Eric Gunderson should be dead.
One half of the country duo Love and Theft, Gunderson’s alcohol addiction was so severe seven years ago that he was experiencing the precursors to organ failure.
“I’ve had a couple of bad scares,” he admits. “I got a little addicted to alcohol. I didn’t know it was that easy. I come from a family with a history of addiction. I guess there’s that genetic predisposition, but in the music business, I think idle hands are definitely the playground.” devil’s playground.
Love & Theft recently released their EP, better without. The diverse six-song collection is the first project the duo, which also includes Stephen Barker Liles, have released since Gunderson got sober. The men co-wrote each song and self-produced the album largely from Gunderson’s home studio.
“We just wanted to write the songs in a fun, charismatic, easygoing way,” Gunderson, 37, tells PEOPLE. “We didn’t want to force our ideas into a machine and just produce another typical radio project. We just took a few more risks and did what the song called for.”
Gunderson couldn’t have co-written and co-produced the EP if he hadn’t been sober.
“I wouldn’t have had the bandwidth before to even take on the production of a project like that,” he says. “He was more wrapped up in appearance. That’s part of the reason he drank so much, to stay numb. You combine dependency with emotional issues and it’s really a recipe for disaster.”
His motivation was more compelling than his career. The singer is diabetic type 1, which makes alcohol even more harmful to his body. Gunderson says he didn’t want his wife of 12 years, Emily, to get a call from the duo’s tour manager saying she died in a hotel room. Gunderson did not realize that she was slipping into addiction. Alcohol is everywhere in the music business, and he says he went from drinking a few beers one night on tour to downing a couple cases of beer and a fifth of whiskey in the same period of time.
Love and Theft often took up supporting slots on major tours, meaning they played early in the evening and then joined the headliners on stage later in the night. The schedule created the perfect storm to fuel his alcoholism. The duo frequently played at 4:30 p.m. for fans watching the parking lot, and Gunderson tells PEOPLE he felt he had to look like he was having as much fun as they were. That means he was drinking before going on stage. He wanted to keep that buzz going before joining the headliner on the main stage, so he drank for the next five or six hours until it was the duo’s turn to leave.
“You had to keep up the pace just to try to get there and then just get as drunk as you could onstage,” says Gunderson. “Then you have to get back on the bus and hope you don’t pass out.”
The nights did not end there. Often people on tour would play football drunk in the parking lot.
“It got to the point where I had to drink so much to maintain that level of drunkenness that it was damaging my liver, my kidneys, my whole body,” he says. “There were a couple of times people couldn’t find me, and I did a pretty good job of hiding. I was never an angry drunk either. I was just kind of happy, happy, sloppy, then passed out, and then passed out.”
Gunderson admits that he’s passed out so many times that the incidents occur together, and he doesn’t remember who found him.
“It was a wake-up call to have a couple of near-death experiences,” he says. “As a type 1 diabetic, I run the risk of accidentally injecting too much insulin. When you’re this drunk, it’s hard to dose yourself properly. You can wake up from insulin shock or not wake up at all.”
She felt her career and her marriage slipping through her fingers, and she couldn’t help it. Gunderson went to the doctor, who ran some tests and noted that some of his levels were dangerously high. The singer denied having an alcohol problem, but he checked into rehab a couple of weeks later.
“That was one of the moments where I was afraid of losing my life just because the detox was so brutal,” he says.
Gunderson relapsed six months later and started drinking again. He then he quit cold turkey and now he hasn’t had a drink in almost seven years.
“It hasn’t been a struggle every day to want to have a drink,” he says. “It has fueled my desire to stay sober because I recognize how much better my life is without the constant stress and feeling bad about alcohol.”