The members of the Statler Brothers spent their formative years gleaning priceless musical knowledge from the Statesmen, Blackwood Brothers, Sunshine Boys, and others, and then traveled to platforms that their gospel heroes had only dreamed of. They maintained one of the most loyal fanbases in entertainment history. And everywhere the Statlers went, they took their gospel roots with them, never once timid about telling their audiences that gospel quartet music was their first love. Almost every album by the Statlers featured at least one gospel song, and it is clearly no coincidence that three of their albums that attained Gold status or better were gospel albums. The gospel portion of the Statler Brothers television show was the most anticipated and well-received segment of the program. And it is clear why. It was enough that the Statlers were already natural world-class entertainers, outstanding songwriters, and unparalleled showmen, but there was a special energy in the air when the Statler Brothers sang gospel music. Perhaps it was, in fact, their gospel roots that made the Statler Brothers such a powerful force in the entertainment world. This month we analyze some of the very best of the Statlers’ gospel performances, and remind ourselves once again just why their gospel songs were so loved by fans from all walks of life.
“Just in Time”
This heartfelt gem written by tenor Lew Dewitt appears on one of the Statlers’ lesser-known, albeit most widely-distributed albums, Oh Happy Day, their last album recorded for Columbia Records in 1969. This song was naturally written in the style of that unique country-balladeer voice that Lew delivered so beautifully. “Just in Time” is one of his finest moments. The Statlers by this point had become disenchanted with their recording conditions at Columbia. Not since “Flowers on the Wall” had the Statlers been allowed the chance to record their own compositions or songs of their choice, yet by the time they recorded their first gospel album, they were clearly given a little more freedom to do what they wanted.
“Less of Me”
Though not written by any of the “brothers”, this Glen Campbell classic is given a fine, homespun, harmonic approach by the Statlers. This rendition also appeared on their 1969 Oh Happy Day album. Dailey and Vincent, who have credited the Statlers as direct influences on their musical style, re-recorded this version for their Alive album in 2015.
Oh Happy Day is perhaps the musical highlight of their tenure with Columbia Records. Soon, the Statlers would move to Mercury Records, where they would begin the long-lasting renaissance of their career.
“Every Day will Be Sunday Bye and