Members of the Sullivan clan of Wagarville, Alabama, a town of some 500 souls in the southeast corner of the state, have been spreading the gospel through music, at brush arbor gatherings and in backroads churches, from the stages of bluegrass festivals, where they often shared the bill with Bill Monroe himself, and under the lights of the Grand Ole Opry, for the better part of 60 years. The original Sullivan Family Gospel Singers are no more, but 66-year-old Jerry Sullivan and his daughter Tammy are carrying the family legacy of old time gospel ministry in song into the 21st century. Their third record as a duo, Tomorrow, was released this summer on Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Music label. If “Americana” means anything, Tomorrow is it.
The Sullivans recruited ace sidemen who share their faith, and love of rural music, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bass players Mike Bubb of the Del McCoury band and Mark Fain of Kentucky Thunder, Charlie Cushman on banjo, and together they rip through bluegrass numbers like “Walking Through the Fire” and “He Lives” with the same easy precision as they do acoustic country shuffles (“It’ll Be Worth It All”), waltzes (“Praise the Lord”), white blues (“Jesus Cares For Me”), and campfire folk (“Show Me the Way Home”). But the band, as sweet as it is, is there to serve the word, and its medium, voices lifted in praise.
Jerry takes the lead with his plain speaking preacher’s baritone on three tracks, but daughter Tammy is the one with the star power, her pure country contralto suffering not a bit in comparison to top-drawer Nashville talent. She can raise the roof when she wants to, can’t they all, but the considered grace she brings to the the centerpiece title track, a gorgeous ballad, world weary yet hopeful (sacred lyrics or no, it oughta be a hit), is the real measure of her power. It doesn’t hurt that she’s backed here, and all over the record, by four part harmonies that’ll pin your ears back. Band of angels indeed.
Like the Sullivan’s first two releases, A Joyful Noise (1991) and At the Feet of God (1996), Tomorrow belongs as much to country star Marty Stuart as it does to Jerry and Tammy. He produced the sessions, had a hand in writing 10 of the 12 tracks, played guitar and mandolin, and sang harmony. Shoot, he even took the photographs.For Stuart it’s a matter of spiritual affinities, long friendship, and generosity returned. He got his professional start as a member of the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers, touring small community churches of the rural South with the Family while still a teenager in the early 1970s. And between record deals in the mid-‘80s, uncertain about his career, Stuart found welcome refuge on the Sullivan’s bus, playing some of the same churches he had as a kid. As he told Jon Weisberger in Bluegrass News, “It really struck me that if I ever do make it back to a commercial microphone, I need to bring these people with me for at least some part of the ride.” Bring them along he has, and with Tomorrow he’s given as good as he’s gotten.
A Joyful Noise and At the Feet of God both made critics’ year-end lists, and the latter was nominated for a Grammy, albeit in one of the categories that never makes the television cut, and both scarcely registered on mainstream, commercial radar. Tomorrow is likely to live a similar fate, but then white country gospel is a niche market if their ever was one. Sobeit. The Sullivans aren’t preaching the gospel of wealth anyway. If good works count for anything in the end, and who knows, maybe they do, Tomorrow will surely count for something.