"I don’t know what’s wrong with me!" T. Graham Brown's anguished 2:30 a.m. phone call suddenly awakened his wife from a deep sleep at their Nashville home. Heading to North Carolina on a customized tour bus after an onstage meltdown at Planet Hollywood where the country-soul balladeer uncharacteristically belittled his longtime drummer Mike Caputy for supposedly not keeping time, the gentle Southern lady comforted her shaken husband as best she could and insisted that he schedule an appointment at the renowned Vanderbilt University Medical Center for testing.
The diagnosis was initially grim. T. Graham was bipolar, and his shocking condition had gone undiagnosed for an astounding four decades and counting. But there had been warning signs before all hell broke loose during that calamitous early morning in 1998.
T. Graham's grandfather had committed suicide. As a teenager, the entertainer experienced difficulty concentrating and sleeping. His mind was always racing. Once he attended college at the University of Georgia in Athens – aka party central – and began fronting a country rock band, liquor and downers including Quaaludes became his respective choices of self-medication.
Even when fame arrived with a monumental bang after the title cut of his 1985 Muscle Shoals-recorded debut album I Tell It Like It Used to Be landed snugly inside the Top Ten, the blue-eyed soul singer retreated to his bedroom, drew the drapes, and curled up in a fetal position until the next tour. Sheila was forced to remove his prized shotguns from the house after severe bouts with depression.
In an exclusive and extremely rare interview, T. Graham's lovely personal manager tackles her partner's bipolar disorder head on, offering a promising ray of light for others suffering from the potentially deadly disease. T. Graham has also documented his travails in song, as the raucous rock 'n' roller "Monkey" candidly demonstrates: "My mind is racing and the monkey knows, I wish my monkey would let me go..."
Later, in the conclusion of his extensive session [Part One, entitled "Drowning in Memories with a Country Song's Best Friend", is available if you click on the link], T. Graham lightens the mood considerably by demonstrating his seasoned raconteur sensibilities, regaling with tales of his country-soul influences, listening habits, and performing at a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame banquet to honor guitarist Steve Cropper and simultaneously one-upping bona fide superstar Garth Brooks.
Though not widely publicized, T. Graham cultivated a brief acting stint. Elvis fans should stick around to learn about the artist portraying long-time Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling in Heartbreak Hotel, directed by Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame. The revelation that he had a bit role in one of groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor's best but rarely seen films, Greased Lightning, is icing on the cake.
Appearing incessantly in the ‘80s on Nashville Now, hosted by legendary disc jockey Ralph Emery and airing on The Nashville Network (TNN), nourished T. Graham’s early success, and the singer makes a point to declare his debt of gratitude to Emery and lament the loss of TNN.
Performing in a laidback ring with innumerable country legends on the popular Country’s Family Reunion on RFD-TV has enhanced his television notoriety in recent years, although certain fans are continually astounded when they realize their favorite artist is among the living.
Not guided by fame and fortune in the slightest, T. Graham is always happy to meet fans, chat awhile, sign autographs, or pose for photos. A nearly 35-year marriage to the girl of his dreams and becoming a card-carrying disciple of Jesus Christ keeps him grounded.
The singer-songwriter’s valiant decision to largely forgo smoking has advantageously impacted his shows, including his well-received November 2013 appearance during Playin' Possum! The Final No Show, an all-star tribute for his mentor, George Jones, conducted at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
T. Graham's only child has followed in his mellifluous footsteps, firmly anchoring the rhythm section as drummer for Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders – a frenetic Nashville-based garage punk outfit preparing to perform at South by Southwest (SXSW). No two ways about it, the "Brilliant Conversationalist" from South Georgia is genuinely proud to be a dad and has slowly but surely learned to live with himself.
The Sheila Brown Interview
How did you meet your future husband?
I was born at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. My dad was a career air force pilot, so we traveled all over the U.S. We were stationed in Hawaii for four years and then South Carolina for about seven years.
