The Sullivans – At the Feet of God (1995)

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NICK DERISO: Used to be, liking the Alabama-born Sullivans was akin to being part of some secret society.

Nobody knew ’em. But the ones who did, well, they flat-out loved ’em.

Then, somewhere along the way, Jerry and Tammy Sullivan went from being little-known gospel greats to gosh-dog superstars. We’re talking: Television appearances. Shows with top country acts like Brooks and Dunn. Fans like Emmylou Harris and John Prine. Friends like Marty Stuart working with them. Even Grammy nominations.

“I’m glad,” Tammy Sullivan told me, and proud too. “We’ve worked a lot of time at it, my dad and I. My whole aim and desire was to let his songs be heard. That’s what I really wanted to do.”

The Sullivans bear witness loud and proud, but their Christian message is couched in a timeless musicianship. It’s uncanny. You can be tapping a toe for a minute or so before you realize just what you’ve learned.

Tammy will cop to that. And she goes you one better: “It transends boundaries,” she says. “Some of the songs sound old but they’re new. That’s amazing to me.”

Overnight success came after years of rafter-rattling church dates and some darn fine recordings. (In a tasty twist of fate, they found themselves riding around in a bus that used to belong to the doomed bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughn.)

It’s all Jerry Sullivan ever wanted to do.

Jerry got his start on his daddy’s knee. His father J.B. Sullivan was a star in his own right, a famous banjo player and band leader. Didn’t take long for young Jerry to make his mark, though.

In fact, after bending the ear of Bill Monroe, the legendary bluegrass patriarch began booking Sullivan on his shows. Soon enough, Jerry was writing constantly, and turning out some seminal gospel-bluegrass tunes – “Sing Daddy A Song,” and “From the Manger to the Garden,” among them.

By the late 1970s, Jerry was an acknowledged master of the genre, but his sound got that much sweeter with the addition of daughter Tammy. She was 14 when she began playing bass and singing with her dad. (Still later, Jerry’s youngest daughter continued the family tradition: She joined the band, playing guitar and mandolin.)

Stuart, raised Southern Baptist, first met the Sullivans as a musical child prodigy from Mississippi when his dad took him to hear the family appear on a bill with Monroe in the National Guard Armory at Jackson, Ala.

There would be other albums produced with Stuart, but none better than this one, a Grammy-nominated country gospel gem.

No, they didn’t win the award, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a cool experience. After all, “we got to go out to L.A.,” Tammy says. Besides, “you’ve won if you’ve been nominated. Especially our music.”

And, what a joyful noise Jerry’s music is. “He’s got a real gift from God,” Tammy says, and this is not understatement. Light pours out of every corner in these songs.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Tammy says. “Shedding a little light in this dark world.”

Purchase: The Sullivans – At the Feet of God

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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