Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Honoree Vern Gosdin Remembered as 'One of the Best of All Time'
"Vern Gosdin will always be known as ‘The Voice’ and when he sings 'If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong, Do It Right,' it's as about as close to country music perfection as you can get," says Emmylou Harris.
On Alan Jackson’s tour this year, sharing a bill with Lee Ann Womack, the country star found himself thinking often about the late Vern Gosdin, who will be inducted Oct. 23 into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
"He was one of the best singers of all time, without a doubt,” Jackson says of Gosdin, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 74. “He made some great records and he wrote some great songs too. I still love 'Till the End' that I recorded with Lee Ann a few years ago. And I think of him most every night on tour these days, 'cause she comes back out during my set and sings it with me.”
Jackson is far from alone in his admiration.
“Vern Gosdin will always be known as ‘The Voice’ and when he sings ‘If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong, Do It Right,’ it's as about as close to country music perfection as you can get,” says Emmylou Harris. And she’s right. With a string of hits that includes such classics as “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” “Today My World Slipped Away,” “I’m Still Crazy” and “Chiseled in Stone,” Gosdin is as revered a country stylist as George Jones and Merle Haggard.
What many don’t realize is that in addition to bringing those songs to life with his mournful baritone, Gosdin was also one of Nashville’s most accomplished songwriters -- and that gift is being recognized with his hall of fame induction.
“Vern Gosdin was one of country music's great interpreters of a well-written song,” notes Pat Alger, chair of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation. “A cross between Don Williams and George Jones, he was so good in fact that it was easy to overlook the fact that he was also a top-notch songwriter. Songs like ‘Chiseled in Stone,’ “Do You Believe Me Now,’ ‘If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong Do It Right’ and ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’ all became classics and have now propelled him into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
Gosdin will be inducted into the hall of fame as an artist/songwriter, along with this year's songwriter honorees: Walt Aldridge, Jim McBride, Dewayne Blackwell and Tim Nichols.
Like many country artists, Gosdin began singing in church, standing before the congregation at the Bethel East Baptist Church in Woodland, Alabama, while his mother played piano. He and his brothers began singing on a local gospel radio station in Birmingham.
In 1961, Gosdin and his brother Rex moved to California where they became part of the bluegrass group The Golden State Boys that included Hal Poindexter on guitar and Don Parmley on banjo. When Poindexter left the group, he was replaced by Chris Hillman and the group’s name evolved into The Hillmen.
“I remember hearing Vern for the first time when he and his brother Rex were performing with The Hillmen,” recalls bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson. “The songs they were doing were not the usual bluegrass songs one heard at that time. Their music had some folk music overtones but with the drive and intensity of bluegrass.”
“What stood out,” Lawson adds, “was the trio harmony work by Vern, Rex and Don Parmley. After I got to know Vern, I soon realized that he loved to sing harmony as much as I do and that's saying a lot! Anytime we were on a show together, he would be on my bus singing or I would be on his. And I think that his love for harmony vocals are very evident in the recordings he made.”
Hillman also has fond memories of working with Gosdin. “Vern was one of my first mentors and along with his brother, Rex, opened up a whole world of music to me,” says Hillman, who became a founding member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band.
“I was barely 18 years old when I started working in the Golden State Boys, back in 1963,” says Hillman. “Vern was like a big brother to me and guided me on my journey into bluegrass and country music. I couldn’t have been given a better education. We managed to keep in touch through the years and I was so happy when he achieved worldwide recognition with his many country hits. A fantastic singer, a prolific songwriter and whenever I hear ‘Do You Believe Me Now’ on the radio, it still gives me chills. An amazing talent and a wonderful friend; I will always be thankful that he came into my life those many years ago.”
Gosdin moved to Atlanta in the early 1970s and worked in retail until he reconnected with Harris, who he had known since his clubs days in California. The two recorded a two songs -- “Yesterday’s Gone” and “Hangin’ On” -- which led to Gosdin signing with Elektra Records and earning a top 10 hit with “Yesterday’s Gone” in 1977.