I grew to love the South, so when I started to look at colleges, I chose one that had a veterinarian program and one that was located in the south – the University of Georgia (UGA) was my first choice.
Tony and I met through a small circle of friends. It was at a Dirk & Tony show in ‘75 or ’76 at UGA. Dirk was a friend of Tony's, so they decided to form a duet and sing "beach" music, which was very popular with the college crowd at the time. Athens is a very musical town, and hearing live music was the thing you did on Friday and Saturday nights.
A few years later in 1978 I happened to see him again when he had his first band, Reo Diamond, a hardcore country group doing covers like Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors.” It was pretty much love at first sight. Actually, a more accurate term might be second sight [laughs].
We were married on Nov. 30, 1980. As it was going to take four more years for me to complete vet school, we decided, "Hey, let’s try this big adventure in Nashville! We'll go spend a couple of years there, and if we don’t have any luck, we can always come back to Georgia."
But I think we knew in our hearts that Tony would find what he was looking for and what he was supposed to do in Music City. We moved to Nashville in May 1982 in a little Volkswagen bug along with a red and white 1959 Ford station wagon we called "Ruby".
After a few years of doing songwriter demos and showcases for executives in the music industry, Tony got his first major label record contract with Capitol Records. We’ve never looked back.
Were there warning signs prior to T. Graham’s diagnosis?
When Tony lived in Athens, his job consisted of singing in bars and clubs, and alcohol was around him constantly. He told me he was always in party mode, looking for a good time all the time as the saying goes.
He was young, living and singing in an infamous party college town. If drinking every day for the purpose of changing how you feel is one of the definitions of an alcoholic, then that was what Tony was becoming.
Back when he was about 14 or 15, he said he began noticing that he couldn’t settle his mind at the end of the day to relax, lie down, and rest as most people do. His thoughts were always racing.
Subsequently, he realized drinking alleviated those symptoms. And when he took drugs, he chose the ones that were downers like Xanax, Quaaludes, and pot because they would relax him, a classic definition of self-medication.
At this time he had no idea, and neither did I, that bipolar disorder was interrupting his life. Although alcohol can be a stimulant, it is much more of a depressant if you drink it to excess.
The bipolar condition is a huge component of why he drank. He told me once that when he was in a manic state, there’s no drug that can touch it. It’s the most euphoric feeling for the person going through it, but it is not for the people around them.
When he would return from the road, he would go into the bedroom, close the drapes until it was completely dark, and curl up on the bed in a fetal position until he went out the next time. He did that for years. I thought it was an alcohol-related thing, and I could not get him to go to a doctor.
And Tony could not distinguish between dreams and reality. When Acme was a small child, Tony would wake up and say, “You can’t take Acme!” I’d respond, “What are you talking about?” And it was all due to a dream.
Did T. Graham contemplate suicide?
Tony’s been on the verge of suicide three times, and it was very frightening. Tony would close himself off in his bedroom, and he’d say, “I don’t know if I can take one more day of this. I feel like life is not worth living, and I need to do something about it.” People suffering from bipolarism think things through so specifically in every minute detail.
Tony also had shotguns since he was a Southern boy, and he used to hunt with his dad. I removed them all, but it was still scary. A lot of times I had to go to work or take Acme somewhere, and Tony would be home alone. But thankfully nothing bad ever happened.
His grandfather, George Washington Brown, committed suicide. We called him Mr. George, and he told me that he couldn’t quiet his mind several times. He would toss and turn all night. It never dawned on me until later that he was bipolar.
What have you learned about bipolar disorder?
Bipolar means a person is real high (manic state) sometimes, or they are very low (depressed state). And people cycle between the two – it could be as short as a few hours or as long as a couple of months (depending on whether the person has a doctor or is taking medication).
Manic depressives love that high feeling. They can’t sit down or stay still; they love the feeling of euphoria. They think they’re creative and productive and just the most wonderful person in the world.
