Bringing a redeemed life to the big screen
Filmmaking proved to be a challenge for Russ Taff.
“There were long interviews,” Taff says. “They wanted details of things I have been trying to forget.”
“I Still Believe” – a documentary detailing the award-winning vocalist’s life and his battle with alcoholism – is set to appear in select theaters as a one-night event on Oct. 30.
“Rick Altizer, he did the Chonda Pierce movie (‘Chonda Pierce: Laughing in the Dark’) … he came to my house a couple of years ago,” Taff shares. “We were just talking. He said, ‘Why don’t you let me tell your story?’ He knew a lot of it, but I haven’t talked about it much to anybody.
“It’s been my life’s work to be made whole. He convinced me … he said, ‘Your story would bring hope to so many people.’”
That hope has come after many hopeless turns.
“It was almost like a mandate from God,” Taff says of revealing his struggles. “But that voice inside of me said, ‘If you tell your whole story, I will get the glory.’ That stuck in me until Rick showed up and said, ‘Can I do a documentary about your life?’ It was time. It’s what Jesus really did and his power … his power to pull us along, pick us up, dust us off and tell us to keep going.”
Taff’s struggles began at an early age, though they stemmed from circumstances beyond his control.
“I had a father (Joe) who was such a narcissist and a mother (Anne) who was a rageaholic,” Taff reveals. “He was a Pentecostal preacher and also an alcoholic. One year, we’d be in, and the next year, we wouldn’t be in church … but he loved to preach. He loved that more than anything.”
As a child, Taff found himself in the middle of more adult encounters than he bargained for.
“They voted daddy out of the church,” Taff recalls of one incident. “Mom wanted me to go down there at 9 or 10 years old. Mom wanted me to go down there, because she wanted to know what they said. I just sat there and cried. I got home and told mom. From that point on, those people didn’t talk to me anymore.
“At 11 years old, I learned to play guitar. I could play guitar and sing. That was my outlet, just learning songs and singing with my brothers.”
He quickly began looking for opportunities to perform.
“I walked into church one night after they voted dad out, and my uncle said, ‘What are you doing here Russ,’” Taff recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I’m here to sing.’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t want you here anymore.’ It was just so shameful. All of us had to pay the consequences. Shame has dictated so much of my life.”
The dynamic between Taff and his parents was complex as well.
“Momma would go off on things,” Taff remembers. “You had to walk the line. One year, we could have a Christmas tree. The next year, you couldn’t have a Christmas tree. You didn’t know where you stood.”
The instability that plagued his father’s life was overwhelming as well.
“When my dad died in 1997, he was too scared to die,” Taff shares. “He was terrified. He would say stuff like, ‘I hope my good outweighs the bad.’ On his deathbed, he was terrified to cross over.”
After detailing some of his childhood experiences, the documentary transitions into Taff’s personal battle with alcoholism.
“Then, we move into my story of how I struggled with alcoholism myself,” Taff points out. “I was trying to quiet the voices. Guilt … you did something wrong. The shame is that I am the thing that is wrong. You carry it into your adult life. The code in your brain is, ‘Don’t let people find out what is going on. Keep it all close to your chest.’ The voices just became too much.
“You’re winning Grammys (Awards), and the voice says, ‘You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough.’ I’d win a Grammy, and by the time I would get back to the hotel, you’re thinking you’re not good enough.
“I’m sure my dad felt the same way. It was just very dysfunctional. As a pastor’s kid, you don’t tell what’s going on at home.”
Taff actually grew up in the San Joaquin Valley area of California but moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, when he was 15 years old. His family moved back to California, but Russ remained in Arkansas to start college.
“We put a little band together,” Taff says. “A real revival broke out. I found out a few years later that it was happening all over the county. It was the Jesus movement. Hundreds of people were coming to Christ.”
However, alcohol didn’t show up in Taff’s life until he was 26.
“I was exposed to it because of daddy,” Taff says of alcoholism. “I stayed away from it because of my family.
“We were in a place and people were having wine. I thought I’d just have a beer. I felt like such a sinner by just ordering that, because I had never had a beer. We would be somewhere (before that), and I would just get a coke. In a few moments (after having a beer), those voices just quieted. I thought I had found something. I actually was praising God, because I can live this way. This quiets everything that destroyed my life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last.”
The pattern of alcoholism had begun.
“Those voices, they weren’t accusing me all day long,” Taff continues. “They were just quieted. It’s such a disgusting thing to do.
“It went on for six or seven years. I was in hell. You’re singing for Jesus, and your body is crying out for this drug that will numb you. You have it back at the hotel. You go to the concert and want to go back to the hotel to shut your brain off.”
