T. Graham Brown talks like he’d rather be living off the grid. He doesn’t have a cell phone, he jokes, because he tossed his cell phone in a lake. What’s more, he claims to only have gotten a computer at the absolute insistence of folks he deals with professionally.
The Georgia-born singer and songwriter also makes a self-deprecating crack about putting his song “Water Into Wine” — a confessional prayer for delivery from alcoholism — on several albums in a row because too few people had had a chance to hear them.
But Brown has also enjoyed his share of moments in the spotlight. He and his robust, soul-heated voice — which summoned its twang when a song called for it — pretty much camped out in the country Top 10 during the latter half of the ‘80s. Through that era, he averaged a couple of hits a year, including the salving power ballad “Hell and High Water,” the wounded, R&B-infused plea “Don’t Go to Strangers” and the supple, grooving invitation “Darlene.”
Just this year, Brown’s first gospel album, Forever Changed, brought him the first Grammy nomination of his career for the best roots gospel album. It’s a new category for the Grammys, and for him.
CMT Edge: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.
Brown: I’m 60 years old. I figured I was too old for that.
Have you been nominated in other categories in the past?
No, I never have. I mean, I’ve been nominated for all kinds of other stuff. I won a CMA Award one time, but that’s it.
The gospel album you’re nominated for has a song called “Soul Talk” that describes “a church for folks that ain’t church people.” What is gospel music to you?
Good lord, that’s a good question. I don’t know. There’s just so many different ways to do it.
I grew up in this little town in South Georgia. About 300 people lived there. … Our house backed up to the railroad tracks, our backyard did. … We didn’t have air conditioning, so I slept with my window open. And I used to put my head down at the foot of the bed where the window was. The first live band I ever heard in my life was in the black church.
Then on Sunday mornings when we’d be getting ready for church, I would spread out some newspaper in front of the television and get out this Kiwi black shoe polish, and I’d be polishing my shoes watching the Gospel Jubilee on TV. You know, the Happy Goodmans, Southern gospel. So that’s what I cut my teeth on, I guess.
You don’t do any preaching or evangelizing on here. You’re testifying to personal transformation in “Water Into Wine” and “Stronger Place.”
Every time I do a show, I end the show up with “Wine Into Water,” and I talk to people about it. I talk to people about not being too shaken up by all the craziness in the world. I just tell ‘em, “God’s still on the throne. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
I just never have liked somebody just beating you on the head. That never has reached me. I got a bully pulpit up there. I can say what I wanna say, and I do. But I don’t get up there and preach that ol’ damnation and hellfire and all that.
I guess this record is just trying to be positive.
It’s more powerful to share how you’ve come out on the other side of things.
“Wine Into Water” has really taken on a life of its own, and it’s really helped a lot of people. … A guy sent me a message the day before yesterday. … He said, “This might sound funny, but I’m sitting here drinking my last whiskey while I’m listening to ‘Wine Into Water.’ ‘Cause I’ve got a daughter that’s three and a daughter that’s seven, and I decided it’s time to change my life.”
Straightening up’s a tough one. I really love it when I hear people are trying to straighten their lives up and get out from under what it is that’s holding ‘em down.
You started out singing covers in a beach music duo. A decade later, you got a publishing deal in Nashville. When did songwriting enter the picture?
I was writing all along. … My songs weren’t worth a crap.
When I moved to Nashville is when I started learning how to write. I was lucky enough to get a songwriting deal when I’d been here about six months or something.
I’ll tell you what, when I really started writing decent songs was when I hooked up with Gary Nicholson. He was one of the very first guys I met.
Ray Kennedy said, “I wanna take you to see these guys that are singing this afternoon.” … The guys in the band, it was Steve Earle and Gary Nicholson and [bassist] Michael Rhodes and Eddie Bayers playing drums, all these guys that I met that I went on to do hundreds of demo sessions with, and then hired ‘em to play on my records, when I finally got control of that.
Considering you’d worked in beach music and R&B, with a country-rock detour between, it doesn’t seem like a foregone conclusion that you’d wind up in Nashville pursuing a country solo career. What ultimately sent you in that direction? What made you think there was a place in country for a blue-eyed soul singer?
I’d always ask Randall [Bramblett] a serious question. He was the only guy that had a record deal that I knew. I kept asking him, “How do you get to be a star?” It was the stupidest question.
He said, “Brown, I’m gonna tell you how you get to be a star. You get your ass out of Athens, Georgia, and you move to New York, L.A. or Nashville. And don’t ever ask me that question again.”
When I moved to Nashville, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. I did a bazillion demos and my voice got passed around town. So finally Capitol Records signed me, and I cut a record. I think it was, “He’s in Nashville, therefore he is country.” And they put my record out on country and it was a hit.
There wasn’t any plan. It was just kind of a serendipitous sequence of events.
Did it create any confusion that there was already a well-known musician and producer by the name of Tony Brown in Nashville?
I’d call somebody and they’d say, “Who’s calling?” I’d say, “Tony Brown,” and they’d put me right through. When they’d find out it wasn’t that Tony Brown, they’d hang up on me.
So I figured, “Gosh, I’ve gotta go T. Graham Brown, or this is gonna be crazy.”
Considering that “Brilliant Conversationalist” is a full-on R&B shuffle with a saxophone, it’s pretty striking to think that that was a hit country single. Did you encounter any kind of resistance to releasing it as a single?
Yeah, I encountered resistance to my whole career. (laughs)
I don’t think they knew what to do with me from the beginning. I mean, we cut my first two albums down in Muscle Shoals and had horns all over ‘em. The year that I came out is the same year of Marty Stuart and Randy Travis and Keith Whitley and Dwight Yoakam. I was the R&B guy, I guess.
I could’ve gone in and cut a hard country record right off the bat and probably been a lot bigger. But I just like doing what I like to do.