Jimmy Fortune Says 'Hits & Hymns' Album Title Came to Him 'Like the Snap of a Finger'

Jarrett Gaza
Jimmy Fortune

Jimmy Fortune earned his reputation as one of the purest tenor singers in the format due to his 21-year stint as a member of The Statler Brothers. However, that didn't seem to help him when the group retired in fall 2002. Less than two weeks later, Fortune was on the road again -- this time as a solo artist.

The first act he opened for was none other than one of the Statlers' biggest competition among vocal groups: The Oak Ridge Boys.

"They put me on some shows with them, to help me get my feet wet. I had been with a group for 21 years, so it was going to take some getting used to. The Oaks really allowed me that platform," Fortune tells Billboard. "I remember the first show was in Ohio. I was standing on the side of the stage and was so scared. I didn't think I could do it. They introduced me, and I remember that I couldn't even see my legs, they were shaking so much. All of a sudden, I saw these apples roll onstage, and one landed right beside of me. Everybody was laughing, and I looked over and saw Joe Bonsall. He saw how nervous I was. Later on, I told him I appreciated what he did, and it really helped me to settle down so I could continue on. He said, 'Man, I was just trying to mess you up. I wasn't trying to help you.'"

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Along with Alabama, the Oaks and the Statlers were the dominant vocal groups in the format in the 1980s. However, Fortune stresses it was friendly competition. "We had a mutual respect for each other. The Statlers had been around since the 1960s, and everything progresses. Nothing stays the same. We knew that, and they did too. We were two different entities."

Fortune -- a decade into his solo career -- released a new disc Friday (Oct. 23) called Hits & Hymns (along with a DVD of the same title hosted by gospel legend Bill Gaither). It's a project that he says has been in the works for a while, but it really took off when the Gaither company got involved -- a fact that he owes to an old friend.

"Bill Carter, who works for the Gaither organization -- he used to work for President Kennedy and was Keith Richards' attorney -- got me to sing at a Johnny Cash event in Arkansas. After the show was over, he came up to me and said he wanted to put me together with Bill Gaither and do a project. I thought he was just being nice, but sure enough I got a call from Barry Jennings, Bill's son-in-law, to have a meeting with them. I remember asking them if they might want to get involved, and they said, 'There's no might about it.' I was kind of taken aback. Everything solo I've done has been on my own, and it's gone well. We were happy and making a good living. But this came along, and it has really taken on a new energy. When you have the Gaither organization behind you, you're tapped into a lot bigger audience."

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Hits & Hymns contains guest appearances from acts such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Sonya Isaacs. The project is a mixture of some inspirational classics, new material and a few Statler Brothers hits, such as "Elizabeth" and "More Than a Name on a Wall" -- both of which the singer wrote. One of the newer songs on the album is the thought-provoking "If I Were God." Fortune shared the story of how the song came to be.

"I was going in to write one day with Tom Botkin and Jon Henderson. I didn't have a title, so I remember actually just praying for one that day. This came into my mind like the snap of a finger. We got together and started discussing things that had happened in our lives, like my dad having cancer, or some of their friends getting killed by a drunk driver, and we put all the scenarios together for the song. It drives it home how there are so many things we can't do, and God can do that. He can put breath into a person, and he gave his life for his son to die on a cross. I couldn't do that. I couldn't give up one of my loved ones. That's why even though we think we have better answers than he does, he's always got the better answer."