A rotund middle-aged man with penetrating eyes and a stentorian voice, the Rev. T.J. Graham preached a gospel that belonged to only one man. And though he's gone now, you can still go to his YouTube profile page and hear him lay it out.
"Hey, do you want to hear the truth?" Graham barks. "Are you tired of listenin' to people tell you all kind of lies, and then you find out the truth is not in 'em? Well, I tell you what you need to do: You need to tune in to Open Forum and listen to me. I will tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — the natural truth."
For nearly six years, Graham laid out his natural truth for admirers and enemies alike on his WVOL-1470 AM program Open Forum, broadcasting a wildly entertaining (and ideologically befuddling) blend of firebrand sociopolitical commentary and classic shock-jock antics from the nondescript ranch-style studio in East Nashville where, once upon a time, Oprah Winfrey landed her first media gig.
Unlike the Big O, however, whose penchant for feel-good powwows and public confessionals propelled her to international wealth and fame, Graham carved a modest niche in his adopted hometown by wielding a rhetorical chainsaw. He ripped into liberals and conservatives alike across a spectrum of hot-button issues, from illegal immigration and racism to gay marriage, health care reform and more.
But on the morning of Nov. 8, Graham, the self-proclaimed "Black Rush Limbuagh," died from undisclosed causes following a massive stroke. He was 50, and is survived by his parents, three siblings, three sons and a granddaughter.
"He held on for seven days," Jae' Nash, Graham's producer and co-host for two years, tells the Scene. "What he went through at that hospital ... when you're used to seeing somebody that's full of life, a good-spirited person, laughing, and to see him lying there not being able to talk or really interact with you ... I am so happy to have met a man like him. He was a soldier."
A Springfield, Tenn., native, the man born Anthony Hyde worked his way up the broadcasting ladder, spending more than two decades taking gigs as a country-music DJ and a sports reporter at regional AM stations. In 2006, he landed at WVOL, a station with a half-century history in local broadcasting, to fill in part time for an outgoing on-air personality.
"My first impression was he had potential," recalls WVOL general manager John Heidelberg. "Of course, he was kinda nervous, but once I told him what I wanted, how I wanted it done, he went forth to implement what I wanted. He was a team player. He was loyal. And he really put himself into it."
Not long after, Graham's Open Forum evolved — or devolved, depending on your opinion — into what Heidelberg affectionately refers to as "Jerry Springer radio," with the host pulling long hours conducting research day and night for each broadcast. Where earlier WVOL fixtures such as legendary gospel DJ Clarence Kilcrease promoted a warm, relaxed sense of community, going so far as to read shoutouts to the sick and infirm between songs, Graham presided over something closer to a shark tank.
Controlled chaos was the order of the day, with Graham holding court over his callers with the finesse and provocative goading of a surly lion tamer. Racial slurs quickly became a hallmark of the program, especially once word of his show spread to white-power message boards eager for craven confrontation. But whenever on-air callers would unleash insults on Graham's race and corpulence — the host estimated that on a show once he logged about a slur a minute — they quickly found their target could fire back faster, meaner and funnier.
Small wonder WVOL was reportedly beset earlier this year with acts of vandalism — the cutting of wires at the station's North Nashville transmitter towers in February, the smashing of windows in a station van in April. But Graham was unfazed. So incensed were his callers that Graham would often continue his verbal assault off the air — or so he thought.
"Sometimes the mic would still be on," recalls Heidelberg, laughing. "And some of the words that he wouldn't dare say over the air would, unfortunately, come out over the airwaves."
That's not to say bigots were the only ones to draw his wrath. Religious conservatives who appealed to his status as a minister drew sputtering rage if they dared criticize President Obama. So did liberals who defied his hardline stances against gays and undocumented immigrants.
But after hearing of his death, many longtime Graham detractors called into "The Mightly 147" to eulogize the man they loved to hate.
"The first time I encountered him was on his radio show," says Mary Mancini, former host of Liberadio! and executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action. "I remember hearing him and being confused, because on some issues he was very, very progressive, and then on certain other issues — I believe homosexuality and immigration and some of the hot-button issues — he was very ... how can I put this? His take on these issues was pretty simplistic."
Graham's penchant — some might say obsession — for railing against homosexuals and illegal immigrants earned him no points with progressives like Mancini, who found herself and co-host Freddie O'Connell barraged by Graham (and an accompanying legion of his callers) on a June 25, 2007, episode of Liberadio! once he got wind of their program.
But a funny thing happened after that: Mancini and Graham began to like each other.
"I can tell you that our relationship actually improved after that incident," she says. "I was a guest on his show after that; he was a very gracious host. The one thing I know about T.J. Graham is that he listened and learned, really listened to a subject. I think he started off on the radio thinking one way, and as time went on ... his positions on things changed based on his being a pastor."
Indeed, Graham's Christian faith influenced a lot of his work, on air and off, as he visited hotels around the city as a kind of traveling evangelist on behalf of True Missionary Baptist Church to preach the natural truth. Heidelberg says that Graham's role as a pastor often prevented the host from going too far, and that despite Open Forum's regularly occurring vitriol, "We never had to push the [seven-second delay] button for him."
That didn't stop Graham from pushing the envelope outside the studio. In 2007, he amassed a flock of roughly 100 listeners and fellow churchgoers for an illegal-immigration protest at Legislative Plaza, in what seemed a bizarre move for the fervent Bush critic and future enthusiastic Obama supporter.
"He was not a conservative talk show host," Mancini says. "He self-identified as a somewhat left-leaning individual, but I don't think he used the words progressive or liberal. He had his own belief system and learned from evidence, which I think is unfortunately too rare these days."