Drowning in memories with T. Graham Brown, a country song’s best friend
How does an artist reconcile the fact that after notching 15 Top 40 country songs during an enviable 33-year career, country radio won’t play their latest record? Regrettably, that is an issue facing T. Graham Brown. Rather than cashing in his chips and becoming a stagnant oldies jukebox or settling for retirement, Brown continues to tour and record prolifically.
From the cotton fields of Arabi, Georgia, to a boulevard of fulfilled dreams on Nashville’s Music Row, the chart-topping singer had plenty of anecdotes to share in an exclusive feature, perhaps the most comprehensive interview he has ever granted.
Brown first made a name for himself in 1985, landing comfortably in the Top Ten with the soul stirrer “I Tell It like It Used to Be.” Genuine number ones followed in short order, including “Hell and High Water,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” and the upbeat, groovin’ ode to an elusive girlfriend, “Darlene.”
Kindred spirit Tanya Tucker lent her vocals to the grandiose pop ballad, “Don’t Go Out,” in 1990. The follow-up single, “With This Ring,” originally recorded by the Platters, inexplicably signaled the singer-songwriter’s final significant hurrah on Capitol.
Ably demonstrating Brown’s propensity for the melting pot of country, soul, and rock ’n’ roll — always the artist’s forte — the energetic, saxophone-fronted cover deserved to become a major hit. Yet a new generation of boot scootin’, cowboy hat lovin’ singers spearheaded by Garth Brooks and Clint Black made Brown’s music almost instantly passé.
One wonders if the singer’s success would have reached an even greater apex if he had come of age during the late ’60s when influences such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Solomon Burke, and Charlie Rich preached Memphis stone cold soul to the masses. Perhaps Brown’s greatest detriment was that he was simply not country enough.
Capitol delivered a near death blow when they unceremoniously voided Brown’s contract. Exacerbated by a burgeoning dependence on alcohol and undiagnosed bipolar disorder, the songwriter wandered in the wilderness for an excruciating seven years, still experiencing crowd euphoria but unable to secure a recording contract.
Released on an independent label, the wrenchingly confessional “Wine into Water” — the songwriter’s debut gospel recording — momentarily reversed his commercial fortunes and revamped him as a grateful Christian country artist.
While the comeback halted Brown’s personal demons, it was a commercial fluke. A powerful record executive at RCA basically killed the song’s chances on country radio. The Next Right Thing, released in 2003, received little if any promotion, but trade publications such as USA Today ranked it the No. 3 album of the year.
Scoring his debut Grammy nomination for Best Roots Gospel Album in 2015 for Forever Changed, Brown is a regular fixture on Country’s Family Reunion, hosted by Bill Anderson and airing Friday evenings on RFD-TV. Actually a glorified infomercial disguised as a musical storytelling hour, the series is nevertheless a definitely rare opportunity to see up to 30 influential artists sitting in the same Nashville room trading wonderful anecdotes and singing the jewels that made them famous.
The informal interview session with the versatile balladeer kicks into high gear below. Brown fondly remembers growing up in rural Civil-rights era Georgia amid baseball and church gatherings, developing an inherent fascination for music, forming a band, and moving to Nashville and eking out a living as a demo singer. Brown’s dogged determination never wavered in his quest for stardom.
Along the well-worn path, the country song’s best friend discusses his greatest hits and wealth of unreleased songs. Furthermore, Brown explains the sometimes complicated publishing versus songwriting arrangement and if he considers himself wealthy.
Might the venerable songwriter consider recording a full-blown soul album? The answer is a resounding yes. Keep reading to discover what renowned guitar player enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is interested in overseeing the project.
The T. Graham Brown Interview, Part One
There is some confusion regarding your birthplace — was it Atlanta or Arabi, Georgia?
People often say I’m born in Arabi, and I don’t even try to fight them on it anymore. It’s such a convoluted thing. I was born in Grady Hospital in Atlanta, since Daddy was going to school there at that time. However, I never lived in Atlanta, as we moved to South Georgia immediately after the second grade. I would have been about seven years old, and we lived in Arabi for eight years.
Here’s how we got to Arabi — one day Daddy stopped to get a Coca-Cola along Highway 41. He happened to be in Arabi and got to talking to some gentlemen. The town was like a miniature Mayberry, and after awhile, Daddy really surprised those fellas by saying, “I’m gonna move here!”
