Vern Gosdin

TrackAlbum / Single
If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong
(Do It Right)
If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong
(Do It Right)
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke
(And Loud, Loud Music)
Time Stood Still
Jesus Hold My HandThe Gospel Album
I'll Fly AwayThe Gospel Album
Do You Believe Me NowChiseled In Stone
Set 'Em Up JoeChiseled In Stone
That Just About Does ItAlone
Take Me Home To AlabamaAlone
This Ain't My First RodeoColumbia 38-73491
Once And For AllOut Of My Heart
Bonus Track
Chiseled In StoneChiseled In Stone

Vern Gosdin photo 1

 

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Vern Gosdin playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Interviewer: Is there a songwriter in American history whom you wished people knew more about?

Willie Nelson: Vern Gosdin. He’s a guy who kind of got lost along the way, but he’s one of my favorite all-time songwriters.

Interviewer: What song do you have to hear once a week?

Willie Nelson: ‘Chiseled In Stone’ by Vern Gosdin, from the 80s. If you don’t know it, it’s not anything I could tell you. When you hear it you’ll say, “Okay, now I know what Willie’s talking about.”

*

So, I learned – I learned from the best. From Vern Gosdin – who could ask for a better mentor as a singer?” Chris Hillman

 

That remarkable voice is the first thing you notice on almost any of Vern Gosdin’s records. Supple, fluid, mellifluous, it marked him out as one of the finest singers ever to appear in the history of country music. When combined with that resonant twang, which he used sparingly but to great effect, this marked him out as a vocal stylist of rare quality. Most of his best work was done at a comparatively late stage in his life. At that time, his voice had acquired a slightly gritty edge which gave it an even greater emotional depth than it previously had. Along with this, Gosdin also possessed a mastery of phrasing and an understated, yet often devastating, skill as an interpreter of songs. Along with other great male country singers such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Randy Travis, he was the master of letting the words do the work and he rarely oversang on any of the songs that he recorded. Like them, he had a well-developed skill at suggesting the depth that could be hidden behind a mask of stoical ‘manly’ restraint. Few could match him – perhaps George Jones was his only rival in this regard – at singing songs about heartbreak.

Gosdin’s early musical career was an unusual one. It involved more than the usual share of missed opportunities and close brushes with success which never quite worked out as he had intended. It also involved a varied range of musical styles, which included gospel, bluegrass, folk, folk-rock, country rock (then in its early phase), and country. It brought Gosdin into the orbit of people like Gene Clark and Chris Hillman who played a pivotal role in the emergence of what would nowadays be described as ‘Americana’ music. While later in his life Gosdin seemed like the quintessential ‘Nashville cat’, his emergence in that role was far from inevitable. Indeed, there were times when his musical life could have taken a very different musical trajectory. To understand the unusual direction his career took, it is necessary first to look at his personal background.

 

TAKE ME HOME TO ALABAMA

Gosdin was born in Woodland, Alabama in 1934. His first musical experiences came through the local church, where he sang gospel with the rest of his family. This sparked a lifelong interest in arranging harmonies, an interest which achieved its most perfect expression on his classic country-gospel album, If Jesus Comes Tomorrow (What Then) – later released simply as The Gospel Album. At the same time, Gosdin was developing an interest in country music, especially in vocal groups like the Louvin Brothers (he can be seen here singing with Emmylou Harris and Charlie Louvin). Eventually, their shared interest in these and similar artists led Vern and his brother Rex to form their own group. Initially they performed mostly gospel music and secured their own show on a local radio station, WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, they branched into bluegrass, forming a band called The Golden State Boys along with Hal Poindexter on guitar and Don Parmley on banjo.

When Poindexter left the band in 1962, they replaced him with a young mandolin wizard, Chris Hillman. His growing popularity with audiences led to their decision to rename the group as The Hillmen.

 

(l-r) Chris Hillman, Don Parmley, Rex Gosdin, Vern Gosdin

 

Under this new name, the group made its first recordings. These were produced by Jim Dickson, who is best known perhaps for his work with groups like the Dillards and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The sessions also included covers of songs by a wide range of artists including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Although the recordings were of quite a high quality, Elektra Records eventually decided not to release them and they did not appear until several years later on the Together Records label. The group’s lack of commercial success, however, led Chris Hillman to leave them and join the recently formed pioneering folk-rock group, the Byrds. His departure led Vern and Rex to resurrect their duo partnership and for the next few years they performed as the Gosdin Brothers. Their association with Hillman meant that they occasionally opened for his new band. In this way, they formed a close association with some of its members including Gene Clark.

