At the time, I didn’t know his background. I’m glad I didn’t—I probably would’ve been nervous as a cat. “Let Your Love Flow” is on my Top 10, all-time favorite list. Still, to this day, I love that record when I hear it.
Phil Gernhard was a loner and a deeply private man. In his Nashville years, particularly after the painful end of his marriage to Pat Young, he kept to himself. Even those who thought of themselves as his “friends” had little idea what he did when he wasn’t working.
He kept an office in the Curb building, but he was rarely there. He preferred to work from the big Brentwood house, rattling around in his bathrobe, doing business by e-mail and telephone. Such was his place on the company totem pole that nobody questioned this practice. Whatever Phil wanted, Phil got. It was as simple as that.
In some offices, the mighty Gernhard was feared. If he didn’t like something, he would tell you. Loudly.
Occasionally, he’d wander into a room where Curb staff writers and song pluggers were talking shop. “This was open season for Phil to rant and rave about how untalented everyone was,” said one writer who wished to remain anonymous. “He was a pissed off, cruel little fucker. We all hated him.
“I have respect for him as a record man. He could master vinyl, produce, engineer—anything. But every writer at Curb wanted to beat his ass.”
Said Rodney Atkins, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter who’d signed with Curb in the late 1990s, “I’ve heard people say that Phil was so blunt, he was like an icepick in the forehead with what he’d say.”
After a recording session, Atkins recalled, “He’d say, ‘This is obviously a scratch vocal. Why are you playing me this?’ after I’d spent two weeks doing the vocal.
“But the thing is, he was quick to tell you when you did something good. The life lesson with Phil was that you can’t trust somebody’s ‘yes’ until you can trust their ‘no.’ He really made it worthwhile to dig in and work.”
It’s likely Gernhard’s alcohol and drug intake had worn away his inner monologue, affecting his ability to filter his words and function in social situations. It was, Curb explained, a problem that never fully went away.
“I can make it real simple: Phil never met any substance, alcohol or drugs, that he probably didn’t try,” Curb said. “And he never met one that he could control. He didn’t have the ability to stop, so if he tried something one night, it could last six months or a year. He just didn’t have that shut-off valve.”
Curb, who’d always been a straight arrow—an anomaly in the music business—said Gernhard never told him exactly what he was hooked on at any given time. Curb, for his part, didn’t want to know.
Once, drinking wine, Gernhard felt compelled to tell Curb about the miserable relationship he’d had with his father. He never could seem to shake it off.
There were times Curb suspected that Gernhard was high on some substance or other on one of the rare occasions they met socially. But never at work—in the office, and in the studio, Phil always seemed to be on top of his game.
However, “My experience was always that just when I thought Phil had taken a turn to be perfect, something would happen, and he would revisit one of his demons,” Curb explained. “And we’d go to work on it.
“It’s kind of like having a brother. People would say to me, ‘How long are you going to keep working with Phil?’ and I’d say, ‘Forever.’ Because he gave so much to us, in terms of his passion and his talent, and sharing his life with us.”
It was the addictions, Curb figured, that fueled Gernhard’s decision to stop producing and focus on A&R work when the company was still based in Los Angeles back in the ’80s. At times he seemed directionless, lost, in need of something intangible and just out of his reach.
Curb: “He’d say, ‘I’m not in very good shape.’ I’d say, ‘Phil, what do we need? Do we need to get into some kind of program?’ And he’d say, ‘No.’” Since the ’80s, Gernhard had been allowed to take six-month “sabbati- cals,” with pay. Even Curb wasn’t certain where he disappeared to. “You’re going to overcome this,” Curb would tell his friend.
And always Phil would come back to work.
A six-song demo CD from a teenage Swedish singer named Sofia Loell landed on his desk one day in 2001; it was bright, shiny, well-crafted dance-pop music, the sort of thing made by stars like Britney Spears and Katy Perry, and the likes of which Curb desperately needed for its flagging pop division.
Loell was summarily signed to Curb Records for her American debut. The masters were leased from Stockholm-based Pama Records, Loell’s domestic label, more songs were recorded to make a complete album, and Gernhard led the charge on breaking the artist on this side of the Atlantic.
Her Right Up Your Face album was released in the States midway through 2002.