So Daddy came back home and loaded us up, and we moved to Arabi. Daddy had a job selling agricultural seed — corn, sorghum, cotton — and he was able to move his base of operations fairly easily. He later built a grain elevator in Arabi along with a couple of his partners. I would work there when I wasn’t in school.
We moved to Athens when I was in the 10th grade, where I went to Clarke Central, known as Athens High during my tenure. I attended college at the University of Georgia. My folks ultimately moved back to Madison County. All my folks are from Athens, Commerce, and Danielsville. My parents — Royce and Jackie — are both still alive and in their late eighties. They live between Commerce and Athens.
How would you characterize your childhood?
My childhood was just a regular Southern life if you will. Arabi was a small town with 300 people in the 1960s, and our backyard was less than 100 yards from the railroad tracks. The white people lived on one side of the tracks, and the blacks on the other. The streets were laid out in like manner…paved on the white side, but dirt on the black side.
You would ride your bicycle to school or maybe walk, have recess, and shoot marbles. I was in the Boy Scouts, too. I loved to go hunting and fishing just about every day. I’d usually get a shotgun and fishing pole across my bicycle handles and ride out. I always made sure I came back home by suppertime.
One of my buddies had a go-cart, another one had a Cushman scooter, one had a jeep, my daddy had a pickup truck…so we were all driving around town by the time we were 10 years old. All the kids drove because their daddies were farmers, and you’d have to go to the hardware store and pick up some horse/cow/hog feed. We made all the feed at Daddy’s grain elevator.
I remember there were a couple of cotton gins in Arabi. They would stack the bales of cotton up and down the street. You could run for blocks, and your feet wouldn’t touch the ground.
My mother was a homemaker, but she was very smart. She went to a business college and helped Daddy — kept the books — at the grain elevator, which was less than a mile away from the house.
I have a brother, Danny, who is a couple of years younger than me. We played a lot of Little League baseball, touch football, and a little basketball. We were always outside having fun. The only time cartoons came on was Saturday morning.
Long before cable, everyone had a TV antenna outside their house. Ours was next to the house in the bushes. To pick up a different TV station — either ABC, CBS, or NBC — you had to turn the antenna to point toward that particular town. One station was in Albany, another in Columbus, and one more in Macon.
You didn’t have the luxury of sitting around and choosing what you wanted to watch. My daddy would say, “Go out there and turn the antenna.” Later he’d holler out the window, “Way, away, oh you went too far! Turn it back! Whoa!” Just funny stuff like that.
What role did music play in your family?
We went to church every Sunday morning and sang with everybody else. But my daddy couldn’t care less about music, and we didn’t have a nice stereo or radio. I never heard my daddy listen to any music, not ever, on the car radio or at home.
The first record my daddy bought was my first album. His parents never had a record player. My mother was the same way. However, her side of the family did play a little piano at church up in North Georgia.
Whenever I was playing baseball, I would sing in the outfield, just goofing around. My friends would tell me to shut up. I wasn’t really thinking I was going to be anything, but I liked to sing.
I don’t know what drove me to become a musician. Probably wanting to be somebody, to be famous, which I later found out is a big empty life.
What were some of the first records that you bought?
I had a little bitty record player — not a stereo. Back then they had tiny record players that were about twice as big as a shoebox. They were square, with one little speaker inside. They weren’t good, but it’s all I had.
The first ones I bought were kid’s stuff like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Dr. Seuss records were also favorites of mine [Brown spontaneously sings a line from “Yertle the Turtle” … ‘On the far away island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the turtle was king of the pond’].
The first single 45 I bought was Lorne Greene’s spoken-word rendition of “Ringo,” with the Bonanza theme on the flip side [Author’s Note: Best known as Pa Cartwright on the long-running Bonanza NBC western series, Greene shocked everyone when “Ringo” topped the pop charts in September 1964. Greene’s sole hit single has nothing to do with the Beatles drummer and everything to do with a deadly Wild West gunslinger].
There was a little store in Arabi that had a record rack — I’m surprised they had records for sale –and all the records were knock-off or sound-alike records not featuring the original artist.
Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” was No. 1 for five weeks in 1966, a huge hit that year. Sadler was a Green Beret in real life, too. The song was a recitation with minimal singing [Brown sings “Fighting soldiers, from the sky…fearless men, who jump and die”]. Sadler wasn’t a great singer by any stretch [laughs].
Anyway, I was a huge fan of that song, and when I saw an album with the song for 99 cents, I got my copy. But then when I got home, it was some other guy singing it. I was so disappointed.
