We talked a lot after he moved to Nashville—in fact, he even asked me to re-marry him. Twice. And he wasn’t drunk at the time.
Most of Curb Records’ successes in the 1980s were with country music artists. Through imprint deals with various labels, Curb had championed the Judds, Sawyer Brown, Desert Rose Band, Exile, Lyle Lovett, Hal Ketchum, and others.
The pop division wasn’t doing nearly as well, nor was Curb’s foray into movies (Mac and Me, Voyage of the Rock Aliens, Body Slam, Bikini Island) breaking any box office records.
Gernhard, grappling with his addictions and staying away from the studio, wasn’t involved with a lot of it. “There was no life except work for a while there,” he reflected in a 1988 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “It was crazy, so I tried to simplify things by getting rid of some of my responsibilities.
“I try to be a trouble-shooter, listening to groups, working with musical writers, doing film treatments and picking scores.”
He told the newspaper that he wanted to go back to school and earn a PhD in psychology within five years, in order to spend “[his] old age writing and doing research.” Also in the works, he boasted, was a movie about his early days as a doo-wop producer.
Instead, Curb moved the entire company, lock, stock, and recording studios, to Nashville’s Music Row in 1992. With the occasional exception, Curb Records would be, from that moment on, a country label.
Phil Gernhard, of course, went with him, unwilling (or unable) to produce but eager to do his part at the A&R level—helping the label’s artists find and record the best songs (for them) and put out records that would, first and foremost, get played on the radio stations that Curb’s promotions department deemed the most significant.
The lines between A&R and promotion were frequently blurred when Gernhard—who was, for all intents and purposes, the bossman’s golden boy—got serious about an artist.
As the senior man in Curb Records’ A&R department—answering only to Mike Curb himself—he championed Louisiana singer Tim McGraw, whose father was “Tug” McGraw, a former star pitcher for the New York Mets and, later, the Philadelphia Phillies.
In ’92, just as Gernhard was settling in to his office in Curb’s new Nashville headquarters, he was presented with a rough mix of McGraw’s in-progress second album. The singer’s eponymously titled debut had been a resounding flop, but the label still had high hopes that they had a male singer who could compete on the platinum-sales level of Capitol’s Garth Brooks and Arista’s Alan Jackson.
Byron Gallimore, McGraw’s coproducer (with James Stroud), received a call out of the blue from the mighty Gernhard, whom he had yet to meet. “He was raving about the record we’d done,” Gallimore recalled. “He would always talk in a quiet, whispery voice when he was excited. He said, ‘I’ve just got a question for you—I want to know how y’all did this.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’
“And he said, ‘Listen, I like ten of these eleven songs. And I don’t like nothin.’”
Oh, thought Gallimore. Tell me more.
“And I remember distinctly that he said to me, ‘This is going to be Tim McGraw’s year.’”
Gernhard made Tim McGraw and his album—eventually titled Not a Moment Too Soon—his top priority. Even though it was McGraw’s sophomore effort, it had to be treated as the first time fans, radio, and the entertainment media were getting a look at the guy—first impressions being all-important in pop culture.
“I think he was a master at picking singles and hearing talent and knowing what would work,” Gallimore said. “He was a master at songs, too, because that’s part of it, picking the right songs for singles.
“On Tim, he wasn’t in the middle of the song search so much as he was picking what to do, picking what was a hit and making sure those things went well for him.”
Gernhard chose “Indian Outlaw” as the first single. Written by Tommy Barnes, it was an uptempo song with lyrics stringing together a series of Native American clichés (“wigwam,” “medicine man,” “my arrow and my hickory bow,” etc.). The narrator was also the titular character, Half Cherokee and Choctaw, but his friends called him Bear Claw.
“Too many record guys would’ve been afraid to go with it, because they thought radio wouldn’t play it,” said Gallimore. “Knowing what would work in radio back then, and what wouldn’t, this song was out of the stack just a little bit. Phil was taking a chance. I think he viewed it as a hit and didn’t care.”
John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind,” in a similarly minor key but with a much more reverential tone, had been a hit just a year before. Was country radio ready to whoop it up so soon with “Indian Outlaw”?
Ah, but Gernhard believed “Indian Outlaw” had that magical quality that generates airplay and record sales: repeatability. Maybe it was just a tad gimmicky, but the melody and pounding rhythm of “Indian Outlaw” were impossible to ignore—once they got lodged in your brain, they were virtually impossible to shake loose. You looked forward to hearing it again.
