“These Are My People,” the third single from If You’re Going Through Hell, reached number one in September 2007. It was cause for great cel-ebration—three chart-toppers in a row!—but Gernhard, who was eager to turn his attention away from private matters—wasn’t finished working the Rodney Atkins album.
He pushed for a fourth single, and on October 1, “Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy)” was released. “A lot of people at the label at the time thought it was too risky, because it was about kids and guns,” Atkins said. “But I’d been playing it out in the real world, and so Phil and I talked about it. He asked me about some of the responses I got. Then he went after it with radio, testing the waters and stuff.”
Six years earlier, Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down had spawned four consecutive number ones. With the Atkins project, Gernhard was hoping to repeat that near-impossible feat.
Mike Curb: “Phil was saying to me, ‘Oh, if I could just get one more number one with Rodney, I will have duplicated what we did with Tim— and maybe that will cause Tim to realize the role that I played.’
“I said, ‘Phil, it doesn’t matter! I mean, Tim knows the role you played. But artists are never going to come up and say, ‘What would we have done without you?”
As Gernhard and the Curb promotion team were working to turn “Cleaning This Gun” into a hit, Betty Vernon invited her long-lost friend to Bradenton, to spend Thanksgiving with her extended family.
When he returned to Nashville, he was almost a different man.
“We were having lunch one day,” Curb said. “I remember sitting in our dining room, and Phil started talking about a ‘safe place’ he had found.
“He told us about a lady in Florida that he had dated back in high school, ‘but her parents didn’t want me around, so I had to leave, and she married someone else.’
“He said, ‘Then I was searching through numerous girlfriends, and four marriages, for that safe place. And I have now found it.’”
As the divorce dragged on into 2008, Phil continued to throw himself into his work, overseeing the Ashley Gearing project with Byron Gallimore and engineering a clear road at radio for “Cleaning This Gun,” about which he was supremely confident. It could be done.
Through their lawyers, he and Maria finally agreed on terms for their divorce. The alimony settlement was generous. The papers were in Stockholm, in her hands; once she signed and returned them, it would all be over.
As was his custom, Gernhard spent Christmas Day with Mike and Linda Curb at their palatial home outside of Nashville. He seemed, Curb thought, considerably steadier than he had in a long time. His eyes, though still dark and distant, held their gaze.
On New Year’s Eve, Metro Police stopped the Hummer on Tennessee’s Interstate 440, near the Nashville city limits. According to the report, the big black car was swerving across traffic lanes; Gernhard’s eyes were dilated, and his speech slurred, and he admitted to taking three Valiums.
He was arrested and booked for DUI. His mugshot shows a bone-thin man with suspicious eyes and a four-day beard, glaring into the camera, royally pissed off and backed defensively into a corner.
Phil didn’t let just anyone see into the windows of his soul. “The one thing that bothered me was that I could never really see his eyes,” Gearing said. “He wore dark sunglasses that weren’t black, but kind of brownish . . . I’m the kind of person who connects with people by looking in their eyes, and you never could because he always had his glasses on. And the few times that I did see his eyes, it was kind of alarming because I realized how much pain was in them.
“A few times in the studio, he would take them off and put his hands over his face, and really listen to the music, really get into it. And that made me happy, because I felt like he took his glasses off, he was letting his guard down a little bit.”
The Gernhard-engineered plan was to release an Ashley Gearing single to radio in the spring and see how it performed. If “Out the Window” was a hit, they’d drop a second single and follow that with the full album.
In the meantime, the Rodney Atkins single climbed the chart through January and into February.
Monday, February 18, 2008 was Presidents’ Day, a national holiday. The Curbs were in Florida for the annual auto races at Daytona.
Mike Curb: “Phil was always the guy who called me and said, ‘Guess what—I just found out we’re going to be number one tomorrow.’ But this was a holiday, and he couldn’t download Billboard. He’d left me a message saying, ‘I can’t figure out where we are; did we make it with Rodney?’ Meaning did we make it to number one?’
“One of our employees knew a man at Billboard, and he called to say, ‘Incredible news—I just found out we’re going to be number one when Billboard goes to print!’
