In 1987, Vern Gosdin was ready to chuck the whole music business. He'd spent the last three decades playing his clean, pure, Southern-style country music in ornery taverns and toiling on teensy labels, and dammit, it was high time to start thinking about a pension.
"You get a little age on you and you start thinking about that stuff," drawls Gosdin, 54, during a telephone conversation from his Ardmore, Alabama, home. Through the years, Gosdin had managed a good number of radio hits from records pressed by some 20 independent labels, but his cash flow was worse than nil.
"After a tour, I'd come home with less money than I'd left with," Gosdin sighs. "But I blame it on myself. I didn't really know or care about the difference in labels, and I wasn't particularly interested in the music business. You've heard it before, but all I wanted to do was play and sing. That's all. But I got myself in such a mess, I didn't think it was possible to get out of it. Man, I'm known to sign anything."
Gosdin lent his trust easily and often, exposing his heart like a carousel ring. This natural vulnerability would delay by years the success his long-ripened talents demanded and cause him heartaches by the dozen.
It would also--in a dark, desperate, creative way--serve him well.
During the years he spent shuffling between independent labels, Gosdin gained a reputation as the smoothest, rangiest baritone this side--and to some, maybe that side, too--of George Jones and Merle Haggard. Jukebox ballads like "Is It Raining at Your House," "Slow Burnin' Memory" and "If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)," sung heart-in-throat with the sparest instrumentation, earned him a hard-core, if small, following. Those who wandered into the small beer houses where the graying, mustachioed, often sullen-looking Gosdin sat with his guitar--he's often been accused of having virtually no stage presence--would hear him doing just what he wanted to do: playing and singing. It was enough for them, too. They began calling him "The Voice."
Gosdin loved it, sure, but it wasn't getting him where an artist of his age needed to be. After all, most performers of his years are nearing the time when they start making retirement plans. Man, Gosdin thought, it would be awfully nice to have a pension. So he made a decision.
"I was out of here, man," he admits. "I was gonna leave Nashville and go to California. Merle Haggard had said something about doing an album together, so I thought I'd do that, then give it up."
News of Gosdin's plans to abandon Nashville and use his pickin' fingers at some Left Coast tool-and-die shop quickly traveled Music City's corridors and rattled the right cages. "Someone at [songwriter/pal] Hank Cochran's house called [producer] Bob Montgomery, who called me and said, `You're coming to Columbia Records, Vern.' It seemed so easy," Gosdin says.
Gosdin's resume makes it astonishing that this "easy" success took 30 years to find him. He was always into music, beginning with the Gosdin Family Gospel Show on WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama. But hauling rock from the fields of the family farm and chopping cotton until dark had him eyeing the dirt roads leading out of town. And then there was that guitar on which he'd play country songs--in secrecy.
"My dad didn't want me to make music. He'd been in bands before, and he didn't want me getting involved with all the bars and the fights and such," Gosdin recalls. "He said it was a waste of time. He couldn't imagine you could really make money doing it."
So Vern Gosdin went west. Successful (if not lucrative) stints with bluegrass bands took him and brother Rex to Southern California, where, in 1960, they created the Golden State Boys. Gosdin's picking prowess and that extraordinary voice garnered the Boys a lot of attention and a goodly number of admirers, including Haggard and, eventually, Chris Hillman.
The Gosdins joined the leader of the current Desert Rose Band to found the Hillmen, Chris Hillman's last stop before turn-turn-turning American music around with the Byrds. Vern Gosdin stuck around for a while, playing behind, around and occasionally opening for Hillman, Roger McGuinn, et al.
But Vern's soul was sold on pure pedal steel and fiddle music, and it didn't take long to once again find that ribbon of highway. It was then that he began what would become his three-decade tour of indie labels and bars.
Although the folks in those city saloons and backwoods bars clearly showed a fondness for the songs Gosdin played, few knew they were hearing the truth--and nothing but the truth. He sat there, playing and singing, but there was little to read from his blank face and cold eyes. It was all in the words. Since he's become a regular on the music charts and in country music magazines, most details about Vern Gosdin's three marriages and divorces have become common knowledge. The last of the three, especially, proved devastating. "I write about what happens to me, what I'm feeling about it and what I think it's gonna feel like later on," Gosdin says softly. "That's how I work through these things." While other performers sing about experiences which may or may not have been their own, Vern Gosdin's lyrics are borne from the numerous highs and lows of his own long life.