And the last verse was a hoot: “They all gather ‘round my teepee / late at night tryin’ to catch a peek at me / in nothin’ but my buffalo briefs / I got ’em standin’ in line.”
It didn’t hurt that McGraw had a sexy baritone voice and a dark, brooding look under his wide-brimmed black hat, which Gernhard brought to the fore in the song’s official video.
From the day I made the decision to go with the ‘Indian Outlaw’ cut as a single, I knew I would need to pound the beaches with the most spectacular video possible before going to radio. [Video director] Sherman Halsey delivered exactly what I needed.
In fact, I can guarantee without that video I could never have broken this record. I know that because the record broke out of the Southeast, where CMT (Country Music Television) has tremendous penetration. So many calls came into radio stations in that region, requesting the single, that we were virtually accused of hiring people to phone in requests. But it all came from the video. Sherman did a terrific job of catching the energy of the piece. He also nailed Tim from an imaging standpoint. Tim just leaps off the screen.
Phil Gernhard, Business Wire, March 28, 1994
Despite complaints from Native American groups that the lyrics to “Indian Outlaw” reinforced tired and offensive stereotypes, the single became one of the fastest-selling of 1994. It was also McGraw’s first Top 40 entry and rose to number eight on the Billboard country chart—and fifteen on the pop chart.
“From my perspective, I give him total credit for breaking Tim and making ‘Indian Outlaw’ happen,” Gallimore stressed. “Tim really believed in ‘Indian Outlaw,’ and I would’ve picked it too, but we were a bit naïve as far as what the marketplace was. We just liked it and thought it was a hit, but when Phil heard it he thought it was a smash and made it happen.”
And with the introductions made, Tim McGraw exploded. His next single, “Don’t Take the Girl,” was also curated by Gernhard. It became the first number one in what would turn out to be a very long and lucrative career for the singer. Not a Moment Too Soon was the top-selling country album that year.
“Tim broke so big for Curb, and so they were so nice to us,” Gallimore explained. “They were just a great label to work for. Mike Curb was always awesome to me, too. Tim was their project, and it was a priority, whatever they needed to do to make it work.”
Gernhard never stopped working on McGraw’s behalf, and the hits stacked up—“Not a Moment Too Soon,” “Down on the Farm,” “I Like It, I Love It,” “Can’t Be Really Gone,” “She Never Lets It Go to Her Heart.” And in 1997, McGraw accomplished a rare feat: four consecutive singles reached the top of the chart.
“He didn’t sign Tim McGraw, but he played a huge role in Tim’s career,” said Curb. “For many years, Phil would call me and say, ‘Tim’s got a new single I think we should look at.’ Or someone would submit a song to me that I thought was good, and I’d put it in his mailbox on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning.”
It was a very, very long hot streak. “We made fast friends,” Gallimore said. “Phil was an unusual guy. People on Music Row never even saw him much; he just didn’t hang out with many people.
“For some weird reason, he liked me, and he liked Missi, my wife. Missi did a lot of the song searching for Tim, and he had a lot of respect for her.”
Sara Arnold Gernhard died in a Sarasota nursing home on April 10, 1995. Phil, who felt betrayed by both of his parents (Sara for not standing up to Bud, and Bud for being Bud) hadn’t spoken to them since that big blow-up at the dinner table, in Deborah’s presence.
Judee called to break the news. Phil coldly informed his sister he wasn’t coming to the funeral. All right, she said, but you only get one chance to make this particular decision. “And if you don’t go, you may regret it for the rest of your life,” she told him. He capitulated.
And so the siblings were reunited for the first time in twenty years. “He showed up in a limo,” Judee Gernhard said. “After the service at the Episcopal church, he came to my father’s house, and he asked me to go for a ride with him.
“We rode around, and we went up to the Ringling Museum. We parked there, his driver got out and we talked for an hour.
“He blamed Dad for her death. He was very bitter about my mother. She died of emphysema, and heart complications. And he was still smoking in the friggin’ house when my mother had oxygen on!”
But the worst was yet to come. Following their heart-to-heart in the Ringling Museum parking lot, Phil and Judee returned to the family home. There was Bud, in his usual armchair, filling the air with cigarette smoke.
“Oh, the big music man is here,” said the old man derisively.