“I picked up the phone and called Phil: “Phil—congratulations! I just got word that ‘Cleaning This Gun’ is going to be number one!’ He said, ‘Oh my God. That’s so good.’ He said, ‘Wow, I needed this.’ Saying things that, when you look back at it, he was saying, ‘Okay. I’ve done it.’
“You can’t imagine how many times I’ve tried to re-create, in my mind, what we talked about that last time.”
Phil called Rodney Atkins to tell him the good news. Atkins remembers every word of their conversation. “He told me he was proud of me. He told me to make sure I keep writing. He said if you don’t stay creative, you get sick. And he actually told me he loved me.”
Which he’d never done before. “That was the last time I talked to him.”
On Tuesday morning, Phil and Kelly met on schedule at the Waffle House. They were ostensibly there to discuss Atkins and his incredible quartet of chart-toppers. But the meeting was anything but celebratory. “He didn’t even really want to talk music that day,” said Lynn. “He wasn’t too interested in my CD. And that was very weird. That’s why he hired me—that’s all I did. That was our only reason to connect, was to give him my songs.” They exchanged congratulations, but something, Lynn perceived, was definitely “off” about her boss. He seemed even more distant than usual.
“I told him, ‘Byron’s been trying to get in touch with you.’ He pretty much had cut most of us off.
“He paid for the little Waffle House breakfast, and it was pretty much, ‘See ya later, bye.’”
He slowly pulled himself up into the big black car, closed the door and drove off.
By Friday, the twenty-second, he hadn’t returned calls, from anyone. Which was unusual. The telephone was Phil’s mainline.
At lunchtime, Kelly drove over to the Brentwood house. She rang the bell and pounded on the front door, but there was no response from inside. “So I called Mike’s secretary and I said, ‘I feel like I’ve got to go check on Phil. I beat on the door, and he’s not answering.’
“She said, ‘Don’t go in. Let me handle it.’”
Secretary Becky Judd contacted another Curb employee, a man who knew Phil, to go and check on him, too. Again, there was no response, and the police were summoned.
“I went to my son’s school, which was about four miles down the road,” Lynn said. “And I had a really bad feeling. It had been like four days and I had not talked to him, which was not normal. At all. Because he would at least call back and say, ‘I’m not going to go to work, I don’t feel good,’ or whatever, but he would never not just get in touch with me. I was pretty much the only point of contact, I think, at that time.”
Just before 1 p.m., after their entreaties met only silence, officers broke a side window and entered the dark, silent house. They found Phil Gernhard on the floor of his bedroom, the back of his head blown out. A silver revolver was found next to the body.
“I’ll never forget—the minute I walked out of my son’s school I got a call saying that he was gone,” Lynn recalled. “And I literally fell to my knees in the school parking lot. It was the worst news I’d ever gotten in my life.
“And also, I felt responsible. Any time somebody takes their life, you want to say, Why? Are you kidding me? I need you here, we’ve got stuff to do, we’ve got an artist to break.
“What happened? And what could I have done?”
Missi Gallimore arrived, and together they sat in her car, in Phil’s driveway, and sobbed.
“If you look at the pad of paper he had in front of him when he died, he had a list of fourteen things,” said Curb. “He had just completed the album with Ashley Gearing. He had the CD on his desk. And there was a note about Rodney.
“It was almost like, ‘Life is complete. No more pain. No more heartbreak. No more being sued by women.’ It was like, ‘My life is complete, I’ve done the best I can do, I’ve achieved what I want to achieve. I’m ready to go.’ That was the gist of it.
“It wasn’t a suicide note. It wasn’t a goodbye note. It was just a note of completion that tied right in to the safe place. He’d found the safe place. A lot of people call that God, or they call it heaven, but he called it a safe place.”
It was, Curb also noted, almost exactly fifty years since Gernhard had made his very first records, as a college student in South Carolina. Was the circle complete?
Because the circumstances of his death (“perforating intra-oral gunshot wound”) indicated suicide, the medical examiner did not check Gernhard’s body for cancer—although the autopsy report noted that the decedent’s prostate was “unusually enlarged and nodular”—nor was a test conducted that would reveal the presence of drugs used to treat the disease.