As a result, when Clark left the Byrds in 1966, he recruited Vern and Rex to sing harmony vocals on his debut solo album, Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers (subsequently rereleased as Echoes). Although it was a fine record, like many of Clark’s other solo projects it did not achieve the kind of commercial success it deserved. Nevertheless, their association with the Byrds and with Clark gave the Gosdin brothers a degree of credibility with audiences who might not otherwise have listened to their music. This new audience also led them to lean more towards a country-rock sound than they had earlier in their career.

Their new direction is best illustrated on their 1968 album, Sounds Of Goodbye. It has some similarities to the recordings which Gordon Lightfoot was then making with United Artists. Both have a similar folkish-country feel. The Gosdins album, however, is distinctive for their superb harmonies, most notably on those such as the title track. What is interesting about their work at this time is that it indicates alternative musical directions which Vern could have followed in his career. In this regard, it was notable that one of his songs, There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To), was covered by the Byrds on their 1968 album The Ballad Of Easy Rider where it was sung by Gene Parsons.

This shift in musical style did not, however, bring the brothers the commercial success which they had hoped for. Ultimately, they decided to split up as a duo. While Rex continued in the music business, Vern had become so disillusioned that he started a glass company which he ran for several years in Atlanta. He did, however, continue to gig intermittently and harboured ambitions to revive his musical career. In a renewed attempt to do so, he recorded two demos with Emmylou Harris, Hangin’ On (a later version can be heard here) and Yesterday’s Gone. These proved good enough to win Gosdin a contract with Elektra Records. For the remainder of his career, he worked as what could be described as a ‘pure’ country singer. It had always been his favourite style of music and he now emerged as one of the standard bearers of the ‘traditional’ wing of the genre.

 

The only other singer who can hold a candle to George Jones.” Tammy Wynette

They called him ‘The Voice’, and they didn’t call him that for nothing. He had such restraint, and restraint intensifies emotion. He trusted the song and the melody. People don’t realise how difficult it is to put across a country song with a complete economy of notes and phrasing. Vern did that as well as anyone. A great, great singer.” Emmylou Harris

I was especially pleased that Vern Gosdin was on the album. I loved to hear Vern sing. He wasn’t as well known as George, Conway or Merle, but he was a country purist who did things with his voice that I admired.” Randy Travis

I can’t tell you how much his music meant to me. If anyone wants to know, ‘Was he really that good?’ they can just listen to Chiseled In Stone or Do You Believe Me Now. He was really that good. The guy was a walking heartache.” Jamey Johnson

 

SET ˈEM UP JOE

My selections all come from the series of classic albums that Gosdin made between 1983 and 1991. In this golden (as it were) phase of his career, his records managed to combine sustained commercial success with the maintenance of a high standard of artistic excellence. His albums in this period were all superbly produced. They also managed to a find a balance between the creation of a commercial sound with the retention of a rootsy quality in line with the singer’s traditionalist leanings. For much of this period, Gosdin was working with an inspired set of musical collaborators. These included the great Hank Cochran (who had already written songs for artists of the quality of Patsy Cline, Ray Price and Merle Haggard) and Max D. Barnes. Their assistance helped to bring Gosdin’s own songwriting up to an entirely new level of excellence.

My first choice here, If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right), is a classic ‘infidelity’ song, which, however, has a clever twist in its lyric. It is made even more powerful by Gosdin’s controlled delivery which gives the song an added emotional depth.

By contrast, Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music) manages to pull off the feat being both a classic honky-tonk song while condemning the honky-tonk life at the same time.

As we saw earlier, Vern Gosdin’s earliest musical experiences were in gospel music. As a result, it was maybe inevitable that he would return at some point to the genre. It was also a style of music which was uniquely suited to his keen interest and, indeed, his superb skill in arranging harmony vocals. This skill came to the fore in his classic The Gospel Album, first released in 1985. My selections from it, Jesus Hold My Hand and I’ll Fly Away are both masterclasses in the art of country gospel singing.

They clearly show the pleasure which Gosdin took in returning to the music of his youth.

In my opinion, Gosdin’s 1987 album Chiseled In Stone is his masterpiece and ranks high among the very best country albums ever made. On it, he shows an absolute mastery of his craft both as a writer and interpreter of country songs. My first pick from it, Do You Believe Me Now, is one of the greatest depictions of a completely broken character in the genre. As Emmylou Harris pointed out in the quote above, one of Gosdin’s great strengths as a singer was his “restraint”. This song is a classic example of his skill in that regard. Gosdin’s music was also deeply steeped in country music history and on Set ˈEm Up Joe he pays tribute to a number of his predecessors, including Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.

Alone, the album which Gosdin released after Chiseled, was not quite as good as its predecessor, but it was still a very fine album. Unusually for country music, it was designed as a concept album. It was built around Gosdin’s recent divorce, with songs like That Just About Does It reflecting the circumstances which had led up to it.