Phil turned on his heel, got back in the limo, and drove straight to the airport. “And that was the last time I ever saw him,” said his sister.
Since his second divorce, Gernhard hadn’t been having a lot of success with women. “Phil’s expectations of his wives was that they would be perfect,” Curb explained. “And Phil was always looking for artists that were grateful. His expectation of artists was that they would all come up and say, ‘Phil, you’re great. Thank you so much for the hit.’
“I remember saying to him, ‘Phil, you’re kind of lucky you don’t have kids, because they don’t come up to you and tell you how great you are.’ Particularly when they’re teenagers, they don’t say, ‘You’re the greatest dad in the world!’ Well, recording artists very rarely come up and say, ‘Wow, how great is this? Thank you so much for finding this song for me. Thank you for my career.’ You don’t hear that very often.”
Gernhard’s alcoholism, Curb said, never got in the way of his work.
Privately, however, it was a different story.
“One night at dinner he started drinking,” said Curb. “He got in the car and started driving home, and we followed him. He was pulled over by a policeman. The policeman said okay, do the ABCs, and Phil sang it, ‘A B C D E F G.’ And that didn’t go over well, obviously. But they released him. We were able to get him off.”
He married Nashville attorney Patricia Young on May 28, 1994—but the union was doomed from the start. “I remember on the night he got married to Pat,” Curb continued. “We got our cars at the same time at the Loews Vanderbilt, and I looked over; he was smashed. I gave the valet twenty bucks to park his car and told the guy we’d be back tomorrow to pick it up. Linda and I drove Phil home.”
In February, during her engagement to Gernhard, Young had been sexually assaulted in her home by a man who came to be known as the Wooded Rapist; his MO, over a spree that lasted more than a dozen years, was to attack women whose homes were adjacent to wooded areas. Wearing a ski mask, he committed his crimes in the wee hours on rainy nights, then slipped away into the trees. Gernhard was away at the time.
During the attack, Young had the foresight to bite off a tiny piece of her attacker’s hand, and to hide it under the bed while the man was otherwise occupied. That way, she thought, even if she were murdered—which seemed likely—police would have a sample of the rapist’s DNA.
This became, understandably, the blackest moment of Pat Young’s life. Unfortunately, she explained, her fiancé could not have been less supportive.
“Phil was an incredibly difficult person,” reflected Young. “He didn’t like himself very much, and that made it really hard to like him.”
He’d told his girlfriend that he’d been in analysis for ten years, during his last decade in California (according to Deborah Triplett, Phil started seeing a therapist when their marriage fell apart, in 1983).
The first warning light started flashing in the back of Pat Young’s mind when he mentioned his time in analysis.
“The issue with Phil broke down after we became engaged, which was his idea,” Young said. “In his mind, I went to the position of power, and he had to pare that back down. Up until then, he did the best he could.
“The theory, he told me, was, ‘In any relationship, there’s a person that’s emotionally stronger. And you either drag or you get drug.’
“Now, I don’t know where that came from, but that’s how he saw life. He told me that he was badly abused by his father; that both of his parents were alcoholics. And Phil was an alcoholic.”
Because her attacker was not immediately identified, Gernhard “said some ridiculous things about it,” according to Young.
Curb, succinctly, believed “they got divorced primarily because he couldn’t handle the rape.”
Young would say only that Gernhard “was more concerned about why there wasn’t a support group for men in his position—why are all the groups for women? Why do the counselors only talk to the victims, what about him? In his eyes, the world revolved around him.”
The arguments, which could turn vicious and cruel, began around the time they bought the big home on Hillview Drive in Brentwood, late in 1993.
For Young, her new husband’s attitude was painful. During the attack, “I got hit in the face a lot, and my short-term memory wasn’t very good. And my house was sold. And we’d already bought another house. So at that point, I felt stuck.
“By the time the honeymoon was over, I knew I’d made a dreadful mistake.”
The couple’s divorce was finalized a week shy of their second anniversary. He reimbursed her for her share of the house and then continued to live there until his suicide in 2008.
Internally, Young filed her brief union to Gernhard under “bad decisions” and rarely spoke with him after the divorce. “Phil had eggshell feelings,” Young said. “If you said anything, if he thought your tone was wrong, you had been unkind and unloving. And yet he could say anything he felt like. To you, to your friends, to whoever. And that’s just not a way to live.”