But they’re not. Their behavior is irrational. They might get something creative accomplished, but it is not a pleasant experience when others are around. Not surprisingly, it was very hard for Tony to tell when he was manic, but other people could tell immediately.
Bipolar people do not want to take medicine. It’s the only disease where your mind tells you not to take it. Your mind is telling you that everyone else is crazy – you’re perfectly fine. When they’re in a manic state, they believe they’re very productive and creative, but they’re also quite destructive. It’s a very strange disease.
A number of musicians and artists had the disorder. Did you know – Handel wrote The Messiah in a very short period of time when he was manic. Vincent Van Gogh suffered from the disease. Actresses Patty Duke and Carrie Fisher still do. To learn more, I recommend a fascinating book by Kay Redfield Jamison called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
When was T. Graham diagnosed?
Tony was diagnosed with the disease when he was in his early forties in 1998. We had done a private show at Planet Hollywood in Nashville. In the middle of the concert, T. became agitated and started saying things about Mike Caputy not keeping the time correctly on drums. First of all, Tony would never say anything like that onstage. He would wait until the show was over to speak with a band member, so it was very out of character for him.
After the show, they all got on the bus to travel to North Carolina for another gig. I didn’t travel much back then with the band, so I wasn’t there. I remember Tony called me around 2:30 in the morning, and he was sobbing hysterically, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” After he said that to me, I told him that once he returned home, we were going to find out what was happening.
What happened when you took T. Graham to Vanderbilt University Medical Center?
The team of doctors did an extensive four-hour examination of him. They determined he was bipolar. Later I talked to his mother, and she said that bipolar disorder was very prevalent in their family, as was alcoholism. It made a lot of sense.
They put Tony on a cocktail of medicine, basically a chemistry experiment. You have to figure out which one in combination works with a particular person and not cause any side effects that will get in your way.
They started him out on Lithium, certainly not as advanced as the drugs you have today. It calmed him down, but as Tony described it, it put him in a black hole. He didn’t wanna write or do anything.
He was able to muster enough and go out on the road, since we had to make a living. He wouldn’t curl up in a ball on the bed like he had been doing before, but he was still staying in his room, isolating himself.
The Vanderbilt doctors didn’t seem very caring. They were very methodical. When he first went in to see the doctor, political correctness started coming into play, and with a psychiatric patient, the laws of privacy.
The doctor called his name, and I got up with him to see the doctor. They stopped me right there, saying I couldn’t even walk down the hall. I blurted out, “But I’m his wife!” Yet it was to no avail. Tony simply couldn’t identify with that doctor.
How did you find your current physician?
About a year later, I was in the kitchen doing dishes. I was also watching a local program called The Noon Show, and my ears perked up when they said, “Coming up next, Dr. Robert Jamison, the bipolar manic-depressive expert of the Southeast.”
Boy, I turned around immediately and paid attention. Here comes this grandfatherly guy, just so sweet and kindly. He said, “When I treat bipolarism, I treat the family, as it’s a family disease. I insist if a person is married, they need to bring their spouse along with them. I talk with them, and I help them understand the disease.”
So I wrote down his number. We weren’t able to see him for about six months, but we’ve been with him ever since. He’s fabulous. We’re so grateful to Dr. Jamison for everything he’s done for us.
He’s a very dear friend of ours, a truly brilliant and compassionate man. He’s a psychiatric pharmacologist. He is so well-versed in medications and does an amazing job. In a mental illness situation, you have to identify with and trust your doctor.
Dr. Jamison insists I come in with Tony. When we get in his office and sit down, he looks at Tony and asks, “Well how are you doing?” Tony replies, “Oh, I’m doing fine.” Then Dr. Jamison turns towards me and says, “How is he really doing?”
