‘I’m not dead, ‘cause I never quit:’ The dirt with country-soul belter T. Graham Brown

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During a no-holds barred conversation with T. Graham Brown, the ’80s country-soul singer covers Elvis Presley, George Jones, Richard Pryor, Jesus Christ, “The Andy Griffith Show,” upstaging Garth Brooks, and being detained by JFK Airport security. Seen above is an alternate color shot from the album cover shoot for Brown’s Grammy-nominated gospel record “Forever Changed.” Lead single “He’ll Take Care of You,” featuring Vince Gill, was unleashed on June 27, 2014, while the album belatedly appeared seven months later on the Mansion Entertainment label. Notice Brown’s mutton chop sideburns and the vintage red barn with white trim in the background. Photography by William Lee Golden / Mansion Entertainment

During a no-holds barred, exclusive conversation with versatile singer-songwriter T. Graham Brown, almost every facet of his 40-year career was examined. From the cotton fields of Arabi to the boulevard of fulfilled dreams on Nashville’s Music Row, the chart-topping “Don’t Go to Strangers” song stylist had plenty of anecdotes to share.

Still able to cut the mustard— tackling the Grammy nominated Best Gospel Roots Album Forever Changed, joining the illustrious circle of RFDtv’s must-see Country’s Family Reunion, and touring — even when radio programmers haven’t given him the time of day since 1998’s soul-drenched “Wine into Water” confessional, the 63-year-old is a humble, down-to-earth Georgia raconteur who would have been perfectly at ease if he had been born 20 years earlier and trading vocal gymnastics with Stax influences like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

Stick around as Brown regales with tales of being mistakenly detained by JFK International Airport security, performing at a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame banquet honoring Booker T. and the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper and simultaneously one-upping bona fide superstar Garth Brooks, and palling around with George “Big Daddy” Jones and George “Goober” Lindsey of The Andy Griffith Show.

Though not widely publicized, Brown cultivated a brief acting stint, emblazoning Elvis Presley Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling in Heartbreak Hotel, directed by Chris Columbus of future Home Alone fame. The revelation that he had a bit role in Greased Lightning, one of groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor’s best but rarely seen films, is icing on the cake.

Not guided by fame and fortune, Brown is always happy to meet fans, chat awhile, sign autographs, or pose for photos. A 38-year marriage to the girl of his dreams and becoming a card-carrying disciple of Jesus Christ keeps him grounded. Check out the previous chapters of the extensive interview, “Drowning in Memories with a Country Song’s Best Friend” and “Let Him Go, Monkey: A Glimpse Inside the Tumultuous Bipolar World…,” for cleanup time.

It’s cuddle up time: Goatee-brandishing country-soul artist T Graham Brown meets attractive fan Cheryl Van Duzer Green during an autograph session after a hits-packed concert at the Big Sandy Spring Festival in Big Sandy, Tennessee, on May 23, 2013. Image Credit: The Cheryl Van Duzer Green Collection

The T. Graham Brown Interview, Part Two

Has airport security screening ever given you a headache?

In 2014 I was going through customs 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].

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Singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin, Garth Brooks, and T. Graham Brown attend Playin’ Possum! The Final No Show Tribute To George Jones at the Bridgestone Arena on November 22, 2013, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photography by Larry Busacca / NJ / Getty Images for Webster PR

How did you 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].

George Jones’ superstar Nashville session for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,“ featuring T. Graham Brown, a partially obscured Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Jones, Mark Chesnutt, and Joe Diffie. Distributed by MCA Nashville on the “Walls Can Fall” album,” ageism most likely played a pivotal role in “Rockin’ Chair” failing to catch on at country radio. Stalling at No. 34 C&W when distributed on September 29, 1992, “Rockin’ Chair” nevertheless became a Jones concert staple until his passing. Image Credit: The T. Graham Brown Collection

What artists are on your playlist?