Meet Sofia Loell, a Scandinavian import whose vocal texture con- jures Alanis Morissette juiced up after a couple bars of chocolate. “Right Up Your Face” is an intriguing blend of alternative roots via Loell’s scratchy vocals and introspective lyrics, swirled with a sunny melodic accessibility that shamelessly flirts with good ole pop.
Even in the days of the big-money promotion operatives, you couldn’t buy copy like that, and the Curb team basked in it. If they still had the mojo, they would break Sofia Loell in America, and break her big.
Gernhard traveled to Stockholm that fall to oversee the video shoot for the first single released from Right Up Your Face. On set, he was introduced to Anna Maria Madeline Bosdotter Pettersson, a gorgeous, long- legged Swedish blonde, a blue-eyed Scandinavian beauty right out of Central Casting. She was working as Loell’s makeup artist for the video shoot; she had a beautiful smile and a flirtatious way about her.
Pettersson was twenty-eight years old. Gernhard was sixty-one, desperately lonely—and smitten.
Just after Christmas, back in Nashville, Byron and Missi Gallimore were introduced to Phil’s new wife, who spoke English through a thick Scandinavian accent. They’d been married in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony.
Her name, she said, was Maria.
Curb never met the fourth Mrs. Gernhard, whose limited Swedish visa only allowed her to visit America for six weeks at a time. “Every day was a new day with Phil,” he said. “Usually, when he was going through a tough time and was on the winning side of it, or was getting off whatever he shouldn’t have been on in the first place, there’d be a new Phil: ‘I don’t think I want to produce any more. I want to do A&R administration.’ ‘Hey, I want to go to Oxford.’ ‘Hey, I’ve fallen in love.’
“Oh boy—that was the one. Anything he said, other than, ‘I’m falling in love,’ made me happy. Because I knew when he said, ‘I’m falling in love,’ we were in for a ride.”
Although Sofia Loell and Right Up Your Face didn’t click with American audiences, Gernhard had a good feeling about the brand-new twenty-first century—once his beautiful young wife got her green card, she could live with him permanently in the brick house on the hill in Brentwood.
He told his friends he was putting her through school in Stockholm and that they were planning a big, formal second wedding in Nashville. During one of his inebriated late-night phone calls, he told his sister he desperately hoped to finally father a child.
Gernhard hired Kelly Lynn, a friend of Byron and Missi Gallimore’s, as his assistant. The former Country Music Association “trophy girl” (she handed the awards to the winners as they walked onstage during the televised ceremony while “smiling and looking pretty”) had worked on the fringes of the music industry and was interested in learning more.
With Gernhard, she got an education.
“From the minute I met Phil, it was all about music,” she explained. “He lived it. That’s all he thought about. And that was pretty much his life, that label and his artists.”
He was, she found out, not the sort of guy who often let things roll off his back. And he cultivated his privacy. “He wasn’t a very jolly man. He was very serious most of the time, very intimidating. Didn’t say a lot, but when he did, you’d better listen to what he said! Because it usually was very smart.
“And he was very eccentric, like most super-smart artistic people.”
Although she spoke with Gernhard on the phone every day, often Lynn wouldn’t see him for a week or more. “I would drop CDs in his mailbox,” she said, “and when he needed me to pick something up, he would leave it out front for me.”
One Thanksgiving, she recalled, she called Gernhard and “begged” him to join her and her family for Thanksgiving dinner at her mom’s house, “because he didn’t have anybody to spend it with.” He didn’t show.
Over time, however, Gernhard came to depend on her. They’d meet at the Waffle House in Brentwood and discuss their plans for whatever artist they were working on, over scrambled eggs and hash browns.
A single mother, Lynn wanted to enroll her young son in Christ Presbyterian Academy, but she couldn’t afford the tuition.
Gernhard—still the chivalrous white knight—paid for it himself.
“He was so good to my family,” Lynn said. “Phil would send us Christmas cookie jars, just great stuff. He was always so nice. It was through the label that I got my bonus, but I feel like Phil—since he was the only person I knew—had put in a good word for me.”
She met Mike Curb only after she’d worked for his company for several years.
Lynn spoke with the heavily accented Mrs. Gernhard just once and briefly, during a Christmas get-together at the Gallimore home. It was awkward, but by then she had learned not to ask personal questions of Phil. “It was not unlike him to be very private, very ‘Stay out of my business—if I want you to know, I’ll tell you.’
