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Creative juices flowed in the family. Lyle Garrett, the oldest brother, sang on Broadway and starred in European productions of The Phantom of the Opera. Mimi starred in musicals at the Springer Theatre in Columbus and modeled in Paris. Bill, the youngest, played the guitar and sang, but his ambition outstripped his natural talent.
Bill, now 40, was always different from the other kids in the family. He was the problem child, clearly affected by the death of his father. "Bill was only 2 when that happened," Mimi told me. "He spent many of his waking hours as a kid trying to find his daddy."
When he was 19, Bill dug one of his father's old suits out of mothballs. He parted his hair like his dad, and had his mother take a picture of him wearing the suit and holding his father's Bible. "He wanted to be like him," says Mimi. "And everyone who knew our father says Bill is just like his daddy."
Another thing about Bill: Once he'd become obsessed with something, there was no stopping him – until the next thing came along. There was the bodybuilding phase in high school. The rock 'n' roll phase. The political phase in college when he interned for U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and ran (unsuccessfully) for the Waleska City Council. And then there was the make-a-lot-of-money phase after he graduated from Georgia State.
But those were nothing until Bill latched onto his greatest and longest-lasting obsession of all: the become-a-country-music-star phase.
THE NEXT THING you need to know about my brother is that he is always late. To give you an idea of how bad he is, a few weeks ago we were meeting at 8 o'clock to go to a show, and he called at 7:45 to "warn me" that he was actually going to be on time.
So I'm not surprised on the night I'm supposed to interview him that I'm standing alone inside the vast expanse of Wild Bill's – the huge country-music club he built in Duluth – and he's just texted me that he's running late. The first time I was in the club was during the final phases of construction in 2003. Its sheer enormity overwhelmed me then, and it still does. I mean, he built a club that holds more people than the Fox Theatre, and built it explicitly as a venue for him to perform.
When he arrives (90 minutes after our original meeting time, which, for him, is good) we greet each other with a hug. He has such a disarming smile, and it's impossible to stay angry at him. He is tall and lanky, with a Keith Urbanish haircut complete with blond highlights, and eyes that are focused and intense. His clothes, even his jeans, are custom-tailored to ensure a perfect fit.
We walk back to the small rehearsal room he's had built in the back of the club to do something we've never done before: talk as journalist interviewing singer. It allows me to ask questions I've never asked before, and I quickly realize I don't know my brother as well as I thought I did. Our lives have had more parallels than I'd realized. Like me, his entire identity in high school was music. We each had garage bands; we each worked as roadies for local bands. After college, we each veered away from music – me into journalism and he into a data-collection business he founded with one of his college friends.
In the meantime, the three youngest kids all scattered away from home – Bill to Gwinnett County, Mimi to Phoenix, me to Macon and then Rhode Island. When Mimi returned in 1997 after a long absence, Bill hatched another one of his grand schemes: a band called the Gentrys. "She and I had grown apart because she was living in Arizona, and I thought a good way to get to know each other again was through music, for us to sing together," he says.
Their first paying gig was at the Country Star in Buckhead, now the ESPN Zone. The room was filled with all of Bill's frat brothers and every friend he could convince to come out. As first gigs go, it was pretty dreadful. Their "band" was a bass player.
"I still have nightmares about that night," Mimi recalls. "We played three sets of 10 songs apiece, and every song had a bass solo."
For Bill, the duo with our sister may have begun with a noble motive, but quickly evolved into a different monster. Mimi remembers Bill making her promise that she'd stick with him until they reached Nashville.
Bill had made a fortune with his data company, and had money to spend to promote the Gentrys, and hired the best musicians he could find for the backup band. He paid, conservatively, $20,000 in 1998 to produce a self-released CD of all-original songs, never mind that neither one of my siblings were songwriters. "He said he'd done market research on hit albums and told me what songs he wanted," Mimi says with a laugh. "There had to be three slow songs, one in a minor key, three midtempo songs and one song with a double entendre." They dashed off seven new songs and hit the studio three weeks later.
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