The country music great sat down with us to go over his album lineup process and his friendship with Elvis.
Cowboys & Indians: How much thought goes into matching or balancing songs when you choose the lineup for an album? For example, on Midnight in Memphis — your first solo country album in more than 20 years — you have two songs that reference your late friend Elvis Presley. But you also have two songs, “Addicted to You” and “Sober,” that, taken together, seem to chart the beginning and the end of a love affair.
T.G. Sheppard: Well, yes, but you know what? We’re all addicted to something, aren’t we? It can be anything. And I’m addicted to relationships, and love, and friends — that’s my main thing. I love my friends, and I love songs that talk about how much people care for each other, and usually that’s in the form of a love song or something. “Addicted to You” actually came late in the album, because my wife [singer-songwriter Kelly Lang] wrote the song. I turned to her one day and said, “I need a little more energy in the album. I need something a little more up-tempo.” And so she came in with the song “Addicted to You,” and I said, “Bam! That’s it!”
C&I: Just how difficult is the song selection process?
T.G.: It is a long, grueling process, because you want to make sure that when you record a song, it hopefully is something that the people can relate to. Sometimes, you’ll listen to a song, and you’ll go, “Man, I’ve got to record that.” But then maybe a week or two later, you’ll hear another song. And it’s better. So the other song goes away, and you jump to that one.
C&I: Of course, it is a bit amusing to hear you sing the upbeat “Addicted to You” and then, a few cuts later, the sadder-but-wiser “Sober.” You can’t help thinking, “Well, I guess he got over her.”
T.G.: [Laughs.] I’m lyrically into songs that kind of fit together, because I’ve always felt that an album, from the beginning to the end, is basically a mini-private concert for the person who is sitting and listening. So you have a beginning of the album, which is the beginning of your private concert, and then you have the end. And in between, I think everything is like a puzzle. It needs to go together, fit together, and therefore it makes a complete experience for the listener.
C&I: Regarding the Elvis Presley songs — “I Wanna Live Like Elvis” and “The Day Elvis Died” — you and Elvis were very close. In fact, he even purchased your first tour bus for you, right?
T.G.: Yes, he did. He bought me my first tour bus, and that was a great gift. But you know what the greatest gift was? In giving me the bus, he gave me the confidence to work harder, and not let him down as a friend. I didn’t want to disappoint him after giving me such an incredible gift. So I worked harder to try to make my mark and to cut the best music I could.
C&I: But because you were such good friends — is that why it’s taken so long for you to sing about him? Like, maybe as recently as 10 years ago, it still might have been too painful?
T.G.: Painful is a good word, I guess. But really, I didn’t want people to think that I would be riding the coattails of my friend. And let’s face it, it would’ve been easy years ago to jump on the train, write a book, start recording music about him, because of our friendship. But I have never wanted to do that, or make it appear that I was doing that. So therefore, I have waited all these years to actually pay tribute to my friendship that I had with him. And I’m glad I haven’t done anything up until now. But, yeah, anytime that I am at Graceland, it’s still difficult to go into the house and walk through, because all the memories come flooding back. I don’t know, I guess I still expect him to turn the corner and walk out of a room like I’ve seen him do so many times in the past — and it’s still tough.
ON THE RADIO: T.G. Sheppard continues to share music and memories on The T.G. Sheppard Show on SiriusXM’s Prime Country Radio (Channel 58).
IT DON’T MEAN NOTHING: Even after all these years, people will ask T.G. what his initials stand for. And he always replies: “Actually, just initials.” Decades ago, when he started recording as a country artist, he wanted something more distinctive than his real name, William Browder. Back then, he says, “You had C.W. McCall, and B.J. Thomas, and Tom T. Hall, so initials were kind of the craze at the time. So I just sat down and put a couple of letters together. I wound up with a T and a G. I don’t know where Sheppard came from. But when I wrote Sheppard, I thought, Hey, that’s got a good ring to it.”
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr
From our January 2020 issue.