Gosdin scored his first No. 1 single in 1984 with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight).” He moved to Columbia Records in the late '80s, recording a string of career-defining hits such as “Who You Gonna Blame It On This Time,” “That Just About Does It,” “Right in the Wrong Direction,” “Set’ Em Up Joe,” “I’m Still Crazy,” “Today My World Slipped Away,” “Is It Raining at Your House” and “Chiseled in Stone,” a heart-wrenching ballad he co-wrote with Max D. Barnes, which won the CMA song of the year award in 1989.
Writer/producer Buddy Cannon became friends with Gosdin when the two were living outside Nashville in Kingston Springs, Tennessee. “One of my neighbors told me that some singer named Vern Gosdin had just moved into a duplex about a quarter mile up the road from me,” recalls Cannon. “I stopped and knocked on his door and there he came to the door. I introduced myself to him and told him I was a songwriter and I worked for Mel Tillis and I’ve got a couple songs I’d like for you to hear.
“He says, ‘Son, bring them down here and let me hear them.’ The next day I stopped and gave him a cassette with nine or 10 songs and the last song on there was ‘Dream of Me.’ He flipped out over the song and cut it. It became a top 10 record [No. 7 on Hot Country Songs in 1981]. From that point on, we just became friends and started writing songs together. I started going out and hanging out with him on the road and he’d come over to our house for dinner many nights when he was off the road.”
Cannon co-wrote several Gosdin hits, among them “Set 'Em Up Joe” and “I’m Still Crazy.” “Vern was gifted as a singer,” Cannon says. “There was just a total uniqueness to his tone and the emotion in his voice, and the way he voiced harmony parts. He always told the harmony singers exactly what he wanted them to sing. Sometimes those guys would question whether or not he was right about what he was telling them until they got it the way he told them. Then they understood because it was stuff that theoretically would not be correct, but it worked. He was a totally unique singer and thinker, and he was a great songwriter.”
Though one of country music’s most beloved and respected artists, Gosdin generally kept his distance from the Nashville establishment.
“Complicated is a really good description of Vern,” says Cannon, who had breakfast with Gosdin at a little cafe every morning for years. “He was so good that people wanted to be around him, but he’d rather be home. He was a bit of a loner. He was not a very trusting person. He didn’t have a lot of real close friends.”
Gosdin died April 28, 2009, at a Nashville hospital following a stroke. Though nearly two decades since his passing, he continues to influence today’s country artists.
“Vern's legacy is that he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, technical country singers to have ever lived,” says Josh Turner. “He wasn't called 'The Voice' for no reason. The combination of his songs and his voice evoke emotion like nothing else. Nothing was ever forced but he owned each song he sang. His familiarity with each of his songs made them feel extremely natural and heartfelt to the listener. He was a great songwriter because he was such a great singer. His vocal ability took his songs to another level musically. Lyrically, they were either clever or heart-wrenching or made you feel good without any curveballs being thrown at you. I was a huge admirer of his work.”
One of Gosdin’s landmark records was his faith-based offering, The Gospel Album, released in 1995. Country gospel artist Bradley Walker says Gosdin’s rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” inspired the track on his new album Blessed.
“It comes straight from Vern’s arrangement because he turned ‘I’ll Fly Away’ into somewhat of a ballad,” says Walker. “I loved Vern. He never really got the credit that he deserved. As much credit that he did get, I don’t think it was enough for the kind of a singer he was. Here’s a guy whose career was built on ballads. There were a few up-tempo things, but his career was built on these strong country ballads. Do you think anyone could do that in this day in time? Probably nobody.”
Those who knew Gosdin best feel his legacy will continue to shine.
“The opening line of the song ‘Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes,’ recorded by George Jones, says, ‘You know this old world is full of singers, but only a few are chosen.’ And it's my firm belief that Vern was one of the chosen,” says Lawson. “He had that ‘it’ that allowed him to reach deep into his heart and soul and put lyrics to paper, then sing them with emotion that dripped with heartache, pain and sadness and sometimes a lighter, happier delivery on songs like ‘This Ain't My First Rodeo’ and ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe.’”
Lawson continues, “Have you ever noticed that many times artist who have made tremendous impact on the world of music have a nickname or moniker? Merle ‘The Hag’ Haggard, George ‘Possum’ Jones, Marty ‘Mr. Teardrop’ Robbins and Vern ‘The Voice’ Gosdin. All of the men mentioned here were unique, each one doing it their way and all of them leaving a legacy that lives on. I was proud and honored to call [Vern] friend.”