Vern Gosdin

Known for years as The Voice, Vern Gosdin was a traditional-sounding, honky-tonk singer whose success was a long time in coming. The Alabama-born performer had played bluegrass, West Coast country-rock and rock’n’roll, but he was most at home with his impeccably pure honky-tonk style, which finally gained him full recognition as a fifty-year-old ‘New Traditionalist’ country star in the late 1980s. Prior to that he had enjoyed some modest chart success throughout the 1970s and early 1980s with Yesterday’s Gone, Never My Love, Today My World Slipped Away and Don’t Ever Leave Me Again. In the early 1950s he was part of The Gosdin Family Gospel Radio Show in Birmingham, Alabama. Later came stints as a night club singer in Atlanta, a welder and a club owner in Chicago. Moving to the West Coast in the early 1960s, along with his brother Rex, he was at the forefront of the burgeoning California bluegrass scene. He formed The Golden State Boys, a bluegrass outfit, then joined Chris Hillman in The Hillmen and was invited to join The Byrds in 1964, just as they were about to sign their record deal with Columbia. He declined and teamed up with Rex to work as The Gosdin Brothers, scoring a top forty country hit with Hangin’ On in 1967 and landing a contract with Capitol Records. By the early 1970s he had moved back to Atlanta and was working as a door-to-door salesman. Vern Gosdin was plucked out of relative obscurity to make a new start in Nashville in 1977. His hard country sound in the early Urban Cowboy days made his climb to the top slow, but steady, but he finally broke through with the chart-topping I Can Tell By the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight) in 1984.

Born August 5, 1934, in Woodland, Alabama, the sixth in a family of nine children, he learned to play guitar with the help of an older brother. When the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama in 1951 they had their own daily Gosdin Family Gospel Show on radio KVOX. In 1953 he moved to Atlanta where he worked as a singer in the evening. Three years later he had moved to Chicago where he worked as a welder then later managing a country music night club. He moved to California in 1960, with his younger brother Rex and formed The Golden State Boys with Dave Parmley (later the founder of The Bluegrass Cardinals). When Chris Hillman joined the band, it became known as The Hillmen. In 1964 Hillman left to join The Byrds, a more modern, folk-rock band, the invitation also included Vern, but not Rex, so he declined. Working as The Gosdin Brothers, they enjoyed notable success on the West Coast, opening for The Byrds and other acts and recording for the Bakersfield International label. In 1968, signed to Capitol, they released the album SOUNDS OF GOODBYE, the title song being an early Eddie Rabbitt composition.

By 1970 they were finding it hard to make a living in music so split-up. Vern, his wife Cathy and two children moved back to Atlanta. He started selling glassware door-to-door, eventually operating his own successful glass and mirror business. Gary S. Paxton, who had produced the Capitol recordings, encouraged Vern to make a fresh start in Nashville. He recorded a new version of Hangin’ On, with Emmylou Harris singing harmony. Released on Elektra, it made the country top twenty in 1977, but the b-side, Yesterday’s Gone, did even better, rising to number nine. He followed with more hits including Till The End, Never My Love and Break My Mind. When Elektra closed their country division in 1980, he moved to Ovation, making the top ten with Dream Of Me in 1981. That label also closed down, so it was on to AMI during 1982, followed by Compeat, for whom he had a number of top ten entries over the next four years. These included Way Down Deep, What Would Your Memories Do, and his first chart-topper, I Can Tell By the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight). By 1986, though he was releasing some classic singles, his chart success slowed down, mainly because Compleat didn't have the marketing clout of a major label. Just when it looked as though his career was running out of steam, he was signed to Columbia and at the end of 1987 was back in the top ten with Do You Believe Me Now. A writer of many of his biggest hits, he also supplied Keith Whitley with the 1987 hit Would These Arms Be In Your Way, while his own success continued with seven consecutive top ten entries, including Set ’Em Up Joe and I’m Still Crazy that were both number ones.

His first album for Columbia, CHISELED IN STONE, is one of the all-time classic honky-tonk albums. The title song, co-written with Max D. Barnes, was named the 1988 CMA Song of the Year. His next album, ALONE, was mainly co-written, and focused on the aftermath of his divorce from his second wife. In October 1990 he was hospitalised and underwent heart bypass surgery. The following year he made his last entry into the country top ten with Is It Raining At Your House. Two years later he invested in his future, when he opened his own showplace, the Country Music Amphitheatre in Ardmore, Alabama. There were two more albums for Columbia, OUT OF MY HEART and NICKELS AND DIMES AND LOVE, but though held in high esteem by many of his contemporaries and still commanding a large and loyal fan following, Gosdin’s age, looks and stature were alien to the hunkabilly country image of the early 1990s. He suffered a heart attack in 1994, but recovered and recorded THE VOICE, an album full of solid hard-country that straddled western swing, honky-tonk, gospel and even a little bluegrass flavouring.

He continued touring and recording and in 2008 he released 40 YEARS OF THE VOICE, a four-CD career retrospective. The boxed set on VGM Records featured 101 songs, including 14 previously unreleased tracks recorded in the early 1970s. The collection also featured 11 newly recorded songs, as well as many of his classic hits. In recent years George Strait recorded his Today My World Slipped Away and Brad Paisley Is It Raining At Your House.

Vern Gosdin, one of the classiest and most distinctive honky-tonk balladeers of all time, passed away on April 28, 2009. He died peacefully in his sleep after suffering a serious stroke roughly three weeks earlier. Justifiably dubbed ‘The Voice’ by his contemporaries, Vern Gosdin infused country with a spiritual sense of complete loss and utter hopelessness. There are country voices that can soothe, voices that can inspire tears and heartbreak, and voices that can evoke lust—but there’s only been one voice that can express and carry the incredible sweetness of suffering. A masterpiece of understated classic country interpretation. Gosdin’s styling was quietly dramatic and emotionally on the mark.

Recommended Listening

Chiseled In Stone (Columbia 1988)
Alone (Columbia 1989)
The Truly Great Hits Of Vern Gosdin (American Harvest 1995)
Warning Contains Country Music—The Great Ballads of Vern Gosdin (American Harvest 1997)
24 Karat Heartache (American Harvest 1998)
The Voice (BTM Records 1998)
Back in the Swing of Things (VGM 2004)
40 Years of the Voice (VGM 2008)
Chiseled In Stone/Alone (T-Bird Americana 2011)
Till The End/Never My Love/You’ve Got Somebody (Edsel 2012)