The Sullivans - Gospel Group Grows 'At The Feet Of God'
|This appeared in the Nashville Banner - May 31, 1996|
|Soon after finishing a record, A Joyful Noise, for the Country Music Foundation, Jerry Sullivan and Marty Stuart fell into a discussion of humility and the importance of remembering their belief that songs come from God. "He said, 'In other words, we want to stay at God's feet'," Sullivan recalls.
As if God was again speaking, Sullivan and Stuart began to work with the phrase and before long they had a new song, At The Feet Of God, which would become the title track for the most recent gospel album by Sullivan and his daughter, Tammy Sullivan, released last year by New Haven Records and nominated earlier this year for a Grammy.
"It can mean a lot of things to different people," Jerry says of At The Feet Of God. "The song is telling you you can find every thing you need at God's feet, and one of the things we really need is to be humble and to let Him know that we really do appreciate the songs."
When they recorded the song, Stuart, Sullivan and his daughter invited Amy Grant to join them in the vocal harmony blend. She readily agreed. "We played at the Ryman with Amy Grant and her husband (Gary Chapman on 'Sam's Place') one night," Tammy recalls. "She loved our music."
At The Feet Of God took about four years to complete. The album is a stirring mix of traditional numbers ("Above My Head/Blind Bartimus"), six original Sullivan/Stuart collaborations, an old-time gospel selection from Sullivan's pen ("Born Again Experience") and even a spirited instrumental ("And David Danced").
"We were trying to put down something that we would remember and our children and our grandchildren could go back to," says Jerry. "This was really out roots. This was what we really loved."
Jerry's father, J.B. Sullivan, was a famous old-time banjo player and band leader in South Alabama. Jerry joined the family band in the '50s. His brother, mandolin-playing Rev. Arthur Sullivan, got saved first in the Sullivan Family, then he brought his relatives into the church and the gospel-singing fold.
Jerry Sullivan learned to sing in church and from listening to jump blues vocalist Joe Turner and bluegrass great Bill Monroe (with whom the family frequently toured and with whom he worked for two years in the '70s). "I did all kinds of music, but I came to gospel because I seen that was what I was here to do," he says.
When Sullivan and his family played Sunday radio shows in Mississippi and Alabama, they heard traditional black gospel singers, the source of "Above My Head" and "Blind Bartimus." Tammy learned to sing from her father.
Jerry and Tammy Sullivan live now in Wagarville, Alabama, a small town around 500 (that's including the livestock, too"), just north of Mobile. Jerry's youngest daughter, Stephanie Sullivan-Griggs tours with the family as a keyboardist. Her husband Andy sings harmony and Kevin Haney plays banjo and guitar.
Raised in a Southern Baptist church, Stuart first met the Sullivans while still a musical child prodigy in Mississippi. His dad took him to Jackson, Alabama to hear the family band and Bill Monroe in concert at the National Guard Armory.
"He really liked my playing," Jerry Sullivan remembers. "He picked me out of all of 'em. He came up to me and asked me to sign our album." Stuart ended up joining the band, playing festivals, churches and on the TV show. Later, he met Lester Flatt and moved to Nashville, eventually recording for Columbia Records.
When he needed to get back to his roots, between record deals, Stuart sought out Sullivan for counsel and companionship. "There's a very spiritual side to Marty," Jerry reveals. "He'll call me sometimes 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. We're prayer partners and he'll say, "There's something I need you to pray with me about'."
Though they didn't win, the Grammy nomination has been a boost to Jerry and Tammy. They appear at 5:45 p.m. Saturday on the Fifth Avenue Stage at Summer Lights. Jerry and Stuart have been writing again with plans to make another record.
By Jay Orr
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