By Jeremy Roberts
Country music singer Anthony “T.” Graham Brown, 56, has recorded 13 studio albums, and has charted more than 20 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts. Three of these singles — “Hell and High Water” and “Don’t Go to Strangers” from 1986, and “Darlene” from 1988 — reached No. 1; eight reached the Top 10.
Were you actually born in Arabi, Georgia?
People will say “born in Arabi,” and I don’t even try to fight them on it. It’s such a convoluted thing. I was born 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 2nd 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 Athens High, formerly Clark Central. 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 (Madison County and Jackson County). My parents (Royce and Jackie) are both still alive; they’re both pushing 80. They live between Commerce and Athens, Georgia.
What was your childhood like?
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 ten 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 (i.e. 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.
Do you recall the first music you bought as a kid?
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 (he 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 “Ringo,” with the Bonanza theme (featuring spoken lyrics) on the flip side. [Author’s Note: Best known as Pa Cartwright on the long-running Bonanza western on NBC, Greene had his only hit single with the #1 “Ringo,” released in September 1964. And no, it’s not about Ringo Starr].
There was a little store in Arabi that had a record rack (I’m surprised they had records to 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 (he sings “Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die”). Sadler wasn’t a great singer by any stretch.
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 & 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 (released in August 1970 on Mercury Records). I never did have any of The Beatles or Rolling Stones stuff.
Once you moved to Athens, you started your first band called Dirk & 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 & 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 (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 No. 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 (he chuckles).
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.
After Dirk & Tony, Rio Diamond became your next musical project…
Rio Diamond quickly followed, but that 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. Rio Diamond evolved into “The Rack of Spam.” At one point there were ten 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 your 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 believe it’s been 25 years since your first hit song?
It’s hard to believe; I didn’t realize we recently commemorated the 25th anniversary of “Drowning In Memories.” Even though it was a hit, it 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 went to #39 on the Billboard Country charts, 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, making its way into the Top 10 at #7.
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 (i.e. Aretha Franklin, 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.
Why did you leave Capital in 1991 after an incredible run of hit singles?
I asked for my release from the label. 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 (Sinatra originally hired him as a producer for the singer’s Reprise Records) then came in to run Capitol. In retrospect, I had a great contract. I gave up $900,000 to leave Capital.
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 stuff. Basically, all the Capital 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 three years ago, entitled Déjà Vu All Over Again, featuring sixteen 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 that I hardly ever use (my hair is 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 (released in 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 has reverted back to me as well.
Okay, you left Capital 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, currently the Senior Vice President of A&R for MCA Nashville, produced an album for me, but Warner Bros. never released it. The label dropped me and I was on Warner for eighteen 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.
When fans thought you were out of the game, you returned in a big way with the enduring “Wine Into Water” single…
In late 1998, I issued “Wine Into Water” on the independent Platinum Records (later becoming Intersound). The song was a hit, especially on the Contemporary Christian 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 Warner Bros.
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 last year 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.
We were in Branson last November, 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 is a smash in Ireland.
From A Stronger Place came next, although it was hardly promoted…
I originally released that as a promotional or advance album in 2002. I just sold it at my concerts. We cut all nine songs at a church turned studio in Kentucky with Steve Wariner and Marty Stuart (good buddies of mine) on guitar and mandolin, respectively.
We didn’t spend hardly any money on it, maybe $2,000. There aren’t many of those original advance albums left, and I don’t even know if I have any. 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 (i.e. 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.
What do you remember about your critically-acclaimed The Next Right Thing album?
Shoot, that album (released in May 2003) 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 and me, was the second single. A great song that I’m particularly proud of, yet nobody played it.
USA Today named it the #3 Album of the Year (Vince Gill was one notch behind me with his Next Best Thing LP). 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 released The Present, your latest album…
The Present was a one-off project for Joy Records, a small label in El Paso, Texas. It’s my only album so far with any gospel music, although it’s not a strict gospel record.
The people were very nice, and they asked me to pick about ten positive message cover songs that would uplift folks, such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” I also wrote several songs, including the title cut and “I’m Expecting Miracles.”
