“It all starts with a song.” T.G. Sheppard says this when he describes his career, which may have started with a song but continued with 21 of them that topped the country music charts. But when he talks about his life, it all started with a dream.
“If you work hard and you believe that you can achieve your dream, you can,” Sheppard said, adding that his life grew into something much larger than any of his wildest of dreams.
T.G. Sheppard is the stage name for William Neal Browder, who was born in Humboldt, Tennessee, a small town 80 miles from Memphis. In an interview with Tahoe Onstage, he said, “My close friends call me ‘T.’ ” His wife – acclaimed singer Kelly Lang – calls him the real-life Forrest Gump.
“She says, ‘It’s amazing that in you were at places where history took place,’ ” he said. “I don’t know why I was at that skating rink that night I met Elvis. I don’t know why President Reagan called me to play the White House. I don’t know why these things happen, but they did happen. I have been blessed so much from living an incredible life. It’s just a dream come true and I’m still living it.”
Sheppard, 72, who performed three times at the White House, will make his third appearance at the Carson Valley Inn on Nov. 12, at an acoustic show with Lang in the Valley Ballroom.
“That’s a part of the country that is absolutely so beautiful and I enjoy coming there because it’s work, but at the same time, it’s like being on vacation for me,” Sheppard said. “There are a lot of great country fans there who keep coming back time and time again.”
Sheppard’s career has seen a resurgence and he’s as busy as ever, playing 100 shows a year, working for charity projects and releasing his first studio album in 13 years, an ambitious, years-long project entitled “Legendary Friends & Country Duets.”
“I thought I would have 10 or 12 artists who would say yes and come in, but I had 15 of them who said yes, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ricky Skaggs, and the Oak Ridge Boys to Mickey Gilley. It was really a magical project for me because afterwards I felt very validated that my mentors would come in and sing with me. It was the frosting on the cake of my career.”
Perhaps most notable are the performances of George Jones and Merle Haggard, who have since passed. It was Jones’ final studio session, and it was one of Haggard’s last recordings. In an incredible logistical feat to include the great artists, all but the song with Haggard were recorded together live.
“It’s sad to lose great performers like that but I am so thankful I was able to catch them in time and make them part of this project,” Sheppard said. “George wasn’t doing great, but he wasn’t sick. He was still out doing shows and still had a lot of energy about him and was funny and telling stories. I was kind of shocked when he went down so quickly. George marched to his own tune and lived a very hard life, but he left behind a great legacy and was a dear friend.”
Jones died on April 26, 2013. Haggard died April 6, 2016.
“If you ask any country singer, nine times out of 10 you are going to get a country performer who will mention Jones or Haggard, and to be able to have both of them on the project was really a shocker for me. There were no boundaries. The artists from the different genres, Bob Dylan and the rock and rollers, they all loved those guys. They were bigger than life.
“To me, a kid from Memphis who dreamed of doing something in music to be on an album with a list of those names, I really have to pinch myself.”
Sheppard is pretty big himself. This year, he was listed among the top 100 Billboard Greatest of All Time Country Artists. LINK
Sheppard recalled how it all started.
“At 15, late one night, I just crawled out the back window of my parents’ house and chased my dream. I had a very overbearing father who loved me very much but didn’t want me to be in music, which I knew then was what I needed my life to be. I left to go chase the dream and I caught it. But that’s not really the way you want to chase your dreams (these days). I was one of the ones who caught the dream, but that’s not the way you do it. You stay home and you go to school and you stay close to mom and dad, but I just had to go do it.”
Sheppard hitchhiked to Memphis and by happenstance, he met Elvis Presley, who was nine years older, at a skating rink.
“He befriended me and we stayed friends until the day he passed,” Sheppard said. “I always knew when I was with him, whether it be late at night the two of us just sitting around talking or being with him onstage standing on the wings or in the control booth watching him sing in the studio, I always knew when I was with him that I was in the presence of greatness. There was an aura and a magic, an energy about him that I haven’t found anywhere else performer wise. It was an incredible thing to witness. It was just phenomenal.”
