Country hit-maker T. Graham Brown and sobriety: ‘It was a miracle to me’

Country hit-maker T. Graham Brown and sobriety: 'It was a miracle to me'

County star T. Graham Brown was coming off of a four-year stretch of hits in the late 1980s when he found himself sitting in a group therapy session with his old friend, the late Keith Whitley.

Together, the two men had almost swapped places back and forth on the Billboard country singles chart; with Whitley’s background in bluegrass and Graham’s blue-eyed soul sound, they were part of a crop of new country artists that were changing the Nashville landscape for the better. They were also living large, Brown told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

The Ties That Bind Us“We were hitting, man. He was having No. 1’s, I was having No. 1’s, we were touring together and having the time of our lives,” he said. “I remember they were giving me a No. 1 party at ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) for ‘Hell and High Water’ (his 1986 single), and it was like a brunch. The president of the record label, my record producer, all the ASCAP people were going to be there, and I woke up that morning, fixed me a screwdriver and took three blue Valiums. Then I went over there and passed out in my plate of food, is what they told me.

“That really made them mad, so my record label president said, ‘If you don’t get some help, I’m going to drop you,’ because at the time, it wasn’t nothing for me to get up and make a screwdriver to start the day off. Well, some of Keith’s people told him he was probably doing too much, and they sent us both to this Music Row psychologist for music industry people. I remember us sitting in this group therapy circle, and everybody sounded like they were whining, and Keith and I were just looking at each other, rolling our eyes and thinking, ‘Come on, y’all, get over this. We gotta go have a drink.’”

Fast forward to May 1989: Brown was at home with his wife, Sheila, when the phone rang. It was Jack McFadden, Keith’s manager, which wasn’t unusual given how close the two men and their respective camps where. “T., Keith’s dead,” McFadden said, bursting into tears. Brown was stunned, but he agreed to offer a media statement in McFadden’s place. In the days afterward, he began to see just how bad his friend’s drinking problem really was, but the tragedy didn’t slow Brown’s own descent into the bottle, he added.

“I remember one of those people told me his (blood alcohol content) was .47, and I later found out that Keith would drink nail polish remover, cologne; he would drink anything,” Brown said. “But that didn’t straighten me out one bit. It didn’t make me reexamine my life. You would think that if one of your best friends dies from it, that you might sit around and reflect a little bit and straighten up, but it didn’t even faze me.”

That sweet Southern soul

Now 63 years old and sober, Brown was born in Atlanta and raised in the small town of Arabi, and he got his start in music while attending the University of Georgia in the early 1970s. He started out with a duo before moving on the full bands in the late 1970s (including the short-lived T. Graham Brown’s Rack of Spam, a white soul band that covered Otis Redding), and in 1980, he met and married his soulmate, Sheila.

Two years later, they moved to Nashville, where Brown found work singing advertising jingles. His voice could be heard hawking everything from McDonald’s to Budweiser to Ford to Dr Pepper, and the hugely successful Taco Bell “Run for the Border” campaign featured his golden voice. His work got him noticed by the country music industry, and he was soon signed by E.M.I. Publishing, eventually landing a recording deal with Capitol Records in 1984.

His debut album, “I Tell It Like It Used To Be,” was released in 1986. He’d already cracked the Top 40 with the single “Drowning in Memories,” and his record catapulted four more singles into the Top 10: The No. 7 title track, the No. 3 hit “I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again” and two back-to-back No. 1’s, “Hell and High Water” and “Don’t Go to Strangers.” A year later, his sophomore effort, “Brilliant Conversationalist,” put three more songs in the Top 10, including the title track, “She Couldn’t Love Me Anymore” and “Last Resort.” In 1988, “Come As You Were” produced a third No. 1, “Darlene,” as well as the No. 7 title track.

In the 1990s, however, his substance problem began to overshadow his success.

“The first 40 years were fun, but when I started pouring vodka in my coffee, I started thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is right or not,’” he said. “I did that for a long time, because the only way to get over a hangover is to start drinking again, and that was my deal. I just got to be pitiful. When I looked in the mirror, I would say, ‘You’re smarter than this. You’re about to lose everything.’

