A pop-country balladeer brings country back to the country

by Jordan Green

This Randolph County town (Pop.: 2,661) might not seem the likeliest place for an encounter with country music greatness.

As the house band runs through a couple bars of the Carl Perkins number “Honey Don’t” at the movie theater reincarnated as Liberty Showcase, the other establishments fronting Fayetteville Street remain darkened after 5 on Saturday. That includes Big A Auto Parts; the Downtown Grill, which limits itself to a lunch and breakfast business; and First United Methodist Church, which won’t open its doors for at least another 16 hours.

The touring bus, a 45-foot late-model diesel Prevost Coach, idles in the gravel parking lot behind the theater with a mounted satellite television flickering behind the driver’s seat. Presently TG Sheppard’s entourage arrives in a pair of pickups after dining at a local steakhouse.

The man whose teenage years were steeped in the fertile country, soul, gospel and pop sounds of Memphis in the late ’50s and who released his first rock and roll record in 1966 looks as good or better than his publicity photo. His feathered hair is parted down the middle and he wears a monochrome dress shirt open two or three buttons down. The effect is “Miami Vice,” the television police drama that coincided with the countrypolitan or urban cowboy era that gave Sheppard some of his 20 No. 1 hits.

He steps inside the bus, fiddles with the thermostat and then takes a seat on the long couch near the front.

“Most of the guys have been with me twenty-five or thirty years,” he says. “We kind of like waking up every day in a different city. We watch a lot of satellite TV, watch a lot of satellite movies and we sleep a lot. We do a lot of our traveling at night.”

Sheppard speaks in a measured, enunciated Mid-South locution, with a degree of warmth and personal engagement that stays true to his impoverished western Tennessee roots yet demonstrates how far he has traveled in his 62 years. His interest quickens when the subject of classic country ballads arises.

“The lyrics were paid more attention to,” he says. “Today people are more into the sound; they want that driving, rollicking sound. The songs were more romantic’…. Today’s country, it’s more about life. Back in the seventies and eighties it was more about the heart and relationships.”

Sheppard’s working on an album of duets with artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs and Barry Gibb (“one of my dearest friends”), but he doesn’t harbor any illusions that his new recordings will chart, saying, “I’m not going to say I don’t want another hit, but if I’m really pumped up I’m probably going to be disappointed.”

As an artist who worked in music promotion before his own recording career took off he has another angle. He recently shot the pilot with the Oak Ridge Boys and Larry Gatlin for a television program called “TG Tonight.” He says, “I want to bring country back to the country.”

While he no longer entertains thoughts of going into politics, Sheppard notes that he has campaigned for both Presidents Bush and President Clinton at various time, and he recently had dinner with Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, although he publicly backed his opponent, Bob Corker.

“I think it’s time to make a strategic move to get our troops back home,” he says, “because I think we’re in the midst of a civil war in Iraq. I don’t want to see anyone else killed. It needs to be a strategic exit.”

The night before in Cambridge, Md. he had met a young veteran with both legs amputated just below his waist who told Sheppard that the US cause in Iraq is just, and so he does not advocate a hasty withdrawal that would squander that which has been paid for in blood. And yet he insists that it’s time to change tack.

“It has now come to a time to let them fight their own civil war,” Sheppard says. “There’s nothing wrong with monitoring the situation and sending medical supplies because a lot of innocent people are caught up in it. Everybody’s realizing the people have spoken and they want changes. I’m just a concerned American. I’m not a concerned Republican or a concerned Democrat.”

An hour or two later he’s onstage, and a thrilled murmur ripples through the crowd, which is disproportionately female and middle aged to elderly. Sheppard walks to the lip and smiles with pleasure, surprise and the faint hint of recognition.

“I’ve known some painted ladies that sparkled in the light,” he sings. “Country girls that loved a lover’s moon.”

Performing his hits accompanied by an electric guitarist, bass player, drummer and keyboardist, Sheppard brings his appreciative audience country music with a pop sheen, a set of masculine recitations with soulful flourishes and rhythmic oomph. A succession of women timidly approach the stage with digital cameras and Sheppard mugs for them, embraces them, and in one instance takes the camera and shoots a photograph of himself with woman – all the while singing his songs.

Later he takes a break and answers questions fielded from the audience. In response to one Sheppard talks about Kelly Lang, whom he describes as “the love of my life.” “Since we were here last we have been battling cancer,” he says. “Thanks to the Lord she’s come through it.”

A female audience member asks if his initials stand for “too good,” to which he responds that his parents expected a girl whom they planed to name Thelma Grace, “so I got the initials, but not the estrogen.”

Through it all Sheppard keeps the mood light, leavening the romance of his music with humor.

“I sing a lot of sexy songs, and right away you think I fool around,” he admonishes the audience. “I don’t fool around. I get right to it.”

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