Joy definitely wanted “Wine Into Water” on there, so we cut a new, longer version. Even though we were given a small budget, overall, it was a positive experience. That label has folded, too. The music business is so volatile today. The album remains a popular seller at our road shows.
Do you have many unreleased recordings?
First, I’ve recorded a new country album that’s been in the can for three years. 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, saying, “Hey, 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 reverts back to me in another two years if it continues to remain unreleased.
The Unreleased Jazz Album
I’m also putting vocals on a project we’ve had in the can too long; I’ve never done anything like it, but 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. And yes, I own this album.
I cut this 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.
Last year I noticed a new single by you on iTunes called “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 a song called “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. By the way, 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 last June, and it went to #1 for four weeks. He has a buddy in France who’s a disc jockey, and he uses a blast email to send mp3s 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, since I’ve had three #1s in Europe in the last year-and-a-half.
“Bag of Bones,” originally a duet with George Jones from The Next Right Thing, was one of those songs that T. Jae sent off around January 2009. He re-recorded the song (thus removing George’s duet vocal in the process), I added my vocal, and we had a new duet.
In October I returned to the studio and sang another demo called “Sip By Sip,” also written by T. Jae. It’s a great country song about a guy who drinks the memory of his girl away. I have no doubt it’ll be another hit once it’s released.
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 hopefully now I’ll get to 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 this year. Last summer 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.
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 fifteen 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 (a company that collects listener data) ratings are more than the guys playing current country. 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 2011?
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 25 years old to receive airplay. Taylor Swift won Songwriter of the Year at the Nashville Songwriters Association International and at the BMI Awards in 2010.
I’d much rather write a song that means something to someone, whether it’s “The Last Resort” (talking about being on the verge of divorce) or “Which Way To Pray” (dealing with child abuse).
I mean, what are you gonna do? You can’t fight the power. It discourages everybody in this business. We put all our stuff on iTunes, 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 (his most popular album is entitled The Truckin’ Sessions). 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, but he’s not making any substantial money.
He and Rhonda Vincent just released a duets album in June called Your Money and My Good Looks. “This Wanting You,” a plain old country song I wrote in 1987 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 1999 Cold Hard Truth album, too.
Do you consider yourself wealthy?
All these eclectic Americana artists, they’re not selling any records, and they’re not making any money on the road. We just scrape by. I’m getting money for shows that are the same amount or less than I did 25 years ago. We’re not getting rich.
We make house payments, we cut the grass like everybody else, and we don’t drive new cars. I never have been rich, and I never hit the big leagues and grossed millions and millions of dollars. Today guys make $50 million per year touring.
It can be discouraging at times. I can sympathize with artists who don’t record anymore because the financial incentive just isn’t there. But I still think there’s a lot left to do.
Sheila Brown: But it’s what we do, and T. Graham can make a living singing, which is really priceless. T. Graham must have done something right, since people keep coming to his shows.
If a record label came calling, would you sign up?
I don’t know if I want to be on a record label. The kind of label that would sign me would be an independent label like Rounder Records, and they can’t do anything more than what we’re already doing.
They couldn’t get anything played on the radio or my albums into Walmart and other major big box stores. Only a handful of artists get into the major chains that are left because the music space is reduced each year.
An independent would have to enable me to have total creative control, including song/musician/studio selection and production. It’s cool to own your recordings and not have to wait years and years to get the rights back to it.
The digital world has made it possible for people to get creative and not have to go through a label and build up a huge recoup. As it is now, I enjoy doing my own thing.
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 eighteen 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 Owen 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 (Stax Records and their artists, like Otis Redding, 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 March 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 Capital 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 project?
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, saying, “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 with, “Let’s wait until after the first of the year, as it’ll be a different tax year.”
Lo and behold, on January 1st Intersound filed for bankruptcy. They did offer me sixteen 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.
What have you been recording lately?
Jimmy Fortune, the youngest Statler Brother, wrote a song with Sheila (my wife) and me called “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” 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.
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 fifty copies of it for our Christmas shows, which quickly sold out. Then we sent the song out as a Christmas card to our friends.
I performed it during a brief Christmas show run in Michigan last year, 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’ve decided to re-record it later this year for a whole album, my first Christmas album. Vince Gill has agreed to sing on it, and if our schedules align, I want Alison Krauss on there.
