Not too long ago, Houstonian Max Flinnwas a promising high school quarterback for Bellaire High School, an All Greater Houston and district MVP with eyes on a bright college football career. But something dark was chasing the young athlete and musician.
“I played guitar for fun as a kid and throughout high school,” Flinn recalls to CultureMap, “and then when my addiction really took hold, there was no music. I mean, literally, I would pawn my guitars to pay for drugs and things.”
A DWI followed, changing his college football trajectory. “I got sober and then sort of rediscovered — reignited — my love for, for music and decided to make it a career,” he says. He left his job in oil and gas in 2017, and now, he's an accomplished singer-songwriter with national writing credits to his name.
Welcome to Sober Fest
With a 10-year sobriety track record and seasoned music career, Flinn is the perfect music curator for Houston's inaugural Sober Fest. The diverse — and completely alcohol and drug-free — music showcase hits White Oak Music Hall on Sunday, May 21. The talented roster of artists perform from noon to 6 pm, playing everything from Texas country to '80s, video-game inspired pop.
Flinn, a country crooner who looks fit for the upcoming season of Yellowstone, will take the stage along with faith-based performer Marshall Camp; Texas soul singer Micah Edwards; singer-songwriter Chris Lively; country singer — and former Baylor basketball player — John Heard; vocalist Catterina; Texas country performer South Texas Tweek; DJ StevieRay; and Legacy Man, the Heights sensation who rocks '80s anime pop — on rollerblades.
Music fans should check out the lineup list here with each artist's Spotify playlist.
“We wanted a really diverse line up and I think we accomplished that,“ says Flinn. “We've got men, we've got women, we've got different ethnicities, and we've got a wide-ranging style of music.”
More a Sunday matinee concert and less a sobriety Ted Talk, Sober Fest celebrates the sober life, sobriety, and those who looking for a good time without imbibing. Fans can expect barbecue, and plenty of alcohol-free refreshments. The event, a first for Houston, is produced by the Party Sober Partnership, an organization that throws sober theme parties across town.
“This is just a music festival,” promises Flinn. “It's not gonna be a place that feels awkward for somebody who's not sober and it won’t feel preachy to someone who's thinking about getting sober. I really want this to be all-inclusive for everybody.”
Sober — but not sobering
“I think that there's a misconception for people, especially those newly sober or even thinking about it — we call it sober curious — that it's like the death of fun,” Flinn notes. The show takes place on a Sunday, known as Sunday Funday for the party crowd, but Flinn thinks that can be overplayed, too.
“The truth is, Sunday Funday as they knew it might be all over,” he says of those who might miss the boozy revelry. “But that wasn't too much fun to begin with — or else they wouldn't find themselves thinking about getting sober.”
The dichotomy of celebrating sobriety in a scene that often celebrates debauchery, booze, and drugs isn't lost on Flinn. “Nowadays, after many years of sobriety, I'm perfectly comfortable being out in bars and clubs and where alcohol is served. I mean, I'm probably in those environments more often than I am in recovery groups,” he notes. But that wasn't always so easy.
“In early recovery, I didn't go to bars. I didn't go out to live music for the first year-and-a-half, maybe two years, because I really needed to insulate myself. It was hard to be in those types of environments and not feel the urge, the peer pressure, the trigger — whatever you wanna call it — to not to not drink or use.”
The freedom of booze-free
Now, Flinn can “go anywhere and do anything without that sort of temptation. That's, that's the miracle of it,” he says. “But, for those people that are still in that place and for some, it takes longer than others just to have a safe place to go and enjoy music where they otherwise maybe don't feel comfortable to do that. It's cool for me, all these years later to be a part of something that sort of reminds me of where I was early on.”
A booze-free show, on the other hand, can actually be liberating for those who perhaps get a little carried away at shows. “I meet a lot of people who maybe are not necessarily sober or alcoholics or have a problem, but they do end up drinking more than they wish to drink because they're out of a concert and everybody else is doing it.”
“So, here's an opportunity to come out on a Sunday afternoon and just enjoy music in a sober environment, support the recovery community, and not have to worry about drunks, getting in fights, or drinks hitting your car on your way home.”
Tuned in to a movement
Flinn isn't afraid of sharing his story, but he does so in moderation. “When I talk about it on stage, I give it 10 to 20 seconds and it's usually just talking about being sober and how much it's great for me,” he says.“I also say it's not for everybody.”
Some of the Sober Fest acts are also in recovery, while others are supportive. “Some other artists aren't necessarily in recovery, but they're what I would call sober allies,” Flinn notes, “they support our mission, they support our community.”
Spirited fun — with no spirits
Flinn knows that sobriety and the sober-curious movement is on the rise. “My wife even told me that it's becoming even sort of cool and trendy in places like Europe to be sober. And you do have a lot of these nonalcoholic beer companies popping up, like Athletic Brewing here in Houston, and places like Sipple — they're co-sponsoring our event with Rambler. So I do think that the stigma is breaking and that it is becoming more mainstream and cool.”
As someone who's lived in both worlds, Flinn channels the partier and sober in his work. “You don't want to only sing from where you're at all the time. I think that would get a little stale. I can sing a drinking song and a recovery song with equal fervor.”
Even in an industry that is known for handing performers booze and drugs, Flinn finds support. “On occasion you'll get some smartass comment like, ‘well, more for me,’ but I'd say 95 percent of the responses to me telling people that I'm sober is, ‘that's awesome.’” I also get a lot of ‘I wish I could do that,’ or ‘I should probably do that, especially in my world,’ — which is the world of club owners and promoters and people that are out partying.”
Not that Flinn really relies on others' opinions, anyway. “Here's the deal. I only take my own experience and as I've grown more comfortable in who I am in the way that God made me, I really just care a lot less what people think is cool or not. I'm having fun — more fun than I could ever have — in a way that I can be proud of and that doesn't wreck the lives of my own and people around me.”
Just a good time
Seriousness aside, Flinn just wants folks to have fun. “We want to show people that it's great to go out to live music if you're sober. I think if you're sober and you wanna go to watch Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson smoke weed together on stage because you enjoy their music, you should be able to do that, too.
“This is an event that celebrates the recovery community, that shows people that we're not squares, we're not dull, and just shows the outside community that we like to have a good time. It also shows people newly in sobriety that we can have a lot of fun — any time we can.”
Sober Fest runs from noon to 6 pm at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N Main St. For tickets and more information, visit the official site.