Tyler Hilton Says Conquering ‘Raging’ Alcoholism Changed 'Entire Persona' & Fueled Best Album Yet (Exclusive)

Tyler Hilton
Catherine Powell

The musician and actor also reflected on living with Lady Antebellum & reuniting with Charles Kelley for his new record, out on Friday.

Thrust into showbiz at 15 years old, Tyler Hilton quickly became accustomed to rock star life, spending much of his teens and twenties on the road, partying by night, hungover by day and latching onto any excuse he could find to go out as soon as he returned home. “Whiskey, wine, IPAs, tequila flights -- I f**king loved all of it,” Hilton tells ET ahead of his new album, City on Fire, dropping on Friday. “It can be the best, to be in your twenties as a musician and actor. You get to hang out with the coolest people at the coolest houses and parties.”

Now, four years since getting sober, a feat he describes as “the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” Hilton is opening up about the implications that his drinking had on his life, work and relationships, and how getting healthy transformed his whole personality as well as his music.

Pursuing music at a young age, then getting into acting -- most notably with his roles as Elvis Presley in Walk the Line and Chris Keller on One Tree Hill -- Hilton recalls how constantly being on the road or on location, filming, meant that the easiest way to bond with tour or acting colleagues was by going out drinking. But while some people can “have a couple of beers and be over it,” Hilton describes himself as the opposite.

“In my family, alcoholism runs pretty deep, so luckily it didn’t get super dark for me, but I’ve got the chemical makeup where the more I drink, the more I want to drink,” Hilton, 35, admits. “I never get tired, I can stay up all night and I’m a big, loud, fun guy who can drink a lot, so I just never wanted to stop. On the road, it was perfect because it helped me get through long nights of meet-and-greets, interviews and shows, but when I came home I’d always find a way to be out, too. Tons of my friends are musicians, so every night there was a show in town -- essentially, I was never off the road.”

“And, Megan’s not a big drinker, so we weren’t the partying couple,” Hilton adds about how his drinking impacted his relationship with actress and director Megan Park, whom he married three years ago. “It was usually me raging with some band, then coming home late, which meant I wasn’t getting to hang out with her. I kept justifying it as, ‘I’m working -- making contacts and connections,’ but the longer I’ve been sober, the more I notice other people saying that and acting like it’s work, like I did for years.”

Hilton’s turning point came during a trip to New York to audition for a movie in 2014. Landing the night before, friends immediately hit him up to grab drinks. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to go out -- I’ve got this big audition in the morning.’ Of course, I ended up out and had the time of my life.”

Returning to his hotel room “wasted” at 3 a.m., Hilton woke up hungover the next morning, questioning why he would compromise such a great acting opportunity, and realizing his drinking had not only caused him to lose control, but was “totally getting in the way of my sh**.”

“There had been so many years of, ‘OK, I’m not going to drink before auditions. I’m not going to drink before a show,’ but none of my rules ever stuck,” he says. “So, I was hungover, flying home from that audition -- which I didn’t end up getting -- and thought, ‘Dude, you can be like Van Wilder forever or you can get your sh** together and start being serious about the art you want to make and all these ideas you have.’”

“I came home and told Megan and my best friend and I was in tears because I was bummed about giving up something I love,” he continues. “It’s hard, especially if you love booze! But I wanted something more. I wanted to stop being mediocre. I felt like my life was in a really boring loop -- hungover in the morning and busy at night. Plus, it was a huge time waster. I finally realized there was so much more to life.”

While Hilton attended meetings, he admits he hasn’t kept them up while constantly traveling, but has benefited most significantly from changing the people he hangs and works with. Previously feeling “embarrassed and so uncool” about quitting alcohol, he has also embraced sobriety and become comfortable talking about his struggles.

“I slowly started to talk to people and they’d go, ‘Oh, you should talk to so-and-so. He’s a big actor or musician and he doesn’t tell anybody, but he’s going through the same thing,’” Hilton says. “I found these little areas of support and people I could call to ask, ‘What do you do in this situation?’ It’s amazing how supportive people are. And I’ve now done the same thing -- I was just hanging out with this guy on the road and he was like, ‘This sounds really crazy, but I think I need to stop drinking … how did you do it?’ My heart was so full because I get to help somebody else with this now.”

Although giving back has been rewarding, it’s the drastic changes in Hilton’s own life, which continue to astound him. He says after giving up booze, the “brakes were slammed” on his entire personality and self-identity, explaining how he cut most of his previous friends out of his life, fired a bunch of people, stopped playing venues he hated and changed the way he makes music. Having felt like a “commodity” since he was 15, he also stopped leaving “one ear open” to record companies or brands he’s associated with, so he could “become more Tyler and less other people’s idea of Tyler.”

Thanks to newfound time, the Extant star has also completed his pilot’s license, written a TV pilot which has been picked up by a network, bought a house, built his own recording studio and been producing and writing for Billy Ray Cyrus. He also released a holiday single, “Don’t Feel Like Christmas,” from the movie Christmas Contract, which he starred in alongside his former One Tree Hill castmates in November.

Then, of course, there’s married life, which has brought a whole new level of enrichment to Hilton’s sobriety. “It was a whole different thing when we got married,” says Hilton of his relationship with Park, whom he met, then started dating, after the two starred in the 2007 movie Charlie Bartlett. “I surprisingly felt a whole different responsibility, like we were starting a family by getting married. You’re really laying the bricks for forever and I didn’t know how I was going to react to that -- and I love it!”

Having debuted the video (directed by Park) for City on Fire’s title track on ET and released the follow-up single, “How Long ‘Til I Lose You,” Hilton notes how his music has also taken on new life now that he has put his partying behind him. While before he would hit the studio, thinking “80% of the stuff I do is dumb,” he instead found his new tracks “tickling my soul,” and describes City on Fire as his best album yet.

The record started taking shape when Hilton’s former roommate-turned-country superstar, Charles Kelley from Lady Antebellum, phoned Hilton while on a break from touring in 2017. The two used to live together, along with Kelley’s bandmate, Dave Haywood. “These guys were nobodies,” Hilton recalls of their early days as friends, during which they would constantly mess around making music. “They decided they wanted to start a band, so they met this girl [Hillary Scott] on MySpace and started a band called Lady Antebellum and I was like, ‘Sh**, man, you guys are great!’ So, they started opening for me, people fell in love with them, then they started winning GRAMMYs!”

Fondly reminiscing during his call to Hilton, Kelley suggested the two hit the studio. The timing couldn’t have been better for Hilton, who was filming a sitcom that “wasn’t going anywhere,” and happily headed to Nashville to work with Kelley, as well as Hilton's longtime friend and guitarist, Jaco Caraco.

“Sure enough, as soon as I stopped ‘working’ the cooler songs started happening,” says Hilton, who will hit the road in the U.S. and Canada for his City on Fire tour beginning Feb. 19. “Between Charles, Jaco and I f**king around, we ended up accidentally making my favorite record I’ve ever made.”

Hilton, who is also pals with another country superstar, Taylor Swift, says the new music has a “western and Native American rootsy tinge,” and One Tree Hill fans will be pleased to hear there’s a duet with his former co-star and frequent collaborator, Kate Voegele, who played Mia on the popular series. The two previously toured through Europe together, with Hilton even sitting in with Voegele’s band. “It was so fun being a side guy and singing with her and we have a lot of mutual fans from One Tree Hill, so when we were all back in L.A. we got together to jam and wrote this song, ‘When the Night Moves,’ and she sang on it. I love it!”

Jeff Kober

City on Fire is out Jan. 18. See Hilton’s upcoming tour dates here.