Another song on there was called “The Whirlybird Crew.” It sounded like this: “The whirlybird crew, the whirlybird crew, ‘copter men who can do, the whirlybird crew, the whirlybird crew, men from the skies, in the whirlybird crew; when the going gets rough in Vietnam, and a man behind the lines is stranded, where there’s not a sight as pretty to a man as the sight of a whirlybird landing.”
Those lyrics are in the deepest recesses of my subconscious id, and I can’t get them out. I had a big band record, believe it or not. Just tracks, no vocals…I know “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was on there.
I had copies of Johnny Cash at San Quentin  and Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the International, Las Vegas . I never did have any of the Beatles or Rolling Stones stuff.
Once you moved to Athens, you started your first band called Dirk and Tony.
Dirk and I went to high school together, and we would play and goof around. Somebody’s mama or daddy would go out of town, and we’d have a big party at their house and then clean it up afterwards. We sang to entertain everyone.
When I was about 18 in 1972, a buddy of mine who worked at the Holiday Inn said, “You oughta come over here. There’s a lounge, but nobody ever goes in there to sing. I can get you an audition.” So we auditioned for the fun of it, and the guy hired us. All of a sudden there was a huge crowd every night.
Dirk and I then had to work up some songs. They called our style Southern Beach Music back then. It was the stuff fraternity parties shagged to.
Have you seen Animal House with John Belushi? That kind of music, with artists including The Drifters, The Coasters, The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Platters, and Major Lance, all that Carolina shag stuff.
I remember we played at a party out in the woods for some rich grownups. Vince Dooley — the legendary head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs — and a bunch of highfalutin Athens folks were there. We had to have been terrible. I don’t remember it that well, but we did have a band that night.
Dirk is still doing the same songs today, but I got tired of it. I wanted to put a band together, and Dirk didn’t, so we split up. We worked together for a little over three years.
Did you guys do any professional recordings?
We did a couple of things in a recording studio, but they were terrible. I wrote a couple of songs, and we went to Atlanta and made a single. It went to №1 in Athens but nobody else played it. The song was called “Lost Between Two Worlds.” Then they put out “Just to Know.” They were both big hits [laughs].
It was funny — they had a record store in Athens called Bowden Music. They’d put out the Top 40 every week, and you could put a record in a little booth and listen to it, making sure you wanted to buy it.
I have one hanging on the wall in my kitchen. It looks pretty goofy. We called it A-Town Records. Our saying was, ‘You’ve had your Motown, now you’ve got you’re A-Town!’ We were really clever [laughs].
After Dirk and Tony ceased to exit, a rowdy bar band called Reo Diamond entered your life in a memorable fashion.
Named after the truck, Reo Diamond was a wild bunch, like David Allan Coe meets Hank Williams, Jr. and a bunch of whiskey. That experience featured all kinds of foolishness, with a bunch of whoopin’ and hollerin’ thrown in for good measure.
Our repertoire was all country. We did our version of Moon Mullican’s “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach Texas,” some Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe, the usual bar band/country stuff that folks had heard on the radio. We also played obscure stuff, and we wrote and performed some original songs.
We went down to Macon and cut some stuff at Capricorn with label owner Phil Walden, about half an album. It wasn’t really any good. Looking back, the band wasn’t that good, although people loved us. We thought we were good, but knowing what I know today, we weren’t very special.
I eventually got tired of the band. We were one of the only country bands doing what we were doing when we started, but that had changed. All of a sudden, everybody had started a country band.
I said, “Well, I don’t wanna be like that,” so I started doing hardcore soul music. Reo Diamond evolved into the Rack of Spam. At one point there were 10 musicians onstage, including a horn section.
I felt like I needed a more politically correct band name after I got my first record deal on Capitol, so the band became the Hard Tops. A few years later, the band came to me and said they preferred the Mighty Rack of Spam, and that’s what they remain to this day.
In May 1982 you moved to Nashville with wife Sheila and began doing demos.
It took over two years before Capitol signed me. The way it used to be, a record label would sign you for a singles deal; they would never do that today. I had a six-single deal.
For example, Capitol would put out one, and if it didn’t hit, they would put out another single, not exceeding six singles. If you had a hit single, the label called for an album. An artist would go in the studio and complete a full album. If all of those six singles flopped, there would be no album.
Did any of those demos become hit recordings for other artists?
The only one I can remember that became a hit was “1982” by Randy Travis, his first hit single. Some buddies of mine from my high school in Athens wrote that. It was originally called “1962.”
