering us, like, $150,000, and I told my manager, I was like, 'It just doesn't feel right.'"

He went solo for a while. Then, at 35, decided to start another band.

Mason said, "In a way, was The Night Sweats your sorta Hail Mary?"

"That was it, yeah! I was like, 'Well, I'm gonna lose my hair soon. Nobody wants to see a bald rock star, you know? And I was like, 'I've never been thin,' so there's that." 

Released in 2015, their debut album would go gold, behind the salty lead single "S.O.B.," which went platinum. The video of "S.O.B." has 86 million views now on YouTube. But the rousing chorus foretold problems for Rateliff:

Son of a bitch,
Give me a drink,
One more night,
This can't be me,
Son of a bitch,
If I can't get clean,
I'm gonna drink my life away

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - S.O.B. (Official) by NRateliffVEVO on YouTube

Rateliff said, "In the middle of making the second record, you know, I was struggling with alcoholism. I was going through a separation that would later be a divorce." 

"So, what was that period like for you? Because that's a lot."

"I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown."

He went on a health retreat. Then, his producer, Richard Swift, died. "He kind of lost his struggle with a lot of that stuff," Rateliff said.

"And I imagine it was very emotional," said Mason.

"It was. I didn't have any intentions on working with anybody else. We were very close."

"Was it a wakeup call to you in any way?"

"I think the real wakeup call was when I was at his memorial service, and his wife was just like, 'We're not going to do this for you.' I didn't want anybody to have to bury me, either, like my mother or my friends. You know, I think about Richard most days." 

You can hear all of it in his music:

Lately I've been feeling this way,
tell me if I'm wrong,
Only thing I felt in weeks,
is when I leaned in to know,
Singing, love don't treat you like that,
Not when it's around,
Love won't treat you like that,
No, honey, no.
From "Love Don't"

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - "Love Don't" (Official Audio) by Nathaniel Rateliff on YouTube

Rateliff said, "I'm not a great showman. I just care about what I'm singing."

Nathaniel Rateliff is trying to live cleaner now, but keep his music on the edge: "With rock 'n' roll, it's always best when it's about to fall off the tracks, and you're just like, I can't believe that just happened," he said. "But that's what makes it exciting, you know, when it feels like it's about to fall apart, and it doesn't."

You can stream Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats' 2021 album "The Future" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):

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Story produced by Ramon Parkins. Editor: Karen Brenner. 

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