Life spills out on the pages of this book - and sometimes life isn’t very pretty…
I Still Believe
Russ and Tori Taff with Mark Smeby
Post Hill Press
ISBN: 978 – 1-64293 – 148-8 (hardcover)
Addiction and depression. Yeah, I know – sounds like a fun read, doesn’t it? Well, of course it’s not exactly ‘fun,’ but the story of Russ Taff’s emotional roller coaster ride – which at times seemed to only be going down – ultimately is a message of hope, and light at the end of the tunnel.
First, since this is very much a biographical work, it’s important to understand that Russ, along with the rest of his family, were immersed in the cultural/religious environment of strict Pentecostalism, and that his ‘home’ church was pastored by his father. Early in the story we learn that Pastor Taff had a weakness for some of the very things he preached against, and developed a pattern of drinking himself out of pastoring positions. The result, more often than not, was the rest of the family being ostracized and not welcomed back into the fold. The self-loathing and shame of this repeating situation fueled the senior Taff’s rage and was often taken out on the rest of the family. Russ not only became a frequent victim of his father’s violence and anger, but also – and inappropriately – the emotional load-bearer for his mother.
Second, it’s important to know that Russ Taff is known first and foremost as a performer in the curious corner of the entertainment world known as Contemporary Christian Music. His unique and passionate voice, songwriting ability, and stage presence evolved at a time when ‘gospel music’ was being infiltrated by rock and roll – and, for Russ, this was a perfect storm. His big break came in the form of an offer from The Imperials, a successful vocal group somewhat awkwardly making the transition from ‘southern gospel quartet’ music to a more contemporary sound. The change was destined to be temporary but succeeded in getting the young super-singer/songwriter noticed as he helped get The Imperials into the top of the Christian music charts. The solo career that followed produced highly-attended concerts and well-charting albums that more accurately reflected the raw side of the soul of Russ Taff, the man.
…that is, until the demons of his childhood caught up to him. The emotional traumas of his childhood, coupled with physical and psychological tendencies toward depression, guilt, and low self-esteem, once again provided a perfect storm – but this time aiming toward addiction. Russ Taff, Christian superstar, was an alcoholic.
The third thing that’s important to know is that the book is also about Tori Taff, the high school sweetheart that Russ married - the fiercely-strong anchor that held together the Taff family but was willing to walk away if she had to. Tori is witty and sometimes acerbic (“I’ve got a mouth on me”), a strong woman of God, and a realist who is willing to fight for the structural integrity of her family. And there’s yet another perfect storm.
Mark Smeby pulls together this story (which is also impactfully told in the Rick Altizer documentary film, “Russ Taff: I Still Believe”) by seeding each chapter with set-apart vignettes of commentary by friends (many of which are well-known in the industry) and Russ and Tori themselves, as if they’re sitting there with you, reading over your shoulder commenting on some of their own telling of the tale. As you get into the book and see that sections are labelled “Russ” or “Tori” you begin to get the sense that the book reads like a very well thought-out interview – actually, very much a documentary on paper. With Smeby organizing Russ and Tori’s thoughts into a sensible narrative, the story falls into place in a very personal and readable way. Kudos to Mark Smeby for creating an engaging format.
Russ Taff: I Still Believe is a captivating book that accurately and candidly talks about the pain of addiction and the transforming power of love, hope, and forgiveness. Life spills out on the pages and, like life, some isn’t very pretty. Still, counter-balancing some of the pharisaical attitudes of some parts of ‘the church’ are the loving, caring, accepting attitudes of others, proving that we’re all really just family, after all.
Russ Taff: I Still Believe is a powerful, fascinating book with multiple messages. This peek behind the curtain puts a human face on the cult of Christian Celebrity.
- Bert Saraco