“He could also be very harsh at times—but looking back, it was good for me. If you can work for Phil Gernhard, you’re doing good. I enjoyed working for him because I learned a lot about music.”
The label had faith in Rodney Atkins, but he’d failed to make much of an impact since he’d joined the roster—so much so that his Curb handlers convinced him to make a 180-degree change in musical approach, record producer, and even physical appearance (his cowboy hat was traded in for a “workingman”-type ball cap) and try things again.
His first album as the “new Rodney,” 2003’s Honesty, produced a Top 10 hit in the title track but no others that registered.
There wasn’t much enthusiasm in the air as Atkins cut tracks for a follow-up. “We’d spent a half-million dollars of Mike Curb’s money and had nothing to show for it,” Atkins explained. “Never released the album.” After a heart-to-heart with Curb himself, “That’s when Phil came in. And everything changed. Who I was, my confidence—it was okay that I didn’t want to record what was on the radio at the time.”
Rodney Atkins’s success became a personal mission. As he’d done ten years earlier with Tim McGraw, Gernhard helped choose the songs that would be released as singles, aimed them at specific radio markets, and oversaw nearly every aspect of the fledgling performer’s career.
“Phil wasn’t an A&R guy,” Atkins said, “he was the guy. He wasn’t your normal go-find-songs guy. Phil worked in the promotion staff, he had been a producer—I kept saying, ‘Why don’t you come in and produce this stuff with us?’ He said, “Naw, I got bad habits when I was in the studio. I’ll work every inch of this that I can. I just can’t go in the studio.’”
Gernhard instructed Atkins to “forget everything that had come before” when he went back into the studio with producer Ted Hewitt. We’re starting over, he announced. “He said, ‘Forget those producers, they’re just tainting what your vision is. They’re making it about them, and it can’t be that. I’m telling everybody to leave you alone. I’m going to teach you how to find your own voice. How to produce your own records. How to be tough on yourself.’ Man, we talked every week at least, sometimes more. He was the biggest music mentor I’ve ever had.”
Under Gernhard’s watchful eye, Atkins reinvented himself as a songwriter—and a singer. “I’d sung live a lot, in the corner of a bar, playing for tips with a real shitty sound system, or no sound system,” Atkins said. “I didn’t know how to sing on a microphone. He explained to me about actors, ‘Somebody that’s on Broadway, they have to do big movements, move their hands to send emotions out, move their body in big ways. Some people can’t make the transition to a camera because it’s so sensitive it picks up just raising an eyebrow.’
“He said, ‘You’re behind the camera now. The microphone is so sensitive, you have to learn that you don’t have to work quite as hard.’ And that was eye-opening. Or ear-opening! He encouraged me to forget the rules, forget everything I’d heard or been told and just figure it out. So I started working at home.”
The first song recorded for Atkins’s second Curb album was a hardscrabble country rocker, “If You’re Going Through Hell.” Atkins and Hewitt proudly played the finished cut for Gernhard’s approval.
“We turned the song in to Phil and he said, ‘I like this, I like your vocal. I need you guys to go put bagpipes on it.’”
“And we’re going ‘This guy’s crazy! He’s fuckin’ crazy!’”
Still, Atkins continued, “We went in and put bagpipes on it—and it really became an anthem. It’s crazy. It changed that record and gave it an almost church feel.”
The album, also titled If You’re Going Through Hell, was released late in 2006, “When we finished the album, he called me and said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve got an album that’s gonna change your life.”
Rodney Atkins, who knew this album was probably going to be his last shot at the brass ring, watched the first three singles, one after the other, make number one—“If You’re Going Through Hell,” “Watching You,” and “These Are My People.”
It changed his life.
It was Kelly Lynn who “discovered” sixteen-year-old singer Ashley Gearing, during a performance at the Bluebird Café, the Nashville “listening room” where songwriters traditionally went to try out new material on audiences made up of mostly industry people. The Bluebird was the country music equivalent of Schwab’s Pharmacy in Los Angeles—you went there in hopes of getting noticed.