One time Tony asked Dr. Jamison, “Can’t you adjust my medicine so I’ll be a little more manic? Not bad, but a little more?” I’m sure Dr. Jamison saw my mouth drop down. He said, “Tony, let me explain something to you. Manic is mean.” Tony looked over at me and went, “Ohh.”
Was it difficult to determine what medications to give T. Graham?
Definitely; we had to keep trying different medicines because not every medicine works for every patient. And sometimes the side effects are horrible and not worth it.
One prescription made Tony’s hair fall out. Another one made his hands shake so terribly he couldn’t hold his fork or microphone. Then one had him forgetting the lyrics to his songs.
You have to eliminate those and try others. It takes a few weeks before the doctors can determine whether they’re working. To be honest, Tony hates these medicines, and that is simply a symptom of the disease.
I have a lot of compassion for Tony because he doesn’t want to take his medicine, but being on the other side of it, I have to explain that he cannot function without it. It took a long time for me to explain that to Tony.
Seroquel is the only sleep medication he can take; it calms a bipolar person’s mind down so they can sleep. It also contains a little anti-depressant. Unfortunately, it’s a weight-gain drug, and that’s why he is heavy.
I didn’t realize this until I began researching it on my computer, but I discovered that every patient gains between 40 and 60 pounds if they take Seroquel. The reason why is due to the medication turning off the center in your brain that lets you know you’re full.
It’s very difficult to lose weight while taking it, but it’s our only option. I hope technology will lead to a better alternative soon.
He can’t take any type of narcotic, due to his addictive tendencies. Ambien and Lunestra are out of the picture, since side effects may lead to suicide. We have to make sure he takes his medicine, because you can’t skip a few days. And I always remind him to be careful to do things that will keep him healthy.
T. Graham Brown: Sheila remains the most wonderful human being that I have ever known. I had a manic episode in the recording studio the other day and they tell me it was a wild ride. But all in all, this medicine is working about right. However, I hate taking it [laughs].
“Wine into Water” and “Monkey” are two songs that deal with T. Graham’s inner struggle.
In fact, Tony was not totally staying away from drinking when he wrote “Wine into Water.” He had tried to quit but had slipped a few times. He entered rehab for a month in Cottonwood, Ariz., at a dual diagnosis center for drinking and bipolarism that I found. But when “Wine into Water” really hit big, that’s when he completely stopped drinking.
Tony wrote “Monkey” [The Next Right Thing, 2003] in about five minutes, and he was manic during the process. If you listen to the words, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
To me, “Monkey” is the “Wine into Water” for the bipolar establishment. He was so happy when he received two Image Awards (a family-oriented values award), first for “Wine into Water,” and then one for “Monkey.”
How has T. Graham changed for the better?
He takes a combination of five different medicines for the disease, but he is able to function normally and have a life. Tony is much kinder and able to interact with folks more. Tony still isolates himself more than he should, but he is more even-keeled than he ever was. He just doesn’t realize it.
He’s never been a social person. Now that he can’t drink, it’s like, ‘Why should I go to the party?’ It’s a shame, and I hope he gets over that feeling. When I can get him to go out someplace, he usually has a real good time. He likes to remark, “I don’t ever laugh,” but he does all the time. It’s just one of those things you deal with.
What would you say to families dealing with the disease?
Fifty years ago, an awful lot of people were thrown into mental institutions and forgotten. There was no treatment – other than lithium – and some people were allergic to it. There were no anti-depressants, and folks didn’t discuss their feelings. So they covered it up with alcohol, and before you knew it, you were an alcoholic.
If you’re not on medication or seeing a doctor, absolutely outrageous behavior becomes the norm. People may try to jump off buildings thinking they can fly or rob banks because they have a grandiose vision of, ‘I can do it and not get caught.’
There’s a tremendous amount of suicide in this disease if people don’t receive help. It’s a progressive disease, and the older someone gets, if you don’t do anything about it, it only gets worse.