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, the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville hosted Playin’ Possum! The Final No Show [November 22, 2013]. 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 “The Voice” Gosdin, Delbert McClinton, Mel Street [only 45 years old when he committed suicide in 1978, “Lovin’ on Back Streets” was his biggest hit], Earl Thomas Conley, Amazing Rhythm Aces lead singer Russell Smith, 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.

T. Graham Brown shares a funny backstage moment in Nashville with a cigarette-carrying George Jones sometime during the early 1990s. Brown’s wife Sheila always cooked fried silver queen corn and fresh butter beans for George and wife Nancy Sepulvado. Image Credit: The T. Graham Brown Collection

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 [2012], and I’m pretty tickled with the new version.

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Richard Pryor emblazons real life NASCAR racing champion Wendell Scott in the official theatrical poster for “Greased Lightning,” a drama costarring Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little [ironically Pryor’s replacement in director Mel Brooks’ classic “Blazing Saddles], and Woodstock festival opening performer Richie Havens and unleashed in July 1977. Image Credit: Warner Bros. / Amazon

Have you ever acted in a film or TV role?

I sure have. 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 distributed in July 1977 by Warner Brothers, earned promising 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 dropped in September 1987 by 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 Mayberry, 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.

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T. Graham Brown playfully recognizes pioneering WSM disc jockey Ralph Emery backstage after a taping of “Nashville Now,” a popular country music series hosted by Emery on The Nashville Network [TNN] circa 1989. Emery played a pivotal role in Brown’s rise to the top of the country music charts. Photography by Alan Klingaman

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 Jimmy Dean 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.

Producer Larry Butler, co-writer of B.J. Thomas’s monster 1975 hit, “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” apparently had just finished telling an entertaining anecdote to a laughing T. Graham Brown while taping an episode of RFDtv’s “Country’s Family Reunion” circa October 2010. Image Credit: The T. Graham Brown Collection

You have appeared prolifically 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 50 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.

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On March 12, 2013, “Messing This Up” podcast host Jaired Messing is pictured with 23-year-old drummer Acme Brown, the son of “I Tell It Like It Is” country soul belter T. Graham Brown. Acme was a guest on the Nashville-based podcast earlier that evening and was plugging his garage punk band, Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders. Photography by Jaired Messing

What can you tell us about son Acme Brown?

Born on July 18, 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 really into country, but he has played with me on the Opry before, drummed on a few unreleased songs of mine, and co-wrote the rollicking “Santa Claus Is Coming in a UFO” with his mom and me during a power outage years ago. It eventually found a home on the Christmas with T. Graham Brown record [2015].

Acme drummed in a garage punk band, Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders, for a couple of years through 2014. That doesn’t mean that they won’t reunite and make new music in the future. They played at the prestigious South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival [SXSW] in Austin. I’ve never been invited. Acme reminds me of myself when I was his age, which worries his mother constantly [laughs].

Sheila Brown: Acme loves to work in the studio and is a quick study to do tracking for other people’s projects. This way, he gets to play all different kinds of music and make his own schedule. He got married in April 2017, so he doesn’t really want to be on the road.

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T. Graham Brown demonstrates his amazing rhinestone-encrusted red jacket and accompanying bling on November 21, 2013, during the Playin’ Possum! The Final No Show Tribute to George Jones at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Photography by Terry Wyatt / Getty Images

Have you quit smoking?

I pretty much smoked my last cigar on October 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.

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The eye-catching, elegant cover of the perfect T. Graham Brown hits compilation, “Deja Vu All Over Again: The Best of T. Graham Brown,” distributed on August 28, 2007. Image Credit: Collectors Choice Music / Capitol Nashville

How does Christianity impact 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 program called Shepherd’s Chapel, originating from Gravette, Arkansas, that broadcasts over 225 television stations here and in Canada. I always enjoy watching Dr. Arnold Murray. He reads from the Bible, spotlighting a book each month. He takes the time to explain each verse and chapter [Author’s Note: Murray passed away on February 12, 2014, but Shepherd’s Chapel remains in syndication].

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.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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