Sadly, once in a while one of my favorite musical artists dies. It doesn’t happen often, let alone one of the most important figures in Rock ‘n’ Roll history.
It affects me in different ways each time, ranging from “Oh, that’s too bad” to the way I feel right now, which is really, really sad. News that Vern Gosdin had passed away from a stroke on April 28 at age 74 — peacefully as I understand it — put me in that place. I am glad to have an actual venue to write an obituary for him because in those rare cases I usually write one anyway, just for my own self-exploration.
I guess the last one was Zevon, with its rather obvious “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” theme, which was how he legitimately had lived in the first place. Too much so, in fact. I am pretty sure some tears welled up when I listened to “Carmelita” that day.
When Wally Tax, the near-destitute lead singer of the [Dutch] Outsiders (not the “Time Won’t Let Me” group, who were from Ohio), who had been riddled with severe health problems and died at age 57 in April of 2005, it literally changed my life. It hadn’t been so easy to write his obituary since most of the details of his life were in Dutch, but instead was restricted to my feelings, which were worsening by the day leading up to a planned tribute webcast wherein all of the members of the original Outsiders played song after song in a three hour event on a stage covered with flowers and ribbons. The song of his which still gives me the gooseflesh, as they say over there, is “You’re Everything On Earth”.
My first web funeral.
As I sat by myself and watched the webcast, I cried like a baby but was happy that a man who had died penniless, in ridiculously acute ill health, and in relative obscurity to be forever damned to the mistaken tethering to frat/psych nuggetry, had in fact received a decent sendoff in his home country, which incidentally is part of my absurdly complex ethnic heritage. Better we don’t get into how I took the deaths of Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. Or Epic Soundtracks. What is it about these deaths that gets to me?
I think it’s “The Voice,” which just so happened to be Vern Gosdin’s nickname — quite an honor in itself, don’t you think? It was also the title of his final album. I think that is the answer for me, which is the intimacy and nuance that we share and share again with the voices that we allow into our homes, cars, pods, heads and ultimately, into our hearts.
Vern Gosdin will have died with his share of accolades in the world of country music — nearly twenty top-10 U.S. country hits, including the chart-topping and hooky “I Can Tell By the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)”. In fact, I don’t think Vern would have liked to go without a nod to the different lyricists he worked with over the years, including the incredible Max D. Barnes, his brother Rex Gosdin or Vernon Reed and a special nod to the music of Albert E. Brumley (“I’ll Fly Away”), but somehow I also feel like he meets or exceeds the threshold of amusing country music lyrics — you know the ones — you play ‘em backwards and you get your house back, your girl back and your dog back. His song titles like “Weekends Were Made For Cheatin’”, “If You’re Going To Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)” and the relatively famous ones like, “No One Calls From Vegas Just To Say Hello” and “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”, gives an insight into the abundance of his obligatory countrified whimsy and yet his range of emotional depth was remarkable. I cannot recommend highly enough his gospel album, entitled “The Gospel Album”. His constant cycle of inveterate cheating and devastating loneliness are somehow a potent, if not untrodden, source of true musical magic.
To be honest, I am not very knowledgeable about such matters but I hope and somehow expect that Vern will someday make the Country Music Hall of Fame (whatever that is).
Smitten though I am with nearly the entirety of his Country output — (be wary of the commercial Chiseled In Stone (the title track was 1988′s CMA Song of the Year), 10 Years of Greatest Hits – Newly Recorded, and I think that if you can even find them, the albums Alone and the Silver Eagle sessions are for fans only) — I came across Vern’s music in the same backhanded way that is not only fairly typical, but which actually illustrates his stature as literally one of the most important figures in U.S. Rock ‘n’ Roll history as well.
A native of Alabama, Vern moved to the LA area in 1961, where he met up with his brother Rex to reunite The Gosdin Brothers, who had performed as a four brother outfit on the radio as teens back in Birmingham in the 50s. Instead, the brothers fell serendipitously into a bluegrass group called the Golden State Boys led by Chris Hillman, later to become a Byrds founding member. It wasn’t long before the group changed its name to The Hillmen and recorded an album under that name in Hollywood around 1963, which already included the involvement of Byrds mentors Jim Dickson and John Delgatto. Different from the pure folk/bluegrass coming from the East Coast or such “progessive bluegrass” acts as The Country Gentlemen — as everyone at that time had cut their teeth on the Harry Smith collection — The Hillmen used a mix of traditional numbers, songs penned by Vern and Rex and also employed the soon-to-become-familiar formula of songwriting source Bob Dylan for their album. It wasn’t long before a threesome of Gene Clark, David Crosby and Roger McGuinn had their serendipitous meeting at the Troubadour, eventually to recruit Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, all as founding members of The Byrds.
That part, as they say, is Rock ‘n’ Roll history, but there are a few footnotes: The Gosdin Brothers (Vern and Rex) released the sneakily fantastic Sounds of Goodbye album on Capitol in 1968, produced by Jim Dickson and ultra-rich with harmonies, which cracked the country chart at #39.
When Gene Clark, the principal songwriter (aside from Dylan) of the original Byrds line-up, elected to leave the Byrds quite early on in 1966 — due to some vicious internal politics and, ironically, after co-writing “Eight Miles High” (Clark had a fear of flying) — he called on the Gosdins and Hillman amongst a myriad others to help him put his legendary epic solo debut together. Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, released in 1967 is not only a great album (now available as the reissue Echoes with extra material), but is arguably the first evidence of what we now take for granted as West Coast Country Rock.
And thus, as requested in his song “Bury Me In A Jukebox”, we lay to rest Vern Gosdin not just as a Country Music legend but as a significant figure in the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“Time Stood Still” (“when we said goodbye”).
Set ‘Em Up Joe…