Noted, however, was the presence of the opiate painkiller Darvocet (a combination of propoxyphene and acetaminophen). Within two years, the FDA would recommend that Darvocet no longer be used, due to potential cardiac-related side effects.
One by one, the calls were made: To Sandy in Florida, Judee in California, and Deborah in North Carolina. To Dick Holler and Johnny McCullough, Kent LaVoie and Jim Stafford and the Royal Guardsmen. Kelly called Ashley Gearing at her family’s home in Massachusetts.
“The thing that beat me up about it,” reflected Rodney Atkins, “was that I don’t feel like I told him enough how much he meant to me. I don’t know if that would’ve changed his mind or not about what he did.
“You assume a guy like that is a rock, because he was that hard-ass drill sergeant kind of guy. And you thought he could muscle through anything. We didn’t even realize he was crumbling like that.”
Steve Parker, Phil’s executor, told Betty Vernon that her high school suitor had indeed left everything to her—not his sister, not any of his ex-wives. Not Kelly Lynn, not his friends from Curb or anywhere else. Just her.
But the will was being contested, Parker told her, by Gernhard’s fourth and last spouse. The divorce was not yet final; Maria hadn’t signed the papers. It might take months—it might take years—for Vernon to realize anything, including the trust fund Gernhard had sought to create for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In the meantime, the Vernons were free to go on the Alaskan cruise, which Phil had paid for before his suicide. He’d killed himself before signing a check for the scenic drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, so that part of the promise was off.
They went ahead and took the cruise, drinking many toasts to their departed benefactor, and flew home at their own expense.
Privately, Betty had a lot to think about.
Ashley Gearing’s single “Out the Window” was released in March. “At that point, I didn’t know anybody at Curb,” she said. “I knew Kelly, I knew Phil—and that was all I needed, because Phil could sign off on anything. “But Phil wasn’t ready to release me to the world. He was very strategic about that. That’s why, when I got the call, I was like—the book isn’t finished.” But Curb called her in to the big office and said, somberly, they were going to put the record out—“for Phil.”
“Out the Window” was not a success, although a follow-up single performed marginally better. In the end, however, Curb Records never released Gearing’s album. She left the label to try again somewhere else.
The September 18 edition of Nashville Scene, a local alt-weekly news-paper religiously devoured by the music community, revealed in its cover story (“Number One with a Bullet”) the lurid details of Gernhard’s final years and suicide.
The reporter ferreted out a deposition given by the widow Gernhard shortly after Phil had filed for divorce, accusing her of “improper marital conduct,” the previous July.
“I provided sex under a legal escort service with several men,” she was quoted as saying. “But not several men at the same time. There were no romantic relationships with any other men. My husband supported my legal escort business.”
Maria also claimed that Gernhard knew she was an escort when he married her, and that she had her “husband’s approval, support and encouragement.”
Maria sold the Brentwood house in 2009, for just under a half-million dollars.
No one will ever know what was going on in Phil Gernhard’s mind. He left no letter, no diary, no way to know for certain what was true and what was false and what drove him to take his own life. And because he had no close friends, it isn’t likely that somebody will come forward and explain everything the way Phil might have wanted it explained.
Throughout his life and career, he told different stories to different people. The absolute truth of who he was will always be a mystery.
We do, however, know what Phil Gernhard was—an inordinately talented man who left us with a vast catalog of recorded music, some of it absolutely brilliant, some not so much, but all of it bearing the indelible mark of Phillip Arnold Gernhard.
He changed a lot of lives on his journey. Kent LaVoie, who owes his current state of financial comfort and stability to Phil Gernhard, often imagines the conversation he and his old friend might have had.
“What I wish I’d said to him was, ‘Phil, I’m not here for anything. I just want to thank you. I’m fat because of you. Thanks.’ I felt bad about not doing that, because I had plenty of opportunities.
“If he hadn’t come up to me that day, I would never have been in this business. I would probably be playing on Clearwater Beach at seventy, with some forty-year-old chick, half-loaded and just having a good time.”