When songwriter Richard Fagan performs Wednesday evening at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café, the evening will be wrapped in personal symbolism. An installment in the Bluebird’s annual series of benefits for Alive Hospice, this particular show is dedicated to the late Tom Oteri, a former Alive Hospice volunteer who was Richard’s publisher.
Tom’s April 2008 death, in the aftermath of a fight with Richard, forced Rich — best known for writing John Michael Montgomery’s “Be My Baby Tonight” and “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” — to confront his addiction to alcohol and his perpetual irresponsibility. Wednesday’s performance, with Rob Crosby and “Three Wooden Crosses” songwriter Doug Johnson, marks the first time Richard has performed at the venue since completing rehab, and he’ll no doubt be feeling Tom’s spirit.
Richard and Tom shared a house and had been business partners for 32 years, so when Tom died — apparently, it seemed at the time — by Richard’s hand, it shocked Nashville’s music community. Tom was being treated for a broken rib with fentanyl, an opiate that can create breathing issues. He’d gone through a long stretch of depression, and Richard — unused to seeing his associate in that state of mind — wasn’t dealing with it well. He got high April 26, 2008, on tequila and antidepressants, then got in a fight with Tom that turned physical. In the process, he slashed Tom’s wrist with a knife. They both went into immediate shock over what had happened.
“He basically sat down cross-legged, Indian-style,” Richard says in the home they previously shared. Blood “was pouring very badly. It wasn’t pulsing like an artery. But he said, ‘Give me the phone, get me so-and-so’s number and get the [hell] outta here.’”
When Richard did that, he got arrested for drunk driving. Instead of calling an attorney, Rich dialed friend Joe Collins and asked him to look in on Tom. Richard got bailed out, but as he was on his way home, the bondsman was told to return to the precinct. An officer asked Richard about the altercation with Tom. Rich told the story as accurately as he could, and as soon as he finished, the detective leaned across the desk.
“Your friend’s dead,” the officer said. “Murder one.”
Amazingly, Tom’s children — Tom Jr. and Cheri Oteri, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member — and Bridgette Fox, their mutual publishing associate, were supportive of Richard, convinced the entire fiasco was unintentional. Richard was held on reckless homicide charges, and the Oteris pleaded with the court and with Richard’s attorney to get help for their late father’s friend.
Richard’s addiction had been an undercurrent of their relationship ever since he and Tom first met in Philadelphia in the mid 1970s. Rich showed up for a meeting two hours late — and drunk — and knocked over three beer cans and a terrarium.
“I like the act so far,” Tom quipped. “If he can sing, we’re taking him with us.”
They began working together in Philly, in Los Angeles and eventually in Nashville with an understanding. Tom put a mild set of rules on Richard’s drinking — no alcohol while working weekdays, no more than two drinks if they were doing dinner at night — and Richard dutifully followed them in a sort of father-son relationship. It worked for three decades with Tom providing some stability for Richard, who was prone to cynicism and depression.
But Richard was, he admits, “an accident waitin’ to happen.” And as time went on, Rich developed a relaxed attitude about the rules.
Things were good for quite a while in Nashville. He earned some late-‘80s hits with Moe Bandy’s “Americana” and Mel McDaniel’s “Real Good Feel Good Song,” and landed the mother lode when the John Michael singles took off for No. 1 the next decade. But the music industry’s cycles can be brutal, and Richard wasn’t quite prepared for things to taper off as quickly as they did.
“I had a four-year run,” he recalls, “and then three years of not a bite or nibble.”
Tom managed to maintain a steadying influence, although things began to unravel for him, too. Their publishing administrator, Peggy Bradley, died of cancer. Tom tried to put on a brave face, but it was the first time he’d been less than a rock on which Richard could lean. Rich didn’t handle it well.
“The last two or three years, you know, I woke up one morning just depressed as hell and it was like that every morning,” Richard says. “It was like Groundhog’s Day, so that was what really set me off.”
That’s when he started breaking the rules regularly. He gradually broke more of them, and more often, until eventually he was completely out of control.
“Towards the end,” he admits, “I thought, ‘You know, tequila in the morning might be a good idea.’”
That was, he adds, “the beginning of the end.”
After that fatal night in 2008, a judge agreed with Richard’s attorney and the Oteris that Richard needed help. He was enrolled at Discovery Place in Burns, Tenn., and began his journey back.
He went through an enormous amount of pain, recognizing his inexorable connection to his friend’s death.
“I was crying, ‘It should’ve been me. It should’ve been me,’” Richard recalls.
Slowly, he began to heal. The obsession with alcohol passed quickly, and he’s never taken another drink since Tom’s passing. He dealt with the depression that had led to their fight, and he started taking full responsibility for his life. And he began to find meaning once again, particularly in his songwriting. He’d grown obsessively focused on duplicating his commercial successes, frustrated when that didn’t happen. He soon realized he’d lost the inspiration that had led to that success in the first place.
“You don’t keep the love of it when you’re just trying to write a hit,” he shrugs.
The program was intended to last 30 days, but as the judicial process wore on, Richard remained at Discovery Place for more than seven months, finding strength and ultimately aiding newcomers to the facility. He was stunned one day to learn the reckless homicide charge was being dropped. Coroners had determined that Tom died not from blood loss but from a heart attack.
In the aftermath of it all, Richard has formed a new publishing company, BroadMinded Music, with Bridgette and Tom Oteri Jr. He still lives in the same house, though the atmosphere’s been brightened and he now writes in the living room, with its vibrant acoustics, instead of a more cloistered room over the garage.
“It was,” Bridgette, his publisher, says, “a year of healing and overcoming — a lot.”
Richard does his best to find humor in the tragedy. He co-wrote a Cledus T. Judd holiday song, “Christmas In Rehab.” And he throws out the occasional quip that makes light of his scarred past.
“Necessity,” he smirks symbolically, “is the mother of intervention.”
Tom will weigh heavily on Richard’s mind at Wednesday’s Alive Hospice fundraiser. Rich is convinced that if he hadn’t lost his friend, he would’ve eventually drank himself to death. Now he’s making amends for what happened, and essentially finding the best possible outcome for a horrible tragedy that he’ll carry with him for good.
“Saul was walkin’ on the road to Damascus when he ran into this dude and it changed him,” Richard says, drawing a parallel to his own revival. “From that moment on, he went around tellin’ everybody what he used to be like, what happened and what he is now, and it’s just that spiritual an experience [for me]. It’s that big a change, and I’m just amazed.”