I used to do demos for Ray Stevens. He would come into the studio and sing some of his silly songs. He’s a very shrewd individual. I did a couple for George Jones, Ronnie McDowell, and George Strait.
Can you fathom how much time has passed since your first hit song?
It’s hard to believe — I even let the 30th anniversary of “Drowning in Memories” slip by me in 2015. Even though it was a hit, “Drowning in Memories” was never on a proper studio album. I haven’t sung it live in a long time, but Sheila thinks it’s a great song.
After it scraped into the Country Top 40, Capitol, the smallest of the six major labels back then, called for an album, which became the I Tell It like It Used to Be project. The title song was my first major hit [No. 7 C&W].
What made you decide to record at the renowned Muscle Shoals?
I did my first two albums — I Tell It like It Used to Be and Brilliant Conversationalist — at Muscle Shoals. I wanted to get out of Nashville. It was also a great opportunity to have those players that recorded so many classic soul hits for people like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge, and I wanted my record to have that R&B feel to it.
Remember the line in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama?” ‘Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.’ Well, that’s who I had on my records, and it’s funny, since they’re all white. Those are special memories.
I’d go back, but the music scene isn’t like it used to be. You could say it’s dried up. It’s the only place besides Nashville where I’ve recorded.
You’ve always straddled the line between country and classic soul. Why not record a soul album?
On the drawing board is a soul record with my good friend Steve Cropper, the legendary guitarist, producer, and songwriter for Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Stax now has a record label, and they want Cropper to produce some things.
I’ve never done a straight-up soul project, and I think it will open up some bluesier places for me and garner some additional credibility. I’d love to play venues where country blues singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton, a buddy of mine, has appeared.
Why did you leave Capitol after an incredible run of hit singles?
I asked for my release from the label in 1991. I was the man on Capitol until Garth Brooks came along and started selling records. Then Garth just blew by me, and I became an afterthought.
Record producer Jimmy Bowen — originally hired by Frank Sinatra as his staff producer for Reprise Records in the mid-‘60s — then came in to run Capitol. In retrospect, I had a great contract. I gave up $900,000 to leave Capitol.
If I had wanted to, I could have cut one more album for $150,000 and kept the change as the option was for $900,000. I regret that because I could use a million dollars right about now. At the time, I had an offer in my back pocket from Warner Bros.
Do you own those Capitol recordings?
Sheila Brown: Record company executive Mike Curb bought the Capitol stuff, and he hasn’t done anything with it. He likes to buy up record inventory, real estate, historic sites, etc. Basically, all the Capitol albums [1985–1991] are out of print.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to release those original albums on iTunes, but I have no control over that decision. Unfortunately, I don’t own those recordings, and we’d get sued if we put them out.
Capitol put out a T. Graham Brown retrospective album in 2007 entitled Déjà Vu All Over Again, featuring 16 original studio recordings. They didn’t really make it available in many places.
I bet they didn’t sell 10,000 of them. We couldn’t make enough profit on it to fool with buying them and ultimately selling them on the road. It made no sense to us — why did they release it if they didn’t want to sell it?
All those hit singles have been repackaged so many different ways, people will bring a record up for me to sign that I’ve never seen before. Folks will say, “Here, could you sign this for me?” There’s an album floating around out there called Drowning in Memories, and it has an old picture of me with my hair kinda slicked back. Things are so mismatched.
Fortunately, I own everything I record now. We have our own little label, Time River. The original Wine into Water album [August 1998] has reverted back to me, and that song was the last big hit I had if you want to call it that. The Next Right Thing [May 2003] has reverted back to me as well.
Once you left Capitol for Warner Bros., what happened next?
Warner said they were gonna do great things with me, and I signed immediately with them when I left Capitol. Bowen decided to tell everybody that he dropped me, but that wasn’t true.
Mark Wright, former Show Dog-Universal head and currently President of the Nashville office for Atlanta-based entertainment business You42, produced an album for me, but Warner Bros. never released it. The label dropped me and I was on Warner for 18 months, a year-and-a-half out of my life.
A couple of years later, I signed with Sony, and I stayed there for 28 months. I kept waiting and waiting for my turn. Eventually, I was given a budget for four sides, which I immediately cut. Sony didn’t like them, and they dropped me.
For three years and ten months out of the ’90s, those labels had paper on me, and I couldn’t do anything about it. John Lennon had his “Lost Weekend;” in my case, it was a lost decade, which was very frustrating. It took a big chunk out of my life.
