The last time POZ talked with you was back in 1997, for a feature story on HIV in Nashville. A lot has happened since then—
Yes. I lived!
Right. But also in terms of the music industry and in the worlds of HIV and gay rights. How has that played out in your neck of the woods?
Like rest of nation, the younger generation does not have a problem with either issue, gay or HIV. The good thing is: It’s not an issue. The bad thing is: They think it isn’t a big deal to be positive. [I am] shocked to hear 20-year-olds talking about how they got infected. Nobody’s talking about how it can be avoided, or concerned about it anymore. Brenda and I have been married since 1980. And my wife is still negative—it’s completely avoidable.
You tested positive back in 1985. Did you tell many people?
We only told people in our very, very close circle. It was a very scary time; people were kicked out of homes and schools and neighborhoods. My wife and her family started and worked at a construction company, and I didn’t want the news to affect her business. When I came out as bisexual in the early ’70s, I threw my artistic career out the window in Nashville. I was managing the Oak Ridge Boys publishing company at the time, [and although the band members] were just wonderful about, I was banned [from the gospel company]. But since I sacrificed that in the ’70s, I was not going to sacrifice [my wife’s business].
Was it harder to come out as HIV positive or bisexual?
There were a lot of snickers behind my back [about being bisexual], but HIV was the worse thing. We kept it secret for 11 years. I moved 45 minutes out of town and decided to spend the rest of life [helping] my wife with her childhood dreams of having a horse ranch on her family land. So I spent time working on a farmhouse out here. But by 1995 my counts started dropping, I wasted to skin and bones and prepared to die. Then the first protease inhibitors came out, and I rebounded, just under the wire.
How did you decide to come out about your HIV status?
I was also [on other medication at that time] and they think they gave me [the wrong strength, which caused me to be] rushed to the hospital. I woke up eight weeks later—I had been in a coma—and they gave me 24 hours to live. My organs failed, I had heart infection. In my calmest state, I actually crossed over, and the hospital filled with dead people I knew and loved, and I had the experience of melting back to one with God in the company of my deceased father. It was quite a spiritual experience of the highest magnitude. It was just peaceful. And I woke up, for no medical reason. The doctor still doesn’t know why. I came back from that experience, about 110 pounds. [I was] stripped down to skin and bones twice. I had to learn how to do everything all over again.
But everyone [found out about my HIV status] because they came to the hospital because I was dying. So many people showed up—everyone from the [music] business—but I was out like a light. Then, there were no more secrets. That was July ’96. [That was also when] I started writing [music] with a new company.
When did you start working on this album?
I started writing a book about my life, for therapy, and I read the rough draft to Sandy Knox [who started the label Wrinkled Records, which only signs people over 40]. Sandy lost her brother to AIDS back in the ’80s. She wanted to put [a record out inspired by my book], so we went back to songs I wrote when I found out I was exposed [to HIV]. She wanted to do songs that were thinly veiled about my condition, songs that pertain to my journey. “Not You Again,” from 1987, is a story comparing a bad relationship to HIV. I wrote “Strong Medicine” right before I was HIV positive, when the rumor was going around that something was killing young gay guys. And the only medicine at the time was love! It’s still the strongest that they got! “Positive” was a recent song I wrote for the album. “Distant Vision” is about the first friend I lost to AIDS, Rik. It was a horrible thing. I thought, “Oh God, this is what I’m in line for?” I wrote that for him, played it on a Walkman for him. I battled anger at the unfairness of watching friends die all around and the depression and fear of thinking of what was going to happen to me.
Anger and depression don’t come to mind when I hear your music.
The only way I could deal with it was to turn it into positives, songs of fortitude—“I’m going to get through this.” “How do I turn this into a positive moment.”
You’ve penned hits for other people and know the business well. How is the music scene different today?
The downloads decimated the business. And the economy has just crunched the business down to where there is just a handful of successful artists, and they’re camped in around so tightly. It has gotten much more competitive, and with Clear Channel and about maybe four companies owning the radio stations and airwaves and what’s played, it’s never been so hard to be a songwriter. But I’ve been in this town since 1969. I’ve seen the wheel turn many times and come back around.
Finally, when you perform these songs, do you explain to the audiences their connection to HIV?
Since I’ve been an entertainer, I’ve never discussed my HIV from stage. I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer; I like to make people happy. But people are still out there getting infected, and I feel driven to start talking about it. The most important thing is not how successful I am with the music. The most important thing is to communicate to people that they need to be safe and they need to get tested to know their status for themselves and the ones they love.