There’s a good chance Jimmy will appear on the new version, too. I have a feeling Jimmy will record the song for his own Christmas record, and I’ve told him that if he wants me to sing with him, I’ll be glad to do it. One of these days we’ll sing it live together onstage.
“Dedicated Nascar Fan”
Years ago we wrote an up-tempo, funny little song called “Dedicated Nascar Fan.” We were very close friends with Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, Darrell Waltrip, all those 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.
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.
Recently someone called and said they were doing a NASCAR album and wanted to hear our song. They loved it, and it’s going to be on the upcoming album.
Dottie Rambo’s “Build My Mansion”
Dottie Rambo, the world’s greatest gospel songwriter, wrote approximately 5,000 songs during her career. There’s a new tribute album with about 20 songs for Ms. Rambo that’s supposed to come out sometime this year. They want it to qualify for a Grammy, and it might very well do it.
I got to sing a real cool song called “Build My Mansion,” originally a huge gospel hit for another artist that we cut really bluesy. I’ve never done it live, but I’m fixin’ to. I haven’t even played it for my band, The Mighty Rack of Spam.
Little Richard contributed to the project. He’s a friend of mine who I’ve known for 20 years; we met doing Taco Bell commercials in California. We’ve been friends ever since, and although he’s kind of getting a little hobbled up now, he’s still “Little Richard.”
The late Solomon Burke, George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, they’re all on there. Loretta Lynn, who has sang “Wine Into Water” in her shows for the last two or three years, contributed a song. I just learned that Dolly Parton has signed on, too.
Anyway, a bunch of cool, great artists are on it. I don’t know if they’ve named the project yet, but we feel sure that when it comes out, it’ll win a Grammy or Dove Award, because it’s just going to be too killer not to win something.
Ralph Stanley and “Angel Band”
In January, I recorded another classic gospel song for a tribute album to bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley that should be out later this year. The song is “Angel Band,” which was featured in the 2000 Coen Brothers comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?
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. remarked, “I never thought I’d be singing bluegrass.” Nathan replied, “You sounded great, bluegrass or any style!” That made T. feel so good.
Vince Gill, Jimmy Fortune, The Whites, and Linda Davis, among others, have songs on there. That’s another song I’m gonna start performing at my shows later this year.
[Author’s Note: The O Brother version that most listeners are familiar with was recorded in December 1955 on Mercury Records by The Stanley Brothers, featuring Ralph and his 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 he continues to record and tour today].
Have you ever recorded a gospel album?
Unfortunately no, but as soon as I can get around to it, I want to do one. It will consist of newly written songs and some standards.
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.
You’ve always straddled the line between country and soul. Why not record a full soul album?
Well, I’m gonna do a soul record with my good friend Steve Cropper, the legendary guitarist for Booker T. & The M.G.’s, later this summer. Stax now has a record label, and they want Cropper to produce some things, so this is perfect timing.
I’ve never done a straight-up soul project, but I think it will open up some bluesier places for me and garner some additional credibility. For instance, I’d love to play venues where country blues singer/songwriter Delbert McClinton has appeared.
Do you ever sing in front of your music peers?
One of the coolest things I’ve ever accomplished was attending the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame dinner last October. 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 (I’ve sang it at my shows for years).
I never perform in front of the music community anymore. 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 it 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 somebody invited Tony Bennett onstage to sing. Tony got up there and just stole the show. They were all backstage after the concert.
A gentleman told Tony, “Man, you stole the show, what made you do that?” Tony answered, “Well, you shouldn’t 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, ‘cause now I gotta follow you.
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 always makes fried silver queen corn and fresh butter beans for George and his wife, Nancy, when summer comes (one of my cousins runs a produce farm in Nashville). My nickname for George is “Big Daddy.”
Artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, 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, George Strait (he keeps going on forever like an Energizer bunny), Alan Jackson, and Dale Watson.
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.
Is it true you acted in a few movies?
Oh yeah; Greased Lightning, starring Richard Pryor and Pam Grier, was partly filmed in Athens. 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, Ritchie Havens, and Beau Bridges.