It’s the 21st century, and I’m one who’s ready to stand up and say, “Hey, having a mental illness is no different than being a diabetic or having heart problems.” There shouldn’t be this stigma that there’s something awful about having a mental illness.
Bipolarism is a journey. Tony will be bipolar until the day he dies, but it is treatable. Tony’s not ashamed of it, but he doesn’t go on and on about it. If someone comes up to Tony after a show and asks about his drinking or bipolarism, Tony is very upfront with them. He hopes his experience will encourage others to seek help.
[Author’s Note: After reading Sheila's account, T. Graham emailed the following remarks to this writer..."I had forgotten how visceral this piece is. It's very, very hard for me to revisit. No man can run away from himself. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to face. There are some things I wish that could do over, or better yet, never had done at all. Especially the things that hurt Sheila, Acme, friends, and family. I have been given the priceless gift of a second chance at doing it right. I have repented and can now start anew on my mission to help and give people hope of a better existence. God is on top of it all, and I'm thankful that He let me live long enough to learn it"].
The T. Graham Brown Interview, Part Two (Conclusion)
Does a humorous anecdote spring to mind regarding your international pursuits?
I was going through customs last week at JFK Airport in New York City after a fierce nine-hour headwind flight on the way home from Zurich, Switzerland. Zurich…it just sounds so pretentious [laughs]. Jo-El Sonnier, one of the kings of Cajun soul, and I were returning with our wives after appearing at a massive 38-day country music festival.
When the customs agent looked up from my passport, a familiar feeling reminded me of an earlier incident. Coming back from Holland in 2009, my full name, Anthony Graham Brown, came up on the customs computer as a bad guy.
I was whisked off to a holding room with a bunch of Middle-Eastern types and questioned. I knew that I hadn't done anything; still, it was unsettling. I innocently said I guessed that the real bad guy was still on the loose. The agent was less than impressed.
I was escorted back to the holding area and told to sit down on one of the chairs and wait. I noticed a government poster on the wall describing the interrogation process, so I got up and walked over to get a better look. It stated that the customs agents had to treat detainees with respect and so forth.
An agent suddenly called me to the desk and harshly admonished me for moving from my chair and asked what I was doing. I told them that I was reading their pledge (the word was indeed listed on the poster). Remembering that I had a plane to catch and would soon be home, I knew that an interrogation of any length could possibly make me miss my flight.
Then it hit me. A pure stroke of genius! As fast as lightning and standing erect, I recited the Boy Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
A hush fell and eventually smiles emerged all around. My passport was returned without one question being asked. They just didn't know who they were messing with. Anthony Graham Brown – Boy Scout and All-American Boy [laughs].
How did you come to share a stage with Garth Brooks?
One of the coolest things I’ve ever accomplished was attending the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame dinner [October 2010]. Stephen Foster, one of America’s first popular and professional songwriters, was inducted that night. He wrote “Old Folks at Home [Swanee River]” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” The most interesting aspect of his induction was the fact that he’s been dead for almost 150 years.
I was there to induct Steve Cropper. I got up and nailed “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which was good for me as I never perform in front of the music community anymore. I’ve sang it at my shows for years. I just wore a black suit with no tie, and they hadn’t seen me sing in years and years. I think they went, ‘Whoa…he’s still with us.’ I got a ton of compliments.
Tanya Tucker sang right before me, honoring songwriter Paul Davis with her definitive cover of “Love Me Like You Used To.” I got to spend some time with Tanya, and I haven’t seen her enough lately.
Garth Brooks, an old buddy of mine, followed me, and my performance knocked him out. He honored songwriter Pat Alger with his hit version of “Unanswered Prayers.” He was saying, “Man, I don’t want to get up there now.”