Gearing had scored a minor hit at the age of twelve, “Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You,” on the Disney-owned label Lyric Street. The Massachusetts native became the youngest singer to enter Billboard’s country singles chart, breaking the record set by Brenda Lee in the 1950s.
When Kelly Lynn heard her at the Bluebird, Gearing was on the market again.
Immediately, Kelly brought her to Phil Gernhard. “We sat down and within the first ten minutes he said he wanted to sign me to Curb Records,” Gearing recalled. “He said, ‘With a voice like yours, I want you to work with Byron Gallimore and no other. Because he’s the best.’ He was very particular about how he wanted to do it.”
Ashley Gearing became Gernhard’s latest professional cause. “Phil was very protective of me. He really kept me close to his chest and didn’t want to show his cards to anyone else at Curb.
“Mike Curb was initially opposed to signing me, because he was nervous about how young I was. And he had just gone through a little bit of drama with LeAnn Rimes, and her family getting involved. He said he didn’t want to sign another minor. And Phil said, ‘I don’t care. I’ll put up my own money and sign her.’
“Mike said, ‘Well, if you’re that passionate about it, you have my support.’”
And so her sessions began, with Gallimore in the producer’s chair. Gernhard was there, every single time. Gallimore said, “In all the years we worked together—and I don’t know if he just respected what we were doing—he never was like, ‘This track isn’t right; you need to go back and fix it.’ He never did that to us. It was never like he was trying to produce from his side of the desk.
“I guess he just trusted me, I don’t know. He never beat us up. And I’m sure there was plenty he could’ve said!”
He didn’t interrupt while tape was running, but he had plenty to say afterwards, while the recorded tracks were being evaluated. “And,” said Gearing, “Byron listened.”
Gearing said she got the impression that her record was a “passion project” for Gernhard. He was, for example, extremely particular about the songs Gallimore had her cutting. He had a vision for her. He was meticu- lous about the lyrics.
“I knew he’d had a lot of pain in his lifetime,” Gearing noted, “and sometimes Byron would have to say, ‘Phil! She’s sixteen years old, we can’t have her singing all of these painful songs!’ Phil said, ‘But I want to hear them from her perspective. She can act them out.’
“He’d say that he wanted me to be marketed one way, but then he’d find another sad song he wanted me to sing.”
It was Gernhard, she said, who insisted she finish high school in her Massachusetts hometown, with her friends, and not move to Nashville until she’d graduated. Then she could finish her education at Belmont University. He was adamant she not give herself over too soon to the mu- sic industry.
At Curb headquarters, by way of introduction, Gearing and Gallimore performed a short acoustic showcase for the label staff. Afterwards, Mike Curb—whom she had yet to meet—approached her.
“You’re bringing Phil Gernhard back to life,” he said. “With this project, I’ve never seen him so happy, so excited, so passionate. This is the old Phil. This is my old friend.”
It was 2007. “I know he had a lot of doctor’s appointments,” Lynn said. “I brought him muffins and left them on the front door because there were times he didn’t have anybody, and he couldn’t even get out to get groceries.
“There was a day I called and said, ‘There’s a song I have just got to bring to the house,’ and he just wasn’t in the mood. I think he must have had some bad news. But he never would divulge it to me.”
Gearing watched him struggle to lift his frail body up into the cab of his big Hummer and wondered about his health. “He looked emaciated,” recalled Curb, “but he functioned so beautifully.”
Judee Gernhard said her brother had called her house in California and confessed: he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. And, typically, he didn’t want anyone else to know.
“Phil would call me, or my daughter in Texas, and he’d have us doing all this research on California oncology places,” she said. “We’d talk for hours on the phone, and all of a sudden he would just drop off, and I wouldn’t know anything for weeks and months.
“He was self-medicating, and he got into lots of weird drugs and herbs—we found that when we cleaned out the house after he died.”
Gernhard told her he was hoping to avoid surgery, because he feared it would leave him impotent.
It was around this same time, according to Judee, that her brother called with more devastating news. He’d Googled his absentee wife’s name and followed it down each and every rabbit hole until he found her website:
She was also known as “Madeline Hamilton,” a Stockholm-based escort whose services cost the equivalent of seven hundred fifty dollars per hour. The site was filled with salacious photographs of Mrs. Gernhard and descriptions of just what the purchaser would receive for his “donation.” She often traveled to the United States, it said, and could be “booked” for extended visits.