Before he became an entertainer, Sheppard worked as a record company promoter, which later reportedly was the reason he had to assume a stage name. He lived off and on for seven years at Elvis’ Graceland, and that’s when his own singing career began to take off.
“My first No. 1 song was ‘Devil in a Bottle’ and Elvis loved the song so much,” Sheppard said. “He would go around the house singing it and it would just freak me out because I am thinking, ‘Elvis Presley is singing my song.’ ”
Sheppard’s singing career had an improbable start. He was signed by Motown.
“I was actually discovered by Berry Gordy,” he said. “It’s really unusual for a country act to be recording for an R&B label. They started a new label in Nashville and I was the first guy they signed. I became the guy who went No. 1 first with them. It was a very magical time to be able to hang in the studio and get to know people like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.”
Elvis shared some magic, too, when he gifted Sheppard with a tour bus.
“I can truthfully say that the confidence that gave me — that he believed in me enough to buy me a tour bus — it made me realize that I really and truly needed to not let him down or myself,” Sheppard said. “I really dug in after that, and I think that one gift helped my career confidence wise.”
Sheppard’s heyday was in the 1980s, when he released a slew of No. 1 hit songs for Warner Bros. He specifically credits producers Buddy Killen and Jim Ed Norman.
“I surrounded myself with great teachers and producers and songwriters that gave me that Midas touch for so many years,” he said.
While Sheppard may have been best known for his love songs, he also made a novelty song with Clint Eastwood. “Make My Day” was a tune about Eastwood’s movie character Dirty Harry.
To the chagrin of purists, the country radio sounds that have become popular moved to a pop realm in the 1990s and 2000s. Sheppard’s recording career slowed for a while. But he’s back now, and says he’s appreciative, not bitter, about the new country.
“I love all forms of music and all forms of country music,” he said. “Some of the newer country music, I am not necessarily a big fan of, but most of it I am because without change things get stagnant and they can die. I think a lot of artists of today have brought in a new audience that now is returning to people like myself who have been around a while. So we owe a debt of gratitude for those bringing in a new audience for people such as myself.”
Sheppard said a seed was planted in his mind for an album of duets back in the early 1980s when he recorded songs with Karen Brooks and the folk singer Judy Collins. Expect to hear some duets from Sheppard and his wife Lang during the show in the Carson Valley Inn.
“It is great because she doesn’t get a chance to come with me often but occasionally we will get out and do some shows together. We’re big fans of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who were our neighbors here in Hendersonville for years before they passed.
“At the same time, (Lang) has a new album called ‘Throwback.’ She came out there last time I was out there with Moe Bandy (an outdoor show in TJ’s Corral). The reaction to her voice and singing was so good that the Carson Valley Inn suggested we bring her back as my special guest this time. It will be fun to see a husband and wife onstage who adore each other and who love doing love songs. At the same time she will be doing some classics.
“But the beautiful thing about this show is that it’s reminiscent of the first one I ever did there. It’s an acoustic show, which gives me a chance to breathe and to tell stories throughout that I think people enjoy hearing, whether it be about Elvis or how the songs came about or how they were written. So it’s really a more intimate type of show that I enjoy sometimes more than the big show.”
Sheppard has so many stories to share, he should write a book. In fact, he plans to do just that in 2017. Perhaps it will start out with what he told Tahoe Onstage.
“It all beings with a song. If you have great song, you can have a great career. I was able to put together the right songs at the right times with the right producers. I would have been satisfied with having a couple of No. 1 songs, but never in my dreams would I have believed after 40 years I would have 21 of them.”
- T.G. Sheppard, the country music singer with 21 No. 1 songs, will return to the Valley Ballroom on Saturday, Nov. 12, for an acoustic performance with Kelly Lang. Tickets are $25. Sheppard’s March 2014 Valley Ballroom appearance sold out in advance. Sheppard also appeared at the CVI in August 2015 in a show at TJ’s Corral along with Moe Bandy.
- Tickets can be purchased at the hotel desk or by calling 775-783-6606.