Eventually, the Nashville area’s most notorious serial rapist was caught, tried, and convicted. Each of the thirteen cases was tried separately. “He was convicted in my case of attempted aggravated rape, because he didn’t finish what he started,” said Young, who went public with her story not long after the incident. “But I had the living shit beat out of me. I was battered pretty good.”
In April 2008 Robert Jason Burdick was sentenced—for the most recent of his awful crimes—to twenty-three years in prison. Other convictions and sentences followed.
As the ’90s progressed, Gernhard—officially titled senior vice president of A&R—continued to work in numerous capacities at Curb.
New England singer Jo Dee Messina had been cutting songs with Byron Gallimore, Tim McGraw’s producer, when she accompanied him to Fan Fair, one of Nashville’s biggest industry events, in 1995.
When Gallimore and McGraw introduced her to Gernhard, according to Nashville legend, the notoriously brassy Messina said to the A&R guru, “So I was thinking, y’all need a redhead on your label!” When he heard her high-energy demos, Gernhard couldn’t help but agree.
The results were more smash hits for Curb. Gernhard brought the song “Heads Carolina, Tails California” to Messina; issued as her first Curb single, it roared straight into the Top 10. The album Jo Dee Messina went gold; its follow-up, I’m Alright, sold more than two million copies (making it a multi-platinum seller).
Mike Curb: “He understood the relationship between promotion and creativity, so he would follow through and find the right programmer to play it for, the right radio concept. He was the total record person, always looking. But always wishing that he could find an artist who would tell him, ‘This is great.’
“Because being a record producer is an art form, but a lot of people who produce records don’t really do the whole thing—they just go into the studio for a couple hours and let the engineers do the rest. Phil did it all.”
In early 2004, Tim McGraw’s eighth album was nearly finished when Gernhard told the Gallimores he thought something was still missing from the project. At his suggestion, Missi got back into song search mode and returned with “Live Like You Were Dying,” an anthemic, power-of-positive-thinking song by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman.
McGraw liked it, and cut it, and when the album was released in July of that year, it was titled Live Like You Were Dying. The single sat on top of the chart for seven weeks—it was the biggest seller of the year—and the album entered the Top 200 at number one, selling more than four million copies.
Tim McGraw made Curb Records. Since planting itself in Nashville in the early ’90s, the label had scored with a solid fistful of successful artists, including LeAnn Rimes, Jo Dee Messina, and Steve Holy, but none came within swinging distance of McGraw’s forty million records sold, twenty-five number-one singles, and ten chart-topping albums.
A lot of people made Tim McGraw a star, without question, including Mike Borchetta—the Curb executive who’d signed him to the label—Byron Gallimore, James Stroud, Mike Curb, and, especially, Phil Gernhard.
Alone in his big empty house, Gernhard sometimes called both ex-wife Sandy and ex-wife Deborah, usually in the post-midnight hours, and always when he was well-lit with Jack Daniel’s.
He would hold forth on what was right or wrong in the world, in his view, then ask them what was new in their lives. He usually followed up with slurring, unsolicited advice on how they could make things better.
He almost always called back the next day and apologized. “After our divorce, I didn’t know that other Phil too well,” Sandy said. “It was scary. He would call me in the middle of the night saying, ‘Isn’t this pitiful? You’re the only friend I have to talk to.’”
When Deborah’s beloved father passed away, Gerhard called the family home in North Carolina to offer his condolences to his ex-wife and her siblings.
Bud Gernhard died in the summer of 2002, at the age of ninety-three.
Phil, predictably, did not fly home for the funeral.
Judee, by then, was living in California. “I hated going home after my mother was gone,” she said. “I was scared to death of my father, still. I was very, very physically uncomfortable around him. I would revert to being ten years old and wanting to run away to the Ringling Art Museum again.
“He changed his will so many times. First my daughter was out of it, then she was in. I remember him saying, ‘There’s money in the will to pay back your damn brother. And it’s with interest, so be sure to make sure he knows that.’
“And that was so hurtful. That was just his attitude. He didn’t know how to be gracious. Not to us. We were the hidden abused.”
And it never, ever let up, even after the old man was gone. “When Phil started making money, my father borrowed from him all the time. It was really awful. It was ugly.
“After he died, I discovered that he had leveraged the house probably twenty times, as a personal loan. He’d borrow five thousand dollars and put the house up against it. I didn’t even know if we owned the friggin’ house.”