[Author’s Note: Loosely based on Wendell Scott, the first black race-car driver to win a NASCAR race, the movie 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 ten 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.
[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 folks to change into homicidal mutants! The movie was released in September 1987 on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer].
David owns a cattle ranch/farm in Tellico Plains right outside Knoxville, and the movie was filmed there. I had another tiny part in it.
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 (Home Alone), 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 [Author’s Note: All three movies are easily available on DVD].
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 music 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 is George “Goober” Lindsey. He used to have Andy Griffith Show watching 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!
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), TVLand, or Encore Westerns.
I never watch network television, and I couldn’t tell you what current shows are out there. I hate ads; 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.
What are some of the television shows you’ve performed on over the years?
Dig this, the only network late night show I appeared on was CBS’s The Pat Sajak Show in July 1989. Up against The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, Sajak only lasted a little over a year.
Luckily, country radio listeners watched The Nashville Network (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.
I appeared on virtually every TNN show, including cooking programs and This Week In Country Music, hosted by Charlie Chase and Lorianne Crook.
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.
You’ve been appearing quite a bit recently on the popular Country’s Family Reunion…
Yes, I was in Branson last November doing two shows for the program, and I did some more in late May. It’s a popular classic country music show taped in Nashville and hosted by Bill Anderson on RFDtv.
People don’t quite understand Country’s Family Reunion is an infomercial for a DVD set; they think it’s a genuine show. I’m always hearing this comment from fans: “I get home every Friday night so I can watch you on Family Reunion.” It’s the most television exposure I’ve gotten in perhaps twenty 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 it’s awesome being in that group of folks. 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 ten years, and this year they’ve taken the show on the road. They didn’t know if the road version would be popular, but it is, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
The newest one we did is killer; Charley Pride was there. There’s so many talented hit makers on there I can’t even remember them all. I sat beside Ed Bruce; he wrote many great country songs including “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” Ed wants to write, so we’ll be writing together once we get our schedules coordinated.
Sheila Brown: Producer Larry Black had a great idea with ‘Country’s Family Reunion.’ He’s archiving everything. Thirty-nine of the artists have died from the first one we did until the last one in October. Their stories are getting told, and their voices can be heard forever.
I heard you had given up smoking. Is this true?
It’s been over six months since I smoked my last cigar. Man, I’m finished with smoking. I quit on October 30th, my birthday. Sheila and my doctor are 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’ve been wearing a NicoDerm patch, and I went through an aggravating coughing phase.
I’ll say this, that final run of shows in mid December was really good. Sheila says she’s noticed how much clearer and stronger my voice sounded. I don’t know if that’s due to not smoking, but maybe she’s got a point.
Do you have any children?
Our son is named Acme (which means the best) Geronimo Brown. 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 21-year-old 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 he’s drummed on a few unreleased songs of mine. He’s living in a band house with five guys here in Nashville, and they do their own thing.
How much preparation goes into one of your shows?
Not that much; for instance, I don’t write setlists 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. I did over 150 shows last year, more than in 2009. Matter of fact, I’m going to do a show during the CMA Music Festival (aka Fan Fair) in June. I simply love performing to my fans.
Your Christian faith plays a major role in your life…
I get up every morning at about 4 a.m. (I go to bed by 9 p.m.) and do two–three hours of Bible study. I like Dr. Arnold Murray; he has a daily program called Shepherd’s Chapel, originating from Gravette, Arkansas, that broadcasts over 225 television stations here and in Canada.
Dr. Murray reads from the Bible, picking a book each month. He takes the time to explain each verse and chapter. I’ve studied Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Mark, Luke, John, and Revelations so far.
I’ve started doing that in the last year, which has been great 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.
A recent graduate of the University of Georgia’s Master of Agricultural Leadership program, Jeremy Roberts writes for Examiner.com on topics ranging from classic film/television, concert reviews, and bios on actors/musicians. Why does Jeremy write? Simply, to tell a story, distill knowledge, and gain additional insight from you, the reader. Jeremy spends his remaining time farming, listening to music, surfing online, reading a good bio, or watching a good western or comedy. To get in touch with Jeremy with any questions/comments, you can email him here or follow him on Twitter at jeremylr.