Vern Gosdin, whose voice ranks with the most expressive instruments in country music history, died Tuesday night at a Nashville hospital at age 74.
"I think he's one of the two top country singers ever," said producer Buddy Cannon, who co-wrote several songs on Mr. Gosdin's 1987 masterwork, Chiseled In Stone. "It's him and George Jones, and maybe Hank Williams would be in there with them. The salvation of country music would be finding another guy with as much heart and emotion in his voice."
Mr. Gosdin suffered a stroke three weeks ago and had been hospitalized since then.
By the time he recorded Chiseled In Stone — an album whose title track, which Mr. Gosdin penned with Max D. Barnes, won the CMA award for song of the year — the singer was in his 50s and had been bumping around the music industry for a quarter-century.
In that time, he had scored only one No. 1 country hit, and he had begun to entertain notions of quitting the business. But CBS label head and producer Bob Montgomery helped land him a recording contract, and Mr. Gosdin crafted 10 songs with writers Cannon, Barnes, Hank Cochran and Dean Dillon. The melding of those songs with Mr. Gosdin's teary, flannel voice garnered four top 10 songs, two Grammy nominations and a reinvigorated career.
"This is the strangest thing that's ever happened to me," a bemused Mr. Gosdin told The Tennessean in 1988.
Mr. Gosdin's own favorite singer was Emmylou Harris, with whom he recorded the 1977 country hit, "Hangin' On."
"They called him 'The Voice,' and they didn't call him that for nothing," Harris said. "He had such restraint, and restraint intensifies emotion. He trusted the song and the melody. People don't realize how difficult it is to put across a country song with a complete economy of notes and phrasing. Vern did that as well as anyone. A great, great singer."
Raised in Woodland, Ala., a town of roughly 200 people, Mr. Gosdin grew up singing gospel music and studying the harmony vocals of The Louvin Brothers. A Birmingham radio station aired The Gosdin Family Gospel Show when Mr. Gosdin was a teenager, and the singer moved with brother Rex to California in 1961. Mr. Gosdin took a day job as a welder, and he and Rex soon found themselves in the midst of what would become the California country-rock movement.
They joined bluegrass band The Hillmen with Chris Hillman, who would later found The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band. When The Hillmen broke up, the siblings performed and recorded together as The Gosdin Brothers, sometimes opening shows for The Byrds. The Gosdin Brothers had one Top 40 country hit, in 1967, and Mr. Gosdin's "Someone To Turn To" was recorded by The Byrds for the 1969 film Easy Rider.
In 1972, Mr. Gosdin moved to Atlanta and operated a glass business.
"Rex and I kind of hung ourselves — we signed so many contracts we didn't know which one to honor, and we just kind of got out of it for a while," he told The Tennessean.
The mid-1970s brought a move to Nashville, where Mr. Gosdin embarked on a solo career with the help of manager Eddie Tickner. He recorded for Elektra from 1976-'79, then bounced through deals with Ovation, AMI and Compleat. His successes in the early '80s included Top 10 singles "If You're Gonna do Me Wrong (Do It Right)," "Way Down Deep" and the Cannon-penned "Dream of Me" (which Harris said is one of her favorite singles). In 1984 he had his first No. 1 hit, "I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You're Gonna Love Me Tonight)."
Subsequent singles did not fare as well, though. In March of 1987 Mr. Gosdin turned 53 while country hurtled into the image-conscious, youth-oriented video age. CBS' Montgomery was eager to cut a tradition-leaning album, though, and he signed Mr. Gosdin at a meeting in which he told the singer, "I want country." Thus began the resurrection of "The Voice," as generations of listeners found Mr. Gosdin through Chiseled In Stone.
As news spread Wednesday about Mr. Gosdin's death, other musicians paused to consider his impact and import.
Johnson and his band (several of whom had played with Mr. Gosdin) halted a recording session and talked about the direct lines that can be drawn from Chiseled In Stone to the songs and sounds on Johnson's That Lonesome Song album. Even the normally reticent George Strait released a statement in which he called Mr. Gosdin "one hell of a country singer."
And Harris spoke of the truth that Mr. Gosdin could convey anytime he set his voice to a melody.
"Everything he sang was chiseled in stone," she said.
A public visitation for Mr. Gosdin will be held Saturday, May 2, at Mt. Olivet Funeral Home, 1101 Lebanon Road, from noon until 4 p.m. Funeral services will be private, but a public memorial service will be planned for a later time.
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