True to the game: Outlaw country brothers help family in need
A fiery car crash on Interstate 40 galvanized the True Brothers – a Guilford County outlaw country act that has itself withstood the tests of time, adversity and tragedy – to action.
Beverly Koontz died of third-degree burns in March at the age of 41, leaving behind a husband and two children. The wife and mother had fallen asleep at the wheel, and when the van drifted into a guardrail its gas tank was punctured.
“She crawled in the backseat and started handing the children to Chuck,” Roger True reports with admiration. “He was putting the kids’ bodies – putting the flame out with his hands.”
He tells the story sitting at a weathered picnic table in the backyard of the house he inherited from his father, locally famous for portraying Santa Claus every Christmas, on Chapman Street, not far from where Roger works security at Greensboro Coliseum.
“What we didn’t know is that Chuck lived in Stokesdale,” continues the 40-year-old Roger, the genial younger brother, who’s wearing a black T-shirt, straw cowboy hat and beaded necklace pointed with a pierced guitar pick today. “My brother, Jacky, he lives in Stokesdale. They were coming home from Nashville. It touched our hearts because we go to Nashville a lot. Jacky called me up and said, “Roger, we’ve got to do something.'”
There are still other parallels and reverberations in the Koontz family tragedy that demanded that the brothers True rise to the occasion.
“I fell asleep at the wheel once,” Roger says. “I was lucky enough to wake up because a truck driver blowed his horn at me. I never done that again.”
Roger and his brother, who’s not feeling up to an interview on this particular day, lost their father to leukemia in 2003. Jack Carl True, a former telephone company employee who went on disability, raised the boys alone after their mother died when Roger was 10.
The brothers’ first task was to find a marquee act with sufficient star power to attract a large audience.
They turned to Charlie Louvin, a friend since 1995 and a seminal figure in the history of country music. With his brother Ira, Charlie recorded a string of exquisite hillbilly singles featuring high, gorgeous harmonies and semi-rocking acoustic guitars. A young and impressionable Johnny Cash opened for the Louvin Brothers, and the brothers’ music left its imprint on everyone from the Everly Brothers and the Beatles to Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Charlie Louvin, now 80, recently revitalized his career with a new album, released last year, featuring guests like George Jones, Jeff Tweedy and Tift Merritt.
It fell to brother Jacky to make the call.
“I know you’re a big star, but your job is to help people,” Jacky True told Louvin, by his brother’s account. “He said, “You’re right.’ Jacky said, “If we do it alone, nobody will come or we’ll just break even, but if you come we might make some money.’ He said the only reason he wouldn’t come is for health reasons or if the good Lord called him home.
“It kind of touched Charlie because he lost his brother in a car accident in 1965,” Roger continues. “They weren’t speaking at the time, but Charlie always wants his brother to know that he loved him, and he knows that his brother loved him.”
Roger says his own brother came close to dying in recent years when he almost had a stroke. If that ever happens, Roger will retire from music. The two have been performing together since 1990 when they merged their respective acts, with Jacky covering classic country numbers and Roger interpreting rock “n’ roll oldies.
Since then, they’ve developed a cult following despite – or perhaps because of – their practice of slinging around guitars they don’t actually play. A career of enthusiastic interpretations from the outlaw country songbook has been augmented by a succession of stage outfits designed by Roger, and the brothers’ doting fan-worship of greater talents such as the Wilburn Brothers, Willie Nelson and Marty Stuart.
“I know about three chords on guitar,” Roger says. “We don’t generally play our own guitars. All our music is backing tracks, just like gospel artists and rappers. I don’t know why people always condemn us for it.”
They come by both their show-business instincts and generosity honestly.
“He was the first big celebrity in this family,” Roger says of their father. “We’s just follering in his footsteps.”
Then the son recalls the time Jack Carl True almost gave up his unpaid Santa Claus gig.
“We was raised to help, to know right from wrong,” Roger says. “Our dad was on disability, but he would take his own money to buy candy for the kids. One time he didn’t have the money to buy the candy, so he didn’t go out. The people were lined up around the block, saying, “Where’s Santa?’ When Tobacco USA found out that he couldn’t afford the candy, they paid for it that year and every year after that.”
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