From a Stronger Place slipped in virtually under the radar.
We cut all nine songs in my home studio in 1995 with Steve Wariner and Marty Stuart — good buddies of mine — on guitar and mandolin, respectively. From a Stronger Place contained the original version of “Wine into Water,” and Steve played guitar and sang harmony. It was so good that we had him do it again when we re-cut it in 1998 on the official Wine into Water album.
One crazy memory that is burned in my mind…I was upstairs, looked down, and there were two black snakes in the swimming pool. Very strange and it never happened again.
We later went to Hodgenville, Kentucky, best known as the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, to mix the record at a church turned studio. I remember sleeping in the converted Sunday school classrooms and grilling out on an old grill. The guy had an automated A.M. radio station in the church building. The sanctuary was a big recording room with Iso booths — aka sound isolation — along the perimeter. The control room was where the pulpit and choir space was. There was even a baptismal.
We didn’t spend hardly any money on it, maybe $2,000. We had a few CD’s made and called them “advance copy.” They were only available at my concerts. I would have to look for a bit to find any, because we sold out and didn’t have any more made. It’s a very cool record to have been cut at the house. This was before anyone had Pro Tools on their laptop and could record anywhere there was a mic.
In 2008 I decided to release it on a wider scale via Aspirion Records, and you can find it digitally or on CD. Aspirion was a small label in Nashville largely devoted to distribution — getting albums into stores. The label didn’t really do projects or put up much of a budget for them. It’s no longer in existence.
When fans thought you were out of the game, you returned in a big way with the inspirational “Wine into Water.”
I issued Wine into Water on the independent Platinum Records in 1998, which later morphed into Intersound. The title cut was a hit, becoming Song of the Year on the Christian Country charts. It ultimately crossed over into the Country Top 40.
A very powerful record executive in Nashville killed the song. He made a bunch of phone calls to radio and asked them not to play the song anymore because he didn’t want an independent label having any hits to compete against RCA.
That’s why “Wine into Water” got stopped right then, or it would have been a much bigger hit. Stuff like that happens, politics, and it’s not the first time it’s happened. Since then I haven’t had a hit, although I’ve had a couple of chart things in the upper ’50s or ’60s. “Wine into Water” was my last, best shot.
I sang the song on Graceland’s front lawn at the beginning of Elvis Week one year. It was at dawn as the sun was coming up, just me and a guitar player. It’s unfortunate that nobody videotaped the occasion. But it was a thrill to do that, as I had never been to Graceland before. Sheila and I toured the mansion before it was opened to the general public later that day. We also went on the Lisa Marie jet.
Someone did a play in Branson in 2010 called Wine into Water, which we had no idea about. Nobody called us to ask if it was okay, but BMI should be tracking them down for us. It’s just a wacky situation.
While we were in Branson, and we met Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell, who’s a pretty big deal in his own country. I sang “Wine into Water,” and to my amazement, Daniel informed me that the song became a smash in Ireland.
What do you remember about your critically-acclaimed 2003 album, The Next Right Thing?
Shoot, that album didn’t sell hardly anything. I call it “the record nobody’s heard,” as there was nowhere to buy the record. We originally put that out on this little company called Compendia Music Group. I can’t believe I let those guys have it.
A couple of singles were released off the record — including “Middle Age Crazy,” my last charting single — but nobody played ’em. A video for one of the singles was created. Maybe the Great American Country [GAC] network played it a few times.
“Which Way to Pray,” co-written by Bill Anderson, Gary Nicholson, and myself, was the second single. A great song that I’m particularly proud of, yet nobody played it.
USA Today named it the No. 3 Album of the Year. Vince Gill was one notch behind me with Next Best Thing. The Chicago Tribune named it the №1 album of the year. Sometimes I think critical praise is the kiss of death. You can put out all the good records you want to, but if promotion is nonexistent, you’re dead in the water.
Three years later, you dropped The Present.
The Present was a one-off for Joy Records, a small label in El Paso, Texas. Joy asked me to pick about 10 positive message cover songs that would uplift folks, such as “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” They definitely wanted “Wine into Water” on there, so we cut a new, longer version. I also wrote several songs, including “I’m Expecting Miracles” and the title cut with Tom Hambridge and Gary Nicholson. It was my first project to contain any gospel music, although it’s not a strict gospel record.