By contrast, Take Me Home To Alabama is a beautiful tribute to his native state. Its nostalgic tone may also have reflected Gosdin’s desire to return to more innocent times.

Unusually for Gosdin songs, my last two selections are relatively lighthearted ones. This Ain’t My First Rodeo displays a nicely droll sense of humour, while Once And For All (from his 1991 album) actually depicts a happy relationship. Both feature typically excellent vocal performances.

 

By this point in his career, Vern Gosdin had established himself as one of the greatest country singers who ever lived. Only a small handful of artists could match his mastery at singing songs about heartbreak or damaged lives. As Robert Christgau has said about another great country singer, Randy Travis, Gosdin’s “pain and caring” were expressed through his mastery of “inflection, casual melismas, and sudden little shifts of grain and note value”. In a sense, his art was the art “that disguises art” and it worked best through restraint and understatement. For this reason, perhaps, he has never fully been given his due by music critics. For the fans who labelled him ‘The Voice’, however, his superb qualities as a vocalist were always apparent.

 

BONUS TRACK

Chiseled In Stone belongs in any shortlist of quintessential country songs – along with ones like He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and I Never Go Around Mirrors by Lefty Frizzell. Like the first of these, in other hands it could have descended into the realms of the maudlin or the mawkish. Instead Gosdin’s vocal mastery and emotional restraint transforms it into a classic of the genre.

 

 

 

Vern Gosdin photo 2

Vernon Gosdin (1934–2009)

 

The Official Vern Gosdin Website

Vern Gosdin Discography

No Pain, No Gain: Vern Gosdin Is Panning For Gold In The Ashes Of Love (Phoenix New Times 1991)

Vern Gosdin: Late Bloomer by Jack Hurst (Chicago Tribune 1988)

Alan Cackett’s website: Vern Gosdin

Nu Country TV: Dave’s Diary 2009 – Vern Gosdin interview
A few of the quotes above are sourced from this webpage

Vern Gosdin biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Byrds, Gene Clark, Patsy Cline, Dillards, Flying Burrito Brothers, Lefty Frizzell, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, George Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, Pete Seeger, Randy Travis, Tammy Wynette

TopperPost #990

8 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Oct 24, 2021

    What a voice. It’s interesting to ponder on the notion of music as a meritocracy. The train wreck that was the life of equally great singer George Jones didn’t prevent George’s voice giving him fame snd fortune. Yet Vern lies on the periphery. Nonetheless, Vern should be much better known. And I think this is a terrific introduction.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Oct 24, 2021

    Excellent Topper Andrew and why, oh why isn’t this man better known? I suspect very few are aware of Vern in the UK and expect the same is true in Oz. I also appreciated the info on Chris Hillman; I’d always intended to research him properly but never did so. He was pushing the Byrds in a country direction well before Gram came along.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Oct 25, 2021

    David and Dave – thanks for the kind words. It is an interesting question as to why Vern is not better known outside US. It may be partly down to the relative shortness of the period in which he was most commercially successful.
    Unlike people like George Jones, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash say he did not have hits over several decades. As a result he had not built up the same type of profile overseas as they had. His career had an unusual trajectory to say the least.
    As an aside, Chris Hillman regularly expressed his gratitude to Vern as an early mentor. In his autobiography he also refers to Vern’s taste for terrible jokes.

  4. Steve Paine
    Nov 17, 2021

    Thanks for this very insightful piece. Vern was blessed with sounding a lot like George, but perhaps cursed with sounding a bit too much like George. At least that’s how I remember his Country radio persona here in the US, where casual listeners often mistook the two. Whatever the reason(s) for Vern’s relatively peripheral career, you captured the essence of his delivery with “the depth that could be hidden behind a mask of stoical ‘manly’ restraint”.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Nov 20, 2021

    Thanks for kind words Steve. The comparison with George is a very apt one. While researching the piece came across a story that George had phoned Vern when the ‘Chiseled ‘ album came out to say how much he liked it. Maybe the ultimate compliment for a country singer?

    • Steve Paine
      Nov 23, 2021

      Indeed. If Vern had come to the attention of Country fans before George, the ultimate compliment might still have travelled between them, but in the opposite direction. I noted another similarity in “I’ll Fly Away”, this time to Ralph Stanley. That singing style, with its Primitive Baptist origins, stops me in my tracks every time.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Nov 24, 2021

    Steve, thanks for your comment which sent me off on a tangent which led me to discover this. Would add that Vern’s gospel album is a magnificent record.

  7. Steve Paine
    Nov 24, 2021

    Thanks again, Andrew. I didn’t know they had sung together. Wonderful.

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