“But it’s all narcissism, man. When you’re smart, you tell yourself, ‘This can’t be beating me. I’m in control of this.’ You can’t tell us nothing, because we think we already know everything. That’s the mindset.”

The sting of 'Wine Into Water'

His 1990 record, “Bumper to Bumper,” did modestly well, but 1991’s “You Can’t Take It With You” included only one single that charted, and that same year, he left Capitol. He didn’t return with another studio album until 1998’s “Wine Into Water,” the title track of which has become his most personal and poignant song to date.

“I would get on the horse, ride for a while, then fall off, and when I wrote the song with a couple of buddies of mine, I was still drunk and smoking pot and taking pills or whatever, and I didn’t want to sing it,” he said. “One day, we were out at Loretta Lynn’s, and Sheila said, ‘You’ve got to sing this song. God has used it to help a lot of people.’

“Loretta, she was married to a man who drank, too, so she and Sheila had that bond, and she loved the song and eventually started doing it in her own shows. She cut it for the record she did right before she had a stroke (“Full Circle,” released in 2016), so I know it’s helped a lot of people, but I would sing it and just feel like such a fake.”

He doesn’t remember the exact date, but he does remember the moment his life changed: He had almost given up on sobriety even after a trip through a drug and alcohol rehab in the Southwest. He was on the road, miserable and surrounded by booze. His band members drank and dabbled, and there seemed to always be a party happening around him, but Brown was absolutely miserable.

“It’s a corny story, but I looked in the mirror, and I was hung over and looking rough, and I was just sick and tired of being tired and sick,” he said. “I asked God for some help, and from that minute on, I haven’t had one craving. I didn’t go to any kind of meeting, but it was like it was gone all of the sudden. It was a miracle to me.

“When you ask for help, you’ve got to be sincere. God knows what you’re thinking, and it’s stupid to try and con God. I know, because I did it for a long time! But if you’re sincere about it, if you’re asking for forgiveness, he’ll be there for you.”

Mercy, grace and inspiration

These days, he sings “Wine Into Water” with all of the conviction he can muster. It’s usually the last song in his set, and before he does it, he gives his testimony. It’s his hope that the song, as Sheila pointed out all those years back, help others as much as it has him, and the feedback he gets from fans is a testament to its power.

“We’ve gotten all kinds of stories from people — people who were fixing to kill themselves, who had the gun in their hands,” he said. “I remember a woman told me one time that she was sitting in her car on the side of a back road, fixing to shoot herself, and she turned on the radio before she did it. Bam — right then, ‘Wine Into Water’ came on.

“Another time, we heard from a football player in Tampa, who smoked crack, got instantly hooked, went through his savings and lost his family and his job. He pulled his truck into a field, hooked a hose up to the exhaust and ran it into the cab, and as he cranked it up, the radio came on, and ‘Wine Into Water’ was playing. He got out, unhooked everything and found that little bit of hope.”

In addition to his wife and his faith, Brown has found hope in medicine. Getting a proper mental health diagnosis revealed that he’s long suffered from bipolar disorder, and his doctor pointed out that much of his drinking and using was probably a subconscious attempt to self-medicate a chemical imbalance in the brain. He continues to tour and perform, and he and Sheila are active in International Cooperating Ministries, which builds churches in Third World countries.

Drinking, he added, is the furthest thing from his mind.

“Even some days, when I’m saying my prayers, I’ll forget to thank God for my sobriety!” he said. “It just went away, and I don’t even think about it. I have no idea what day it was, what month, even what year — I just never cared. I just don’t think about it anymore, and I’m doing great, man.

“Sheila and I have been together 40 years, and now that I’m finally able to come around and stay sober, our relationship is great. She’s my best friend, and we have a lot of fun, especially now that our son has grown up, gotten married and moved out. She travels with me now, and we just have a good time. I had to straighten up everything in my life, but when I did, everything got better, man. It’s amazing.”

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