The album was funded by some very nice folks who wanted to be in the record business. The record business can be — let’s say — troublesome. If you don’t have a clue, stay far away. You wouldn’t want to be a driving instructor if you didn’t know how to drive. Same deal. Joy has folded, too. Even though we were given a small budget, overall, it was a positive experience. The Present remains a popular seller at our road shows.
In June 2010 I noticed several digital singles released by you, including “Love and Broken Hearts.” What can you tell me about that recording?
You know what happened? A former bus driver of ours, T. Jae Christian, wrote “Love and Broken Hearts.” I went into the studio one afternoon and recorded it as a favor, thinking I was only singing a demo or that he would just put it on one of his.
I never even heard the final version or signed a contract. T. Jae ultimately produced, mastered, and mixed the song, and he sent it over to Europe and it went to №1 for four weeks [Author’s Note: ”Love and Broken Hearts” has since disappeared from Amazon and iTunes].
He has a buddy in France who’s a disc jockey, and he uses a blast email to send MP3’s to about 240 reporting stations in each respective country. There are hundreds and hundreds of radio stations in America, so 240 is a relatively small amount. I don’t think there’s millions and millions of people listening to my songs in Europe, but apparently I’m huge in Europe. Come to think of it, “Rock It Billy” was a hit there in 1986.
T. Jae didn’t come to me and say, ‘Hey man, I have this idea: I wanna send some stuff over to Europe.’ He just went ahead and did it, which I guess is alright. I had three number ones in Europe in an 18-month period.
“Bag of Bones,” originally a duet with George Jones on The Next Right Thing, was another one of those songs that T. Jae sent off. He re-recorded the song — I added my vocal — and I had a new duet with T. Jae.
I returned to the studio and sang another demo called “Sip By Sip,” this time produced by Tom Holland. It’s a great country song about a guy who drinks the memory of his girl away.
It’s just a crazy thing, but I’ve gotten some great reviews for these songs, and they aren’t even on a record label. I’ve spoken with T. Jae, and now I have more input in which songs are chosen for release.
On one hand it’s paving the way, and we hope to go to Europe and mount a full-scale tour soon. We performed at a festival in Norway and had a great time. Europe doesn’t care what you look like, how old you are, or if you’re on a record label. They just want good music.
Do you have many unreleased recordings?
Quite a few. I’ve recorded a country album that’s been in the can since 2008. The company we made it for lost their funding due to the bad economy, so the album has just been sitting there. They keep calling and stalling…‘Hey we’re trying’ and all that, but it’s still tied up.
It was supposed to be sold on television only — the company had a wealthy investor backing it until he pulled out. It’s frustrating because it’s an excellent record. Fortunately, this project reverted back to me in 2013.
Whenever the mood strikes me, I revisit my vocals on a project we’ve had in the can too long. I’ve never done anything like it. Honestly, I’ve been lazy about doing it. We’re calling it the jazz album — although it’s not really jazz — but it might be in some people’s book. I own this project.
I cut the album with a stand-up bass, a little bit of keyboards, some percussion, and some Archtop guitar. We didn’t cut many songs you’d recognize, except maybe “Pennies from Heaven.” They are largely obscure songs from the late ’40s like old Ink Spots stuff. It’s turning out great, and I’ve got a few of the vocals done, but I’ve just got to get off my lazy butt and finish it.
Jimmy Fortune, the youngest member of the Statler Brothers, wrote a song with my wife and I called “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 2010. It’s an awesome song if I say so myself. Sheila had the idea, and I came up with the melody. I have a pretty good musical ear [laughs]. I bet it’s going to be one they play every year. I don’t always write good songs, but I know when I do.
I recorded an initial version, featuring Jimmy on vocal harmonies. We only pressed about 50 copies of it for our Christmas shows, which quickly sold out. Then we included the song as a Christmas card to our friends.
I performed it during a brief Christmas show run in Michigan, and the fans went nuts over it, which certainly tickled me. It was supposed to have been released to iTunes and Amazon as a digital single, but we became so busy that it never happened. I re-recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for Christmas with T. Graham Brown , my first holiday album.
[Author’s Note: “It Ain’t Christmas”, penned by the son of Brown’s touring bassist Bobby King and uploaded to CD Baby in 2011, provides a glorious honkytonk precursor to the full-length Christmas with T. Graham Brown project].
Dottie Rambo, the world’s greatest gospel songwriter, wrote approximately 5,000 songs during her acclaimed career. In 2010 I was asked to contribute a cool song of hers called “Build My Mansion [Next Door to Jesus]” to an upcoming tribute album featuring approximately 20 of her most loved tunes. My version is definitely bluesy.