“He was devastated,” said Judee. “He felt stupid, and he felt vulnerable. And this was right around the time he found out he had prostate cancer.”
Gernhard was intensely private, but he was also a manipulator—and an accomplished liar.
Was he devastated? Did he know that Anna Maria Madeline Bosdotter Pettersson Gernhard was more than just the flirtatious makeup girl he met during a video shoot? Did he run off to Vegas and get married anyway?
“I’ll bet he did know,” Lynn said. “I’ll bet he didn’t care. He wasn’t a judgmental person. He was very eccentric. He had pictures of naked women all over his house. I went into Phil’s house a few times. They weren’t photos, they were beautiful portraits, oil paintings of gorgeous, beautiful women.
“That’s why I say that—I don’t think he was very conservative. He was not ‘my southern Baptist preacher brother.’”
Ashley Gearing dropped by with Kelly, once. The paintings, she recalled, “weren’t distasteful; I think he just really, truly appreciated the female body. Some people might think of all those naked pictures as sexual or creepy, but I think it was a deeper thing for him. An appreciation.”
Gearing described the façade of Gernhard’s home as “the kind place a family of five would live,” a beautiful brick house in a nice, upscale suburban neighborhood.
Inside, it was a different story. “So dark, almost gothic,” she said, “like a dark museum.” There were no gold or platinum records on the walls downstairs, only the naked ladies, fixed and staring, and Gernhard’s mounted collection of samurai swords. “I don’t think anybody ever visited him,” Gearing said.
She and Kelly were there, at the boss’s invitation, to view Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special on DVD. They watched the entire sixty-minute program in Gernhard’s living room.
He was beaming, Gearing recalled. “He said, ‘This is the best show you’ll ever see. This is what you’re capable of. This is why I signed you.’ He told Gearing she had Elvis-level stage presence, and after the show went online and bought—with her looking over his shoulder—a two-hundred-dollar pair of skinny jeans from Barney’s. “He liked that I was tall and said I should always wear pants and heels,” she said.
After a long day’s work on her album, Gearing, Lynn, Gallimore, and their families took Gernhard out for a celebratory dinner at a Japanese steakhouse. When the hibachi chef produced a sudden wall of flame from his skillet—part of the traditional tableside “performance”—Gernhard shrieked and recoiled in horror.
“I was sitting next to Phil, and he grabbed my arm like a little kid, and hid behind me,” Gearing recalled. “He was mortified. We had to escort him out of the room for a second so he could catch his breath.”
She and Lynn talked about it afterwards. Was there a bad fire experience buried deep in Phil’s past? Had he been burned in more ways than one?
They never dared ask him about it. But they were stunned.
From there, events began to pick up speed, faster and faster, spiraling toward a terrible and inevitable conclusion.
Gernhard hired the private investigator to locate Betty Vernon, his high school sweetheart, in Florida. Once this was accomplished, he changed his will—“to keep it away from the hooker,” in the words of his sister.
If my friend, Elizabeth Vernon, of Bradenton, Florida, survives me, I give my residuary estate, including any royalties to which my estate or I may be entitled, to the Trustee of the Philip A. Gernhard Trust (hereinafter referred to as the “Trust”) described in Article B hereof.
Under “Provisions for Trust”:
The Trustee shall distribute to or for the benefit of Elizabeth Vernon so much of the net income and principal as determined advisable for her health, maintenance, and support in reasonable comfort, as well as for the education, whether public, private or special, of the following named grandchildren and great grandchildren of Elizabeth Vernon.
Gernhard signed this version of his last will and testament on July 13, 2007, naming as executor his longtime accountant, Stephen Parker.
Five days later, he filed for divorce from Maria. In addition to the standard “Irreconcilable Differences,” he listed his reasons for seeking termination of the marriage:
Wife has committed inappropriate marital conduct that would entitle Husband to a divorce.
Wife has willfully deserted and/or abandoned Husband, without reasonable cause, for one (1) whole year.
Wife has refused to come to Tennessee, without reasonable cause, and has been willfully absent from Husband for two (2) years.
The document also requested that “proper process issue and be served upon the Wife requiring her to answer this Complaint,” and that the court make “an equitable division of the marital property between the parties.”