It was four decades ago that T.G. Sheppard began his initial ascent up the Billboard country charts with “Devil in the Bottle.” The song helped the singer transition from a successful career as a record promoter for RCA into his own musical career.
All these years later, the Humboldt, Tenn., native is still very much grateful — and even happier than he was then. “I’m 40 years older than I was then, for sure,” he jokes, “but I am enjoying life more than I did when ‘Devil’ came out. It’s been a wonderful life. I used to tell people if I could get a couple of hits under my belt, and stay in the business a couple of years, I’d be happy. I still love the business so much, and hope that it doesn’t end anytime soon. I still love singing those old songs.”
Though he was promoting records by acts such as Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton, ‘Devil’ was actually released on Melodyland Records, a country subsidiary of Motown. Sheppard notes the irony of the situation: “I was promoting for RCA at the time, and it was unusual to be discovered by Berry Gordy. When you think of him and Motown, you don’t think of country music. You think of Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and those type of acts. But he loved country music and wanted to open up a country division of the label called Melodyland. They found the master of ‘Devil,’ and thought it could be the start of their label.”
Sheppard would go on to chart a total of eight singles for Melodyland (later Hitsville), including the No. 1 follow-up “Tryin’ to Beat the Morning Home” before moving on to successful stints with Warner Bros. and Columbia. Still, the singer has nothing but gratitude to Gordy for giving him a chance. “It was the start of my career, and I was wanting to start wherever I could. I’ve always said a great song would find its way, and I thought ‘Devil’ would. I had no idea it would be through Motown.”
Though his career was picking up steam, Sheppard knew how stable the business was — so he kept his job at RCA under his real name of Bill Browder, fooling one of his best friends and one of the artists he promoted in the process. “Elvis would go around the house singing the chorus of ‘Devil in the Bottle,’ because it had gospel overtones in it with the background singers. It freaked me out when I would be at Graceland, and I heard him singing it. Then, one day, I walked into Graceland, and there sat Elvis. As soon as I came in, he said, ‘Bill?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir?’ He said I could have told him that I was T.G. Sheppard. I told him, ‘I couldn’t tell you because I was afraid I would lose my job with RCA.’ His comeback was ‘Well, you fool. Don’t you know I am RCA,'” he noted with a laugh.
The singer also has a little bit of fun with the notion that he is now regarded as a traditional country act, when he was actually on the other side of the spectrum when the hits were coming. “I was the new guy on the block that was too pop. That was a changing of the guard — like there is now. That always happens. At that point, country had gone from Faron Young and Marty Robbins to more of a slick sound like Kenny Rogers and myself. So we weren’t traditional then, but we are now.
“There’s one thing for sure in life — and that’s change. They can’t stay the same. Music is always going to evolve, and you’re always going to be labeled a traditional or a contemporary artist or whatever. I always got away with a lot more than I thought I could.”
Look for some new music from the legendary singer on the horizon. “I’ve got plans for a new album in 2015,” he confirms. “I found some great songs that I feel strongly about. Whether we get played on the radio, I don’t know. But it’s not about that. I’m at a point in my life that I want to cut music that will be here and that people can relate to 20 years down the road. It’s all about the artistry to me — cutting great songs.”