Greats including Solomon Burke, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs, and the Whites are on there. Loretta Lynn, who has sang “Wine into Water” during her shows, contributed a song. Last but certainly not least is Little Richard. I met him doing Taco Bell commercials in California. We’ve been friends ever since. Although he’s kind of getting a little hobbled up now, he’s still Little Richard.
There are some things that are being worked out between the estate and the producers who own the actual recordings. So, my version of “Build My Mansion” is on double-secret probation for the time being [laughs].
I recorded “Oh Come, Angel Band,” a classic gospel song that gained additional recognition in the Coen Brothers’ definitive period comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in January 2011 for a tribute album to bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. Vince Gill, Jimmy Fortune, The Whites, and Linda Davis — among others — have songs on there.
[Author’s Note: The O Brother, Where Art Thou? version that most listeners are familiar with was recorded in December 1955 on Mercury Records by the Stanley Brothers, featuring Ralph and older guitar playing brother Carter, who passed away prematurely in 1966 due to cirrhosis of the liver. Ralph ultimately revived the duo’s backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys and kept on performing, being elected as a prestigious fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences two years before his passing on June 23, 2016].
Sheila Brown: I remember the day we went in the studio, Ralph’s grandson Nathan was there “overseeing” the project. He is an artist, too. At the end of the day, T. said, “I never thought I’d be singing bluegrass.” Nathan replied, “You sound great, bluegrass or any style!” That made T. feel so good.
What prompted you to tackle your debut gospel album, the Grammy-nominated Forever Changed ?
You might say the seeds were sown when my trusted friend Mark Carman, a Nashville-based Christian songwriter, asked me to contribute vocals to a gospel album benefitting International Cooperating Ministries [ICM], a non-profit foundation that has constructed over 7,000 churches, orphanages, and schools in more than 86 countries supporting more than 20,000 congregations since 1986.
A rockin’ rendition of the classic staple, “Working on a Building,” became the project’s title cut in 2012. Along with Trace Adkins, Jimmy Fortune, and Marty Raybon of Shenandoah fame, we had us a genuine Southern Gospel quartet [laughs]. It was number one for two months on the gospel charts. Incidentally, I am featured on one additional cut — ”All Hail the Power.” Jason Crabb did an amazing duet with me on it.
I had a blast working with Mark, who co-produced Forever Changed with me. The project consists of newly written songs and some standards. My special guests include Vince Gill — duet and guitar — the Oak Ridge Boys, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell — duet and piano — talented gospel star Jason Crabb, Jim Horn — horns all over the record — and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and original member of Booker T. and the M.G.’s Steve Cropper supplying numerous lead guitar licks. It’s a killer album.
I haven’t performed a straight-up gospel show either, but I eventually want to start performing at churches. “Wine into Water” was never released to gospel radio, and I think there’s an incredible opportunity to reach new fans waiting out there.
What’s happened to modern country radio?
Country radio plays the Top 20 over and over. In the old days, country radio would play the Top 40. Today they don’t let listeners call in and request what they wish to hear, which stopped about 15 years ago when Clear Channel and Cumulus began buying stations in bulk. There is no such thing as a request line anymore.
For example, a company like Clear Channel might own 500 radio stations. Well, there’s a guy sitting at the corporate home office in New York creating a program of the Top 20 songs that he wants played. Then he emails the playlist to those stations, and the DJs have to play those songs.
The local program director is only a name today. I visit radio stations, and DJs hardly get to talk. They rarely announce a song or mention who the artist is. A computer program does it all for them.
Nevertheless, there are stations in the big markets that just play classic country. Their Arbitron ratings are more than the guys playing current country [Arbitron collects listener data]. Classic country stations are beginning to pop up, because people are hungry for it.
The only reason radio, and television for that matter, exist is to sell ads. In turn, ads keep them in business. They’re not in the business of spreading the gospel of music. Both entities shoot for the 18–25 demo. Research says this demo is most likely to buy certain products.
Think about it, that’s why a television series is greenlit. The show is ultimately cancelled if sponsors back out and not enough ads are being sold. Executives don’t put a show on because it’s top quality. Look at all the reality shows that just suck, but people are watching them. And no, I’m not a fan of American Idol or any reality show.
How difficult is it to receive radio airplay in modern times?
I can’t get played on radio anymore, man. I’m just too old for ’em. Now I’m putting out records that people like, but I can’t sell any. I can’t get an album into Wal-Mart. About the only place you can buy one is online or after a show when I’m signing autographs.
