“The Voice” Remembered: A Tribute to Vern Gosdin
The ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith are all that is required to be known as “The Voice.” Unfortunately, very few possess the ability to do all that and what’s more unfortunate, we lost one of those few–possibly the best of those few–today with the death of Vern Gosdin at the age of 74.
Born in Woodland Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-83) first surfaced in the American conscious during the late 1960s as a duo in Southern California. Despite their inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers’ bluegrass/country/rock never achieved great success.
The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.
Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which later stars such as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.
In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity–so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast and prevented Morgan or Cash from having a major hit with the song.
Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.
The Voice Returns
Vern Gosdin never completely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By that time he was past forty years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.
Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on small labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.
After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.
Between 1978 and 1988, Gosdin would chart 27 more U.S. country chart hits, including chart toppers in “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” He was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.
“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Other than George Jones and Roy Orbison, the world has never known a performer as expressive and capable of conveying the emotions of loneliness, despair, desolation and heartbreak as Vern Gosdin.
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