Garth told me this cool story. He was working one night in Central Park in New York City, and he invited Tony Bennett onstage to sing. Tony got up there and just stole the show. They were all backstage after the concert and Garth jokingly said, “Tony, why did you do that? I can't follow you now.” Tony answered, “Well, you never should have invited me up.” That’s why Garth told me that story, as if to say, ‘Hey, they shouldn’t have invited you to sing, Brown, because now I gotta follow you’ [laughs].
What artists do you enjoy listening to?
I don’t listen to country radio anymore, as there’s really no authentic country music out there. When I’m on the road, I keep satellite radio going all the time, listening to the classic stuff.
I have just about everything George Jones has ever recorded. Sheila used to always cook fried silver queen corn and fresh butter beans for George and his wife, Nancy, when summer came. One of my cousins runs a produce farm in Nashville. My nickname for George was “Big Daddy.”
After “Big Daddy” crossed his final river, on Nov. 22, 2013, the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville hosted Playin’ Possum! The Final No Show. Over 100 artists, including myself, got together and had the wildest concert in his memory. That will never be surpassed. Man, I’m gonna miss him.
Artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Paycheck (on a par with George Jones), Vern Gosdin (“The Voice”), Delbert McClinton, Mel Street (“Lovin’ on Back Streets” was his biggest hit; he was only 45 when he killed himself in 1978), Earl Thomas Conley, Russell Smith (lead singer of Amazing Rhythm Aces), Dale Watson, and David Ball, who is making the best country records now.
David Allan Coe influenced me tremendously. I’m so happy I finally got to know him. He’s crazy and pretty wild, and he can be real mean to some folks, but he loves me. I used to mention him when Nashville Now was on television. One time he told me, “You’re the only person that’s ever bragged about me on television.”
I love the whole Atlantic/Stax catalog with soul-R&B artists such as Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Booker T. and The MG’s, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, The Sweet Inspirations, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, most of the music coming out of Memphis. Later, I especially enjoyed Teddy Pendergrass’ singing.
Are you a NASCAR fan?
Absolutely. I am very close friends with Sterling Marlin, Darrell Waltrip, and the late Dale Earnhardt – all those NASCAR guys. I had a blast when I got to drive at Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of Richard Petty’s Driving Experience School. I clocked the highest time for someone who’s not an actual racecar driver.
We wrote an up-tempo, funny little song called “Dedicated NASCAR Fans” for a 1995 various artists sampler called NASCAR: Runnin’ Wide Open. The song talks about these guys who get together and go to the races. They cook their meals on a homemade grill, and they park on the infield and have a blast. T. Jae Christian asked me to re-record the song years later for a project honoring famous Alabama drivers Racing’s Country Roots: Songs of the Alabama Gang , and I’m pretty tickled with the new version.
Many fans may not realize you acted in a few movies.
I sure did. My debut was in Greased Lightning, which was partly filmed in Athens. Starring Richard Pryor and Pam Grier, I was determined I was gonna get a part in the movie, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. And sure enough, I did. I have a speaking part in the movie, but it’s only one sentence. I got to hang with Pryor, Grier, Beau Bridges, and folk guitarist Ritchie Havens.
[Author’s Note: Loosely based on Wendell Scott, the first black race-car driver to win a NASCAR race, Greased Lightning was ultimately released in July 1977 by Warner Brothers and got good reviews and remains one of Pryor’s most underrated films].
My second movie role came 10 years later after I had become well-known. Actor and occasional director David Keith – a great friend of mine from Knoxville – made a horror film called The Curse, starring Claude Akins and John Schneider. David owns a cattle ranch/farm in Tellico Plains outside of Knoxville, and the movie was filmed there. I had another tiny part in it.
[Author’s Note: Somewhat based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour from Outer Space,” the plot centers around a meteorite crashing on a religious zealot’s farm and polluting the water/food supply, causing bystanders to morph into homicidal mutants. The movie was released in September 1987 on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer].
My biggest role to date came in the comedy movie Heartbreak Hotel, released the next year. David starred this time as Elvis Presley. Directed by Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame, it was a comedy about a depressed single mother with two children. To make her feel better, her 17-year-old son kidnaps Elvis!
