When Grammy-nominated father-daughter bluegrass gospel duet Jerry and Tammy Sullivan play in Asheville’s All Souls Cathedral on Friday April 12, they will share a family’s musical legacy that spans more than 70 years and was born of a struggle against death.
The story begins in rural southern Alabama in 1939. Jerry’s older brother Arthur lay in bed, dying of a congenital heart defect, worsened by drinking and his bootlegging lifestyle. As he lay in a coma, two Pentecostal preachers who had heard of Arthur’s situation visited the Sullivan home to offer their prayers and the laying on of hands, a spiritual healing practice.
An argument broke out between the preachers and Arthur’s family, whose Southern Baptist tradition rejected Pentecostal-style faith healing. Jerry remembers his mother’s blank expression as she looked at Arthur that Spring afternoon, having given up all hope that he would recover: “She told them to come on in, what harm could it do?”
The holiness preachers stayed up all night, praying over Arthur. Jerry recalls, “The next morning at daylight, we were getting ready for school, and my brother opened his eyes and said, ‘Mama, I’m hungry.’ Things went to stirring around, and Arthur turned to the Lord. He had a whiskey still in the branch behind the barn. When he was strong enough to walk, he said, ‘the first thing we gotta do is bust up that still.’”
Eventually Arthur began a charismatic preaching career that brought his parents, siblings and children into the faith. Jerry’s father, J.B. Sullivan, had made a name for himself playing drop thumb banjo for dances and gatherings. Influenced by Arthur’s miraculous recovery and spiritual transformation, the family of musicians shifted from secular to sacred, and began playing music to accompany Arthur’s preaching on street corners and country churches throughout the South.
A story of faithful men
Between stints in the Army and working with his brother’s ministry, Jerry also found work playing upright bass with Bill Monroe. And, he began to write songs.
Songs inspired by the events in his life, the struggles of everyday people, and the stories he read in the Bible. “God gives me songs; He puts things in my life that causes me to write about it. Sometimes a melody will come to me, sometimes the words, and sometimes both together. I keep a little tape recorder by my bed and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning and God just delivers them to me.”
Jerry’s songs are powerfully simple, distilling, for instance, Old Testament accounts into a handful of words that instantly place the listener in the center of the story. In Walking Through the Fire, he retells the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the book of Daniel. Way back in the Bible, in the days of old, there were three men of God who had faith of solid gold / They were thrown into a furnace, and to the king’s concern, the flames were rolling high but God’s children didn’t burn.
As the song tells the story of the faithful men, who persevere through adversity and “dance across the embers,” we are invited to trade places with them in the chorus “When you’re way down in the valley, reach a little higher, pray a little harder, while you’re walking through the fire.”
The depth and fire of Jerry’s lyrics reach full expression through the voice of his daughter Tammy, who began performing regularly with her father in 1979 at the age of 13. Drawing inspiration from Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coats, Tammy delivers her father’s songs with a potency and conviction grounded in old time gospel, country music, and African-American spirituals.
When the father and daughter perform together they leave a lasting impression, regardless of spiritual outlook. As anthropologist Jack Bernhardt puts it “Their music is full of the passion that ignites the Pentecostal quest for deliverance with a message that favors hope over despair, and promises salvation rather than fire and brimstone.”
Jerry and Tammy were recognized with Grammy and Dove nominations in 1995 for “At the Feet of God” (New Haven records). Their 1999 album “Tomorrow” was produced on Ricky Skaggs' Ceili label. They share a long musical friendship with country star Marty Stuart who produced their most recent recording Live at the Place of Hope. Their list of venues include the Ryman auditorium and Opryland, and stadiums and stages from Ireland to Alaska.
But they are best appreciated in a church. When asked what he wants people to take away from their concert, Jerry says “I want them to leave there saying “These people are real to me” I want them to take that feeling that we have, that love that we have in our hearts, home with them. When we really get a compliment is when they say “They’re real. They believe in what they’re singing.”
For more information please contact event organizer Robert Mitchener, firstname.lastname@example.org. (Jack Bernhardt for contributed to this article.)
— Robert is a physical therapist and musician who lives in Asheville.
who: Jerry and Tammy Sullivan
where: Cathedral of All Souls, 9 Swan Street, Biltmore Village, Asheville
when: Friday April 12 at 7 p.m., doors open at 6:15. $15
why: Proceeds from the Sullivan concert will benefit a N.C. prison ministry, the Voices of Hope, a gospel choir from the Swannanoa Women’s Correctional Facility. Tickets: https://sullivans.ticketbud.com/allsouls ($16) or through the cathedral office at 274-2681