At the same time he was signing with Columbia Records, Vern Gosdin's third marriage was crumbling fast and hard. It had been by far the most traumatic of his marriages, and, seeking solace, he considered the state of his union and wrote songs about it. These powerful songs of pain and betrayal, hope and hopes dashed, became his first album for Columbia.
Chiseled in Stone let all the world hear The Voice. With songs like "Who Are You Gonna Blame It on This Time," "Set 'Em Up, Joe" and "Do You Believe Me Now," the album went gold almost in moments. The title track was the Country Music Association's 1989 Song of the Year. In it, Gosdin revealed the desperation of his marriage: "You wouldn't know love/If it was chiseled in stone." Success had never been closer, but love had never been further away.
His next album, Alone, detailed the bitterness of his divorce in unequivocal, bawl-in-your-beer terms. In "That Just About Does It (Don't It?)," Gosdin throws in the towel: "Maybe we should call a truce/We could, but what's the use?"
"It was horrible, very hurtful," Gosdin says. "And it hurts harder to know that you'd been used all along, just taken for a ride." Gosdin concedes that his propensity to believe anybody, sign anything and trust all who ask for it has caused him great troubles. He is quick to implicate himself in creating the many and sundry sinkholes that have swallowed him up over this long haul. He requests no collateral for love and trust, and this nearly put him on a bus to Los Angeles and removed him forever from where he always really wanted to be.
Gosdin credits longtime friend Eddie Ticknor with setting his professional life in order. When Montgomery and Columbia called, Gosdin put away his free-flowing quill and let Ticknor take care of business. It was an investment of trust that finally paid off, but a many-times-burned Vern Gosdin reacted with caution at early returns of Chiseled in Stone's success. News of the album high on the charts and of money sure to follow didn't cause him to leap for joy. He'd heard all that stuff before, only to find that he'd still have to sing for his supper.
"Eddie showed me a fistful of record orders and my name up there on the charts, and he said, `Man, just what does it take to get you excited?'" Gosdin laughs. "I said, `Seein' is believin', and I'll be believin' when I be seein' those checks start rollin' in.'"
Roll in they did, and Vern learned in one trip to the bank what benefits major labels offer.
"They sell records, flat-out," Gosdin says. "I'd had plenty of hits on those independents, but they never managed to get the records to the stores. Simple, huh?" The revelation that, in fact, he had been good enough to play and prosper all along stunned him. The self-confidence he'd suppressed through the years rose to the surface and helped him through the difficulties of the bad marriage and worse divorce. Still, there was yet another barrier to hurdle.
In 1990, Vern Gosdin underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. The operation, fortunately, proved very successful, and his recovery is well ahead of schedule. Ironically, fixing his ticker proved the easiest of all the trials he had stood before.
Gosdin's latest album Out of My Heart attempts to purge the poisons caused by years of unhappy unions and professional dreams deferred. While pockets of pain remain, the contents of the new recording show that Gosdin has captured the beginning of his personal reconstruction in terms every bit as passion-filled and forthright as those earlier songs borne of pain. The upbeat "I Knew My Day Would Come" (with Ricky Skaggs singing the high parts and providing a joyous mandolin) celebrates Gosdin's freshly found fortunes, and the title track attempts to reinforce an ongoing recovery from love gone wrong.
"I'm as happy as I've been, well, since I can remember," Vern Gosdin declares. "I've got a girlfriend, Robin, who's been with me for three years. She picks me up." So has his sense of humor. Gosdin will be in the studio after the first of the year to begin his fourth project for Columbia. He already has several songs ready to go, including "When Whiskey Was a River (And I Thought I Could Swim)" and "Bury Me in a Jukebox When I Die."
"You know," says The Voice, "my love life has been a disaster." He laughs. "But I've managed to get about nine or ten good songs out of each of them.
"And now I've got a pension, too."
Vern Gosdin will perform at Toolies Country on Wednesday, November 20. Showtimes are 7 and 9:30 p.m. Larry Dean will open.
"After a tour, I'd come home with less money than I'd left with."
"You've heard it before, but all I wanted to do was play and sing."
"Merle Haggard had said something about doing an album together, so I thought I'd do that, then give it up."
Vern Gosdin's lyrics are borne from the numerous highs and lows of his own long life.
"I'd had plenty of hits on those independents, but they never managed to get the records to the stores. Simple, huh?"
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Gosdin captures his personal reconstruction in terms every bit as passion-filled and forthright as songs borne of pain.
"I write about what happens to me, what I'm feeling about it and what I think it's gonna feel like later on."
"Seein' is believin', and I'll be believin' when I be seein' those checks start rollin' in.