They used my band, The Hardtops, as Elvis’ band, and I played Jerry Schilling, one of Elvis’ close friends and a Memphis Mafia member. Jerry wrote me a letter saying I needed to lose some weight if I wanted to play him. Jerry must have seen some of the dailies. I saved that letter because I thought it was pretty funny, since I wasn’t fat at all back then. Another fun experience.
I wouldn’t mind acting in a movie again. Of course, I’m not gonna be playing Shakespeare, but if they need a Southern judge, I can carry that off with flying colors.
Are your television tastes similar to your musical ones?
You got it. If it’s vintage, I love it. I’m a fan of beloved comedy shows like The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Sanford and Son.
One of my good friends was George “Goober” Lindsey. He used to have Andy Griffith Show viewing parties at his house, and he invited us over there. One time George and I were on a Crook & Chase show. They did a quiz about Andy, and I beat George by a mile [laughs].
The same goes for classic westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Cheyenne, Maverick, and Bat Masterson. You’ll generally find me watching Turner Classic Movies (TCM), TV Land, or Encore Westerns.
I never watch network television, and I couldn’t tell you what current shows are out there. I hate advertisements. If an ad comes on, I’m gone. I might look at the clock and come back in a few minutes. DVRs are wonderful things to own.
How crucial was the Nashville Network [TNN] to your success?
Dig this – I appeared on virtually every TNN show, including cooking programs and This Week in Country Music, hosted by Charlie Chase and Lorianne Crook. Luckily, country radio listeners watched TNN.
I did Nashville Now – a late night television show (1983–1993) hosted by legendary disc jockey Ralph Emery – 56 times. Ralph had a tremendous amount to do with my career. The very first time I appeared on Nashville Now with Ralph I sang “Drowning in Memories.” Usually when you did the show, you sang two songs, with your single being first. Then you would go back and sit down on the couch and have a discussion.
Later on in the show, the second song I sang was “I Tell It like It Used to Be.” When I returned to the couch, Ralph said, “That will be the first big hit you have.” And he was right. We hit it off beautifully after that and became best friends, even though I don’t see him very often.
Sheila Brown: It was the stupidest move when executives removed TNN from the airwaves. It made T.’s career, because it allowed an artist to come on, sing their new single, and tell people what they were doing.
On the bright side, RFDtv is becoming TNN because there’s so much ready-made audience for it. It is the only place where you can see live country music, what’s going on right now. I also love the classic country programs that make up the channel’s line-up, such as The Wilburn Brothers Show, The Porter Wagoner Show, Pop! Goes the Country, and Hee Haw.
The only broadcast network late night show I appeared on was CBS’s The Pat Sajak Show [July 1989]. Up against The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sajak only lasted a little over a year.
You’ve been appearing quite a bit recently on Country’s Family Reunion, a popular infomercial for an ongoing DVD series taped in Nashville for RFDtv and hosted by Bill Anderson.
Fans often tell me, “I get home every Friday night so I can watch you on Country’s Family Reunion.” The classic country program is the most television exposure I’ve gotten in perhaps 20 years.
I’m very thankful for the show, because it’s helping bring people to my concerts. You know, a lot of folks think I’m dead. They’ll see me at a gig and say, “I’m glad you’re back,” or “I’m glad you started singing again.” But I’ve never quit.
Family Reunion has revived many people’s careers and opened a number of doors for me, and it’s awesome being in that group of folks. Being in the presence of Charley Pride is a fantastic experience [laughs]. I sat beside Ed Bruce at a taping. He wrote many great country songs including “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Ed wants to write, and we’ll be writing together once we get our schedules coordinated.
