Something Else! Interview: Country singer Andy Griggs

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So, you’re Andy Griggs, a sugar-sweet pop-country singer from West Monroe, La. And you’re standing in the lonely bull’s eye of center stage, guitar in hand. There are hundreds and hundreds of pairs of eyes looking back.

“The adrenaline!” you say, whispering. “There’s a difference between 1,000 people and 15,000. There really is.”

OK, so you’re nervous. But you sing your songs anyway, injecting a raw nerve and a rare verve not found in many new artists coming out Nashville.

The applause comes over you like a squall line of showers. Then, it’s back into the anonymous darkness of stage right, headed for a dressing room. You just played in front of more people than live in your hometown.

“When you walk off stage, it’s almost like you can’t remember what you just sang,” you say. “It’s almost dreamy.”

Talk about dreamtime! Son, you’re in Nashville, Tenn.

Gospel superstar Tammy Sullivan sets the scene:

The big local country station is announcing the debut record by her old friend. It’s 1999. Andy’s been knocking around town for a few years, and this is his first shot at the big time. Everybody – Sullivan included – is wondering if he’ll make it.

A few months later, she’s listening to the same big station. By then, “they’re advertising it,” she says, laughing. “It’s like, you’re listening to our station and we play Andy Griggs.”

Later that year, you’re trying to get used to being among the heavyweights – and holding your own. After the tune “You Won’t Ever Be Lonely” became a hit, your label did an artist showcase, and here was the rundown: Alabama, Andy Griggs and Clint Black.

You chuckle. “It’s like – wow.” You’re whispering again.

Just that quickly, you’re opening shows for one of today’s top country acts. “Working with Alan Jackson is an experience that money can’t buy,” you say. That tour only lasted about three weeks, appearing in about a dozen cities, but it solidified your place.

Then there was your debut album, which featured a career-making duet with country legend Waylon Jennings. You proved, next, that we can go home again. Track two, called “I’ll Go Crazy,” was written with Lonnie Wilson – a drummer-producer-writer who, thrillingly enough, is from across the Ouachita River in Monroe, La.

You eventually recorded three albums with RCA Nashville, charting a total of more than a dozen singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts. “You Won’t Ever Be Lonely” pushed its way to No. 2 in 1999, followed by a second No. 2 with “She’s More.” You also had Top 10 hits with “Tonight I Wanna Be Your Man” in 2001 and then with 2004’s “She’s More” and “If Heaven.”

By 2005, Andy Griggs had left RCA; he then signed with the Montage Music Group two years later. Even as his career cooled, Griggs could take stock of his shooting-star story line.

Seems this so-called overnight success story never felt like one.

“It does and doesn’t seem that way. Some days I turn around and say, ‘Whoa,'” Griggs says. “There’s been a lot of water under bridge.”

Two tragedies from Griggs’ youth seem to inform the more lonesome moments on recordings.

His father passed away while Griggs was still quite young, and his mom says music helped him grieve.

When his father died, Griggs and his brother Mason went to their parent’s room and listened to one of dad’s old Merle Haggard records. “We never said a word, but we played that whole album,” he has said.

Eight years later, Griggs was listening to Haggard again. Mason had died, too.

Andy grew up the tough, athletic type. (In fact, he were a member of an undefeated River Oaks championship football team back in 1990.) Mason was more inward, a musician with a heart problem.

Still, mom says Andy and Mason were “not only brothers, they were best friends. Mason was the older one, but he was the smaller one. Andy always looked out for him,” says Barbara Knight of Monroe.

Funny thing is, Griggs wasn’t into music then.

“One time, there was a little restaurant in the Ward 8 area that had a little stage and they had invited Mason to be their entertainment for the week. So, we all went out to eat and to support Mason,” Knight says.

This was the time Mason called Andy up on stage to sing a song, one they liked to sing together at home. “Mason introduced him,” Knight says, “And Andy froze up. Not one word would come out.”

Barbara laughs at the memory: She’s talking about a guy with a a gold record on the wall now.

“When it came time for Andy to sing, Mason would look at him and Andy wouldn’t sing. He could not get one word out. So, Mason would sing his part too,” Knight says.

At the end of the show, Mason turned to his little brother and said, just as sly as you please: “Thank you, brother, for your help.”

Knight laughs, again. Those boys. “So many times, I can still picture the two together,” she says.

You know, even as fame surrounds you, that your blood was your bond. But music was wired into you two, as well.

Andy realized it quickly. “About a month after Mason’s death, Andy asked to see his guitar,” Knight says. “He started playing it like he had played it all his life.”

Griggs got to fronting his brother’s old group around town. Griggs will tell you that, at first, it was like Mason had crawled inside his chest. He sang lead and played rhythm guitar, just as Mason had.

“It was almost like I could hear him saying, ‘Go on and play, hoss. Don’t be scared’,” Griggs has said. Andy Griggs found his brother, again. And in a way, he began finding a new part of himself.

He performed anywhere they’d have him – festivals, churches, street corners. He met Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, who took him on the road with them when he didn’t have a gig. (He also fell in love with Stephanie Sullivan, Jerry’s younger daughter.) He hung around on the famed Music Row until somebody noticed. Finally, RCA did.

Another local-boy-done-good story was in the making. Even so, Griggs, from the beginning, kept it simple.

“My one and only goal is to touch people,” he says. “That started with my brother. I think the biggest person he touched, was me.”

Mentioning Mason always seems to make Griggs come up short. His big brother still means a lot to him.

A moment or so later, he continues. “I want to shine a light wherever I can find some darkness,” he says, “even if it’s just one person.”

He’s since drawn attention as a card player, making an appearance at a recent World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. (Griggs lasted the first three rounds.) A highlight of his first release for Montage was the album-closing cover of LeRoux’s “New Orleans Ladies.”

Griggs, betraying his small town roots, is always talking about feeling lucky. “I am so fortunate. God has blessed me so much,” he says. “I don’t know which one is harder to believe, that I’m in Nashville or that I’m really doing it.”

Early on, even his mom will admit she was worried. “After their honeymoon, we loaded up the U-Haul, and Steph and Andy moved to Nashville. He didn’t even have an apartment,” she sa
ys. “I remember that first night, we were in a motel with the U-Hauls parked out front.”

You say: “Seems like several lifetimes since.”

But in this one, things are right on track. You remember the first time that realization hits, when “You Won’t Ever Be Lonely” was on every station.

“I was asleep, and we left it on CMT,” you say. “In the middle of the night, Stephanie woke me up, and the video was on.”

At that moment, you are face to face with your own flickering dream. You are watching a young singer named Andy Griggs sing a song about that forever kind of love.

“I just sat up in bed,” you say. “I got chills.”


Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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