Individuals who were close to Taff made an impact.
“Some people around me saw what was going on, and they loved me,” Taff explains. “I’m caught in this. My body is screaming, and I don’t know how to get out of this horrible, horrible dungeon I was in.
“The Holy Spirit started bringing people into my life.”
Taff was eventually able to get help.
“I had about 10 years of sobriety (from 1988-97),” Taff remembers. “There was so much between my dad and I that was unsettled. I tried to talk to him several times before he died. He didn’t want to go there, because he’s getting ready to see Jesus in about a month or so. He’s dying, and he didn’t want to talk about anything negative. I was just left with nothing from him. He was always jealous of what I did, what I could accomplish and what I was accomplishing. He was the kind of man that couldn’t tell you that I was doing a good job.”
However, the death of his father prompted his toxic habit to resurface … albeit for only a two-week period.
“When he died, I had nine years of sobriety,” Taff says. “I realized he had crossed over, and I realized I would live the rest of my life with this pain and being unsettled. I started drinking again. Then, I relapsed again nine years later when momma died … but God brought great people in my life again. I started down this path of, ‘Ok God, heal me.’ I realized to overcome this great place in my brain it was going to take a lot of work, to begin to rewire my brain and get it back in proper working order.
“One of my older brothers died seven years ago, and that option wasn’t there anymore because I knew how to deal with pain, disappointment and hurt. Through Christian counseling, they gave me tools to deal with it. After a while, I started really getting a hold of it. I started trusting people around me. That for me was a miracle. It’s just been an incredible journey.”
Reliving those days through the making of the film was a difficult process.
“You have worked your way through it,” Taff shares. “It’s your memories. When you sit down and see how low you had gone … to the point to where you’re begging God to either heal me or kill me. I couldn’t live this way anymore.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to even watch it. Tori (Taff’s wife) is saying, ‘Yes, you are.”
Taff has four brothers, two of which are living (Danny and Bill) and two who have passed away (Marvin and Earl).
“All five of us (struggled with alcoholism),” Taff points out. “Some of us got out, and some of us didn’t.”
It was Bill who helped foster Russ’ love for Southern gospel music.
“I grew up with Southern gospel,” Russ says. “My oldest brother (Bill) used to take me to all-night sings and that sort of thing.”
As a teenager, in the summer, Russ would sing with his brothers at revivals that his father was preaching.
When two of his brothers went to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, Russ began to sing with other individuals. At the age of 16, he joined some fellow high-school students in a group called the Sounds of Joy, which played in coffee houses throughout Arkansas. In fact, the group opened up for the Imperials.
“They (the Imperials) heard me sing,” Taff recalls. “A couple of years later, they called me and asked me if I’d like to try out.”
Two weeks prior to his 23rd birthday in 1976, Taff joined in the Imperials.
However, at the time, he wasn’t sure that joining the Imperials was the right move to make.
“I was torn,” Taff explains. “I started working with this evangelist called Jerry Savelle. For the first time in my life, I was really studying the Bible. I was really getting to know the word of God. I grew up with a whole lot of emotionalism and not a lot of the word of God. At that time, those voices weren’t as loud. I was working. Every weekend, we were in revival. I started feeling like, ‘I’m going in the right direction.’ When the Imperials called me, I went and talked to Jerry and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m really growing in the Lord.’ He said, ‘Russ, you go pray about it and decide what you want to do. I’ll consider it the wisdom of God and support you.’
“In about two weeks, I drove to Nashville, tried out, and they hired me that night.”
He married Tori that same year.
“(Tori) would get incredibly angry at me,” Russ shares. “Then, she would say I believe in you, and I will fight for you until you can fight for yourself. I love her. She was my last, tiny shred of sanity. She prayed for me. She yelled at me. She loved me. I credit her … she and Jesus got me through this
“He never gave up on me. He kept coming and loving me. He never stopped … even when I quit. I pretty much just gave up. Tori and Jesus … they pulled me along.”
The 64-year-old Taff – a GRAMMY and Dove Award-winning artist who resides in Bell Buckle, Tennessee – has resumed a solo career, following his tenure with the Imperials and a three-year stint as a part of the Gaither Vocal Band. While he still performs at some of the bigger Gaither Homecoming Tour stops, he typically travels two weekends per month as a soloist.
“I enjoy the solo thing very much,” Taff emphasizes. “I love to be able to step up on stage and have an hour and half to sing songs, talk about things and give God glory.”
Locations for the viewing of “I Still Believe” – presented by Fuseic Entertainment and Fathom Events – and ticket information are available by visiting www.fathomevents.com.
By Craig Harris
First published by SGNScoops Magazine in October 2018