I can’t believe they even let me be on the show because I’m one of the youngest ones on there. I’ve been on for the last 15 years, and there is now both a cruise and touring version. They didn’t know if the road version would be popular, but it is, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Sheila Brown: Producer Larry Black had a great idea with “Country’s Family Reunion.” He’s archiving everything. Nearly 40 of the artists died from the first one we did until just recently. Their stories are getting told, and their voices can be heard forever.
Do you have any children?
Born in 1989, our only child is named Acme Geronimo Brown. Acme means “the best.” We’re so proud of him. He was admitted to the prestigious Nashville School of the Arts and finished his final three years of high school there.
He’s a drummer and guitar player, but he can play just about any instrument he picks up. That’s odd, because I don’t play any instrument. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she sings in church, which is where I started singing. Sheila played piano when she was little, so a bit of it must be genetic.
Acme’s not into country, but he has played with me on the Opry before and drummed on a few unreleased songs of mine. Acme’s garage punk band, Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders, tour and play big markets. They just got invited to the prestigious South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin again this year. I’ve never been invited. Acme reminds me of myself when I was his age, which worries his mother constantly [laughs].
Are you still smoking?
I pretty much smoked my last cigar on Oct. 30, 2010 – my 56th birthday. Sheila and my doctor were definitely relieved. I feel good about my decision. On the other hand, I could probably smoke just one, maybe at a golf tournament. Sheila keeps reminding me not to have that mindset, and it’s tough sometimes. I had to wear a NicoDerm patch, and I went through an aggravating coughing phase.
About 40 days after I quit, Sheila remarked how much clearer and stronger my voice sounded. I don’t know if that was due to not smoking, but maybe she had a point.
How much preparation goes into a typical T. Graham Brown concert?
Not that much. I don’t write set lists down. My drummer, Mike Caputy, usually does a rough outline. If I want to play something, I just tell the band, but it always depends. And I can tell anywhere in the show if there’s a mistake. I reckon I have an ear for music.
In Nashville people say I’m a singer’s singer. Sheila told me she watched Trace Adkins stand on the side of the stage the other night at the Grand Ole Opry. He said, “Man, T. Graham just knocks me out when he’s singing.”
Luckily I had enough hits that I can work forever. In recent years I consider somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 shows per year to be a good pace. I simply love performing to my fans.
How does your Christian faith influence your daily life?
I'm not a “Jesus freak” with that term's negative connotation; however, I am a disciple. I'm standing on the rock and I've got Jesus on my mind. I am still on a mission from God, as the Blues Brothers so famously said [laughs].
There is a daily syndicated program called Shepherd’s Chapel, originating from Gravette, Ark., that broadcasts over 225 television stations here and in Canada. I always enjoyed watching Dr. Arnold Murray [Author’s Note: Murray passed away on Feb. 12, 2014]. Dr. Murray would read from the Bible, spotlighting a book each month. He took the time to explain each verse and chapter.
I go to bed by 9 p.m. and get up every morning at about 4 a.m. I regularly do between two and three hours of Bible study. I’ve studied Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Mark, Luke, John, Revelations, and many other books of the Bible, which has been a great process for me. I later take a long nap in the afternoon. It’s cool having my own schedule.
Things happen for a reason, and I know God has a plan for me. I’m not through by a long shot. No other genre of music that I know of has quite the loyal fans that country does. And as long as I’m singing good and doing shows, I’ll never stop doing what I love.
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Easy listening song interpreter B.J. Thomas won a well-deserved Grammy for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" after it appeared on the soundtrack of the legendary "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." In "Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire to Sing...", the effortless "Hooked on a Feeling" singer recalls amazing stories about arriving in Memphis in the late '60s and singing for Elvis Presley, appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and having buckets of rain inexplicably thrown on his head, opening for the notoriously temperamental James Brown, his conflict with the Contemporary Christian industry, and his most popular album in 30 years, the duets-laden "Living Room Sessions", recorded in Nashville.
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© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. An earlier version of this interview appeared in multiple installments between August and October 2011. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.