I Still Believe

Earlier in October, when I was attending (under press credentials) the third annual Russ & Tori Taff’s Bell Buckle Weekend, they showed a clip from “Russ Taff: I Still Believe,” the documentary about Russ’s fight with alcoholism, depression and abuses he suffered in childhood.

The documentary was scheduled by Fathom Events for a one-night-only simulcast in theaters across the U.S. I almost bought a ticket that weekend for the Murfreesboro screening, which would be the closest one to Shelbyville, where I live.

But I didn’t get around to it. To tell you the truth, I was hesitating a little bit because I knew it would be heavy subject matter. In this case, though, my hesitation paid off; a few days later, Tori tipped me off that she and Russ had invited a lot of their friends to a screening at the Franklin Theatre in downtown Franklin. The Taffs lived in Williamson County before moving to Bell Buckle, and of course Franklin was convenient for a lot of their music industry friends in Brentwood and Nashville.

I’d always wanted to see the Franklin Theatre anyway. It’s rather unique, with a combination of theatre seating and table seating. I thought it would be fun to sit at a table, so I purchased a seat in the back row of tables. (I didn’t want to have to crane my neck to look up at the screen.) Ironically, given the subject matter of the documentary, it’s also known for selling beer and wine during movie screenings. (I’m sure they didn’t sell any last night.) It’s not one of the regular Fathom Events movie locations; the Taffs specifically requested that location.

I knew I’d get home late, and so I decided not to try to do a story for Wednesday’s paper. Instead, I told David Melson I would e-mail him a standalone photo for Wednesday’s front page, and — conveniently enough — when I got to the theatre, Russ and Tori were in the lobby, with a professional backdrop and photographer, posing for photos with anyone who wanted one. In between group photos, I had them pose for a two-shot that I could e-mail back to the paper, and then I could be done with that and not have to miss any of the movie. Tori hugged me, which I expected (she usually does), but so did Russ, which surprised me. I deal with Tori fairly often on Bell Buckle events or things related to the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall, and we’re Facebook friends, but I’ve really only talked to Russ a few times.

I took my table seat. I spoke briefly with a woman at the table who works for the Gospel Music Association. She asked me how I knew the Taffs (assuming, probably correctly, that pretty much everyone there had some personal connection) and I explained that I was with their hometown newspaper and first met them when they moved to Bell Buckle and I wrote a feature about them. I asked if she knew Bob Darden, for whom I used to write when Bob edited the late and lamented Wittenburg Door. The other two people at our table sat down just moments before the movie started; we shook hands and introduced ourselves by first name, but that’s as far as it got.

Director Rick Altizer opened the evening by praying for all of the people who would be watching the documentary that evening, across the country, and who might be affected by its message. Then, the documentary started.

Wow. What a powerful film. It will probably turn up eventually on discs or some sort of streaming situation, and if you get the chance, you should really watch it.

The movie begins with a portrayal of Russ Taff’s background and career. He grew up the son of a Pentecostal minister, who was also an alcoholic and who was abusive to the family. His mother protected the family secrets from outsiders and somewhat unfairly unloaded a lot of her frustrations on Russ. Russ would later find a surrogate mother, a family friend with whom he had a more positive, normal relationship. He also met and married his soulmate, Tori, and they had two daughters.

The material about his career includes includes the early 80s when I was familiar with his work as a member of the Imperials and then a solo artist. He was the charismatic lead vocalist who helped transform the Imperials from a Southern Gospel quartet into a Contemporary Christian Music sensation. But he was, quite literally, an employee of the group, not a partner, and it was was predictable that he’d eventually move on to become a solo performer.

Later, when his CCM career was in a lull, he joined the Gaither Vocal Band, dipping back into Southern Gospel and becoming a beloved part of the extended “Gaither Homecoming” family. Tori co-hosts Homecoming Radio with Bill Gaither.

But even as he was at the top of his profession, bringing home Grammy and Dove awards and inspiring a later generation of Christian performers, he felt dead inside — and discovered that alcohol killed the pain. He drank privately, alone, trying to hide it from the world. Eventually, an embarrassing drunken performance at a TV taping became a crisis point.

After a couple of rehab-and-relapse cycles, fueled in part by the deaths of his parents and the conflicting emotions that he felt towards each of them, Russ found peace through a facility in New Mexico that addressed, not just the addiction, but the family trauma that had fueled it. He was able to restore his tattered marriage and has been sober ever since.

“Russ Taff: I Still Believe” tells this story masterfully, which speaks both to Altizer’s skill as a filmmaker and to Russ, Tori and their whole family being honest enough to share their dirty laundry and trust Altizer with their story. Altizer had previously made two well-received documentaries about Christian comedian Chonda Pierce, and in fact, she plays a part in this story as well; she was the emcee of the TV taping at which Russ showed up inebriated, and had to figure out how to handle the situation gracefully.

There are a number of other celebrity interviews in the documentary, as well, including Amy Grant, Mark Lowry and so on.

The documentary received a thunderous standing ovation from the Franklin crowd. It was only then that I realized where Russ and Tori had been seated — right in the center of the front row of theatre seats, not far at all from my place in the back row of tables.

Following the documentary, viewers (not only in Franklin but at the other sites) were treated to a few minutes of bonus footage featuring Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman and Russ which was filmed at the Taff home in Bell Buckle. (Amy’s participation was a surprise to Russ; she walks in in the middle of a conversation between Steven and Russ.)

After that, at the Franklin location only, the screen was rolled up to reveal three empty stools on the stage. The audience was treated to a live question-and-answer session with Russ, Tori and Rick Altizer. I should have stuck around for this. I really should have stuck around for this. But I was fixated on the fact that I had to be at the Times-Gazette at 6 a.m. the next morning, and had an hour’s drive back from Franklin and a couple of things to do once I got home. I slipped out just as the Q-and-A was starting, and headed down Highway 96 to Cox Road, then U.S. 41A the rest of the way back to Shelbyville.

By doing so, of course, I missed the chance to mix and mingle after everything had ended. There were a number of big names present last night, a few of whom I recognized, many of whom I never even saw until checking other people’s Facebook posts this morning. (Amy Grant, for one.) Another boneheaded decision on my part.

Meanwhile, Russ has a new album, “Believe,” which drops on Friday. After my coverage of the Taff Weekend activities, a record industry publicist gave me a link to listen to the album in advance, and it’s great. There will also be a book, similar in theme to the documentary, and with the same title, coming out in February. If you get the chance to either read the book or watch the documentary, do so. I know the documentary will be a blessing, and I suspect the book will be as well.