Modern radio has this thing, I guess. You have to be in a certain demographic to receive airplay. Taylor Swift has won Songwriter of the Year at the Nashville Songwriters Association International and at the BMI Awards. I’d much rather write a song that means something to someone, whether it’s being on the verge of divorce in “The Last Resort” or dealing with child abuse in “Which Way to Pray.”
What are you gonna do? You can’t fight the power. It discourages everybody in this business. We put all our stuff on iTunes or Amazon, but a lot of people don’t know it’s there. It’s a catch-22 situation. I think I’m putting out some cool music, but the only place fans can really hear my stuff is at my show.
I got a friend named Dale Watson. He sings authentic country [Author’s Note: Watson’s 22nd album, El Rancho Azul, became his first Billboard charting record in 2013]. Dale is like a modern day Merle Haggard, and he’s a true devotee of the Bakersfield sound. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get any airplay, either.
There are a lot of us under the radar. An amazing, talented singer like Gene Watson — another great friend of mine — is still making records and touring. He and Rhonda Vincent released a duets album in 2011 called Your Money and My Good Looks. “This Wanting You,” a plain old country song I wrote in the late ’80s for my Come As You Were album, is on there. They did a fabulous job. When Gene Watson sings a country song, it’s been sung. George Jones put it on his Cold Hard Truth album , too.
As a songwriter who owns his own publishing, how does that process work?
I don’t own the copyrights on the songs I didn’t write; the only songs I own the copyrights on are the ones I wrote myself. I wrote for EMI for 18 years.
Now, owning the rights to a record is different than owning the rights to a song. For example, on “Hell and High Water,” I wrote that with Alex Harvey, and my cut of that is 50 percent. I wrote “Wine into Water” with Bruce Burch and Ted Hewitt — my cut of that is 33 percent, so it depends.
There’s two halves of a song: the publishing half, then the writer half. Let’s say I write a song called “The Sky Is Blue.” I get 100 percent of the writing half, and the publisher gets 100 percent of the publishing half.
For every dollar that’s made, I get 50 cents, and they get 50 cents. That’s the way it works. If I co-write with a guy, and we’re both with the same publisher, they get 50 cents, then we split 50 cents. If you write with three, you get a third of the dollar and on and on.
If you own your own publishing, which I do now, the publishing company splits up the dollar. If each writer owns his publishing company, each publisher gets a third, so every time a dollar comes in, it’s split between the writers and the publishers.
For instance, the old R&B artists would get ripped off on their writer part. They would sign with some record company like the notorious Chess Records. Incidentally, Stax Records and their artists, like Otis Redding and Al Green, got better deals.
Chess would take an artist’s publishing and writing, and an artist such as Bo Diddley would sign it all away, not realizing what their signature meant. My friend Little Richard wasn’t immune to this system either, as he was totally ripped off on “Tutti Frutti” and all his classic compositions.
Do you get royalties on your hit recordings?
Here’s what’s crazy — the I Tell It like It Used to Be album came out in 1986. It wasn’t until about the year 2000 that I got my first royalty check off that album. It was for $115. I’ve never gotten royalty checks on any of the albums that I released after that.
It’s gone down from there, so somebody’s getting the money. To audit Capitol would cost between $50,000 and $75,000 — much more than it is worth — and you don’t know if you would win. If the company owed you $25,000, you’re in the hole even more.
Each label has a formidable stable of attorneys just for this purpose. I’m telling you, it’s a stacked deck, and record companies have always done that. There’s not much an artist can do about it.
Were you paid fairly for the Wine into Water album?
Here’s the story: Intersound Records had already paid us $60,000 in royalties for the first year. That album was a good seller for us. Shortly thereafter, we went to a Christmas dinner with them.
The company president got on down to business: “Look man, I owe you almost $200,000 in additional royalties. Do you want me to cut you a check now or wait until after the first of the year?” I responded, “Let’s wait until after the first of the year, as it’ll be a different tax year.”
Lo and behold, on January 1 Intersound filed for bankruptcy. They did offer me 16 cents on the dollar, but I turned that down, hoping to get more. When all was said and done, we wound up getting three cents on the dollar. Can you believe that?
Sheila Brown: Later we asked if they had a warehouse full of product, so we could sell them on the road. Our feeling was, ‘If you can’t give us the cash, give us the product.’ Intersound wouldn’t do it, and they said they burned them. We were dumbfounded.
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