Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Today my world slipped away

I’ve just received some devastating news from my CharredHer homepage—country legend Vern Gosdin has died at the age of 74 from the effects of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago in Nashville, TN.

A good many people who are unfamiliar with country music—including those who wouldn’t listen to it if you placed a gun beside their temples—are probably asking right now: “Vern who?” But to country fans, he was known simply as “The Voice.” (Not to be confused with the major domo of a company that preserves radio’s past for the future, I hasten to add.) During his nearly thirty-five-year career in music, Gosdin was a consistent country hit-maker with number-one charters like I Can Tell By the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight), Set ‘Em Up Joe and I’m Still Crazy.

Born in Woodland, Alabama on August 5, 1934, Vern caught the music bug early on and by 1961 had teamed up with brother Rex as The Gosdin Brothers (he had also been a member of The Golden State Boys and The Hillmen)—scoring a top 40 country hit in 1967 with Hangin’ On. The business got a bit lean after that only hit, and Gosdin retired from performing, moving to Atlanta and operating a glass company…but he just wasn’t able to get the music out of his blood, and in 1976 Elektra Records released a cover of Hangin’ On that peaked at #16 on the Billboard Country Charts (with exquisite harmony vocals from the equally legendary Emmylou Harris). Harris joined Vern on another song, Yesterday’s Gone, that became his first Top Ten smash and the hits soon followed, including Til’ the End and a version of the Association’s Never My Love—both of which hit the Top Ten and both of which featured country singer Janie Fricke backing him on harmony vocals.

It was at this point in Gosdin’s career that one can help but think of the adjective “resilient.” He left Elektra to sign with independent label Ovation (a company that had success with country acts; their biggest was father-daughter team The Kendalls) in 1981 but after a few chart hits (including the Top Ten Dream of Me) the company went bankrupt and Vern found himself at A&M, where his hit streak continued with the title of this post. He then signed up with Compleat Records in 1983, where the hits just kept on coming: If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right), I Wonder Where We’d Be Tonight, Way Down Deep. The following year, Compleat released an album called There is a Season which the L.A. Times chose as Best Country Album of the Year—and included Dance and the Top Ten hits Slow Burning Memory and What Would Your Memories Do. Compleat Records then went bankrupt in 1987.

Gosdin finally found a home at Columbia the following year, where his album Chiseled in Stone not only went gold but the title track earned Gosdin a CMA award for Song of the Year in 1989. It was at this time that I actually got to meet Vern, who was promoting the album at a Wal-Mart in Savannah and a friend of my mother’s (both of whom were big fans of The Voice) gave me the heads-up that he was going to be there. When I entered the store, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the long line of sales clerks—many of whom I’m pretty sure had never heard of the man—waiting to have their pictures taken with him. I purchased a CD and cassette (for Mom’s friend) of Stone and asked him to autograph it, which he did. We made a little small talk (I was trying desperately not to gush in his presence); I asked him how Savannah was treating him and he enthusiastically responded that he’d honestly never met a nicer or more hospitable crowd. It was only a few moments, but I was very impressed by Vern’s utter lack of pretense—he was happy to be able to hang out with his fans, and was just an incredibly down-to-earth person.

From 1984 to 1986, I worked at a teensy, weensy 1000-watt radio station in Savannah, GA that started out with a news-talk format but switched to country in April 1985 (on April Fools’ Day, of all days—we had one hell of a time explaining to our many listener that it was not a joke) and I remember our oldies library had a record by Gosdin that had reached the top twenty back in 1977, Mother Country Music. Unfortunately, we also had a program director to which the words “country music” were a complete anathema; he wanted us to play more of the soulless pap that they often try to pass off as country at the time. (I won’t mention any names, but the initials of the first name are “Kenny” and the initials of the last name “Rogers.”) He would go completely ape-shit when I played Vern’s record and one day broke the 45 so I couldn’t play it any more. (I had the last laugh, though; I had Gosdin’s Greatest Hits LP and continued to play when I wanted to hear it…which, as luck would have it, was quite often.)

R.I.P. Vern. Thanks for helping me stick it to The Man…because you will be sorely missed.

Today My World Slipped Away - Vern Gosdin

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