In the parlor of an elegant Victorian home just a block from Bell Buckle, Tennessee’s historic downtown, Russ Taff and his wife of 42 years, Tori, relax on a deep sofa piled with pillows. A shelf in the corner displays a row of gold Grammy Awards, the only visible accolades of a man whose groundbreaking four-decade career has made him one of the most influential voices in the music world. Far from the glare of the stage, the Taffs’ home is a place of respite and serenity. It’s both grand and gracious—like the couple themselves.
Enjoying their little slice of heaven in the Tennessee countryside, it would be easy to assume Russ and Tori are slowing down a bit, but the opposite is true. Nestled close on the sofa, their frequent, knowing glances are a reminder of the miles they’ve traveled together—literally and emotionally. They are poised for their story to be shared, and later this month “Russ Taff: I Still Believe” will do just that.
A powerful documentary from award-winning director Rick Altizer, the film—premiering in nearly 600 movie theaters around the country for one-night only on October 30—lets the world in on a secret only a few close friends and family had previously known: Russ Taff is an alcoholic. But the real focal point of this story is the forgiveness and freedom he’s embraced on the path of recovery, and he’s eager to extend a hand of mercy to those walking a similar road.
“I’m a believer in looking ahead, not behind, but sometimes only time and distance can bring everything into perspective,” Russ explains of sharing his private journey in such a public way. “Forgiveness, healing, restoration— I am living proof that Jesus is still about His Father’s business, one broken person at a time.”
“Vulnerability is scary, but our prayer is that the story of God’s love reaching right down into the middle of our messy, imperfect lives will offer hope and courage to other struggling families,” adds Tori.
Hailed by Billboard magazine as “the single most electrifying voice in Christian music,” Russ has garnered six Grammy Awards, 18 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and has been inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame an unprecedented three times—as a soloist, as well as a member of the Imperials and the Gaither Vocal Band. He is also a member of the Christian Music Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Walk of Fame.
Growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Russ’ strict parents forbid “secular” music at home, so Russ and his siblings were raised on a steady diet of Mahalia Jackson and The Statesmen Quartet—their mother’s records. In high school Russ bought a guitar and formed a band, The Sounds of Joy, and he never looked back.
“The principal let us play during assembly,” he remembers. “We did two songs, and I invited the students to our little church. We began meeting on Monday nights at church and I would ask if anybody would like to receive Christ and the altar would be full. At school, boys would come up to me in the locker room and say, ‘Russ, how do I find Jesus?’ and I would pray with them in study hall. A great revival broke out and much of the student body came to know Jesus.”
A few years later the Imperials—trailblazers of the contemporary Christian music movement of the 1970s—came to Arkansas and The Sounds of Joy opened the show. Russ made a lasting impression that night and when the Imperials were in need of a new member, Russ received a life-changing call.
“They said, ‘We remember your voice. Why don’t you come to Nashville and try out?’ So, I took my little Ford Pinto and headed to Tennessee. That afternoon I sang with the group and that evening they hired me. I joined the Imperials when I was 22, and I’ve been riding buses ever since,” Russ adds with a smile.
The voice behind such quintessential hits as “Praise the Lord,” “Trumpet of Jesus” and “I’m Forgiven,” Russ’ tenure with the Imperials was a formative time, and he was thrilled to be sharing it with his new bride, Tori. The two had met while Russ was serving as a youth minister. She walked into the church one night and “my world stopped,” he recalls. “They say you’ll know when you know and when I saw her, that was it for me. I started bringing her to our Sounds of Joy concerts, and the more I was around her, the more I was falling in love.”
A new marriage and a new career made for an exciting season in the young couple’s life. Experiencing the world beyond Hot Springs was eye-opening for Russ, a self- proclaimed country boy. “We won three Grammys while I was with the Imperials. At the show, I’m wearing a tux and I walk in and see Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson and I feel so out of place. We’re singing ‘Sail On’ and I look down in the audience and there’s Sting and James Taylor,” he remembers.
His stint with the Imperials laid the foundation for what would become an extraordinary solo career. To date, Russ has recorded 11 solo projects, including industry benchmarks Medals (1985), Russ Taff (1987) and Under Their Influence (1991), and his classic singles include “We Will Stand,” “I’m Not Alone,” “Not Gonna Bow” and “Love Is Not A Thing.” Russ’ soul-drenched voice and raw, passionate delivery are hallmarks of his unparalleled artistry, a sound that has influenced the likes of Amy Grant, MercyMe’s Bart Millard, Michael W. Smith and Newsboys’ Michael Tait, among numerous others.
Never one to be typecast, Russ’ versatility later endeared him to Southern Gospel audiences, and he was a member of the world-renowned Gaither Vocal Band from 2001-2004. A familiar face at Gaither Homecoming events for many years, Russ forged lifelong friendships in the Southern Gospel family.
Yet at the pinnacle of his success, Russ Taff was hurting deeply. On the outside he was a Christian music superstar, a loving husband and father of two beautiful daughters, but on the inside, he was emotionally bankrupt, robbed by the pain and shame of childhood trauma.
The son of a Pentecostal preacher, Russ clearly remembers his own father’s struggle with alcohol. Bouts of binge drinking caused the elder Taff to be fired from multiple church pulpits over the years. Russ’ mother, shouldering the weight of family dysfunction, channeled her pain as rage and it took a toll on her children, particularly Russ, in whom she regularly confided her despair.
“I had a key to the church and I would go down there late at night and sit on the altar and talk to Jesus and tell Him how scared I was,” Russ shares. “That started a relationship between Jesus and me. Not only was He my Savior, but He was someone I could talk to. I would tell Him I wish I could leave, but I didn’t know where to go.”
Throughout every season of his career—unbeknownst to the world—Russ struggled with depression and eventually a secret alcohol addiction, unable to escape the heartache and shame of his tumultuous past. Although he could go years at a time without a drink, the loss of his father, and then his mother’s death, opened old wounds and Russ’ addiction gripped tighter than ever.
“As soon as he started drinking, he started drinking alcoholically,” Tori says. “Never was it about the taste, it was about getting numb as quickly as possible. Our life was blowing up, our marriage was blowing up, but I couldn’t see that it was alcohol because I wasn’t seeing him drunk. He was moody and angry. He was like a fist, completely turned inward.”
“I went through a period of being angry at God,” Russ admits. “All I ever wanted to do was sing for Him, and I wasn’t doing it. I saw what my problems were doing to Tori what my dad had done to me. It broke my heart that I was traumatizing her the way my dad traumatized me.”
Stints in substance abuse rehab were helpful over the years, but Russ finally turned a corner when he began dealing with the root of the problem—why he drank. Intense trauma therapy allowed him to peel back the layers of his old wounds and address the hurt and unforgiveness in his heart. He took responsibility for his actions and finally fully embraced the boundless love and mercy of his Savior.
“About three years ago the Gospel Music Association gave me a lifetime achievement award. At the ceremony I bowed my head and began to weep,” Russ shares. “Tori asked me on the way home, ‘Why were you crying on such a night of celebration?’ I said, ‘Tori, if it hadn’t been for Jesus I wouldn’t be standing up there. I would probably be dead the way I was going. If anybody should get that award, it should be you and Jesus, because I know me.’”
Seeing life come full-circle is overwhelming for Russ at times. Although he realized his childhood dream of a career singing for Jesus, so many of those years were devoid of joy, marred by his secret struggle. Russ lived in a prison of shame, held captive from the abundant life he sang about night after night. And that’s exactly what he and Tori now want to offer others: Hope.
“I’m a living testimony of what the power of Christ can do in a person’s life,” Russ says triumphantly. “You’ve got to be laser-focused on the prize, and the prize for me was getting my life and my family back. I thought I was abandoned. I thought I was all alone. But as I began to look back, I saw Him everywhere. He was with me when I was seven years old and Daddy got drunk. He was there that first time I got drunk and my heart was broken. He would go down into mud and dirt to get me. I’m a child of the King! His royal blood now flows through my veins.”
From the heart of Bell Buckle to the bright lights of the silver screen, Russ and Tori Taff simply hope their journey will reflect the goodness and grace of Jesus for others in need. There will be time to sip sweet tea on the front porch later, but right now they have a story to tell.
“Russ Taff: I Still Believe,” a gripping documentary chronicling the beloved vocalist’s unparalleled musical journey and behind-the-scenes battle with alcoholism, will premiere in movie theaters nationwide October 30. The one-night Fathom Events presentation is a story of hope, showcasing the multi-Grammy and Dove Award-winning superstar’s ultimate embrace of God’s healing and restoration.
In addition, the film will feature appearances from such legendary artists and entertainers as Amy Grant, MercyMe’s Bart Millard, Michael W. Smith, Newsboys’ Michael Tait, Bill Gaither, and comedians Mark Lowry and Chonda Pierce, among others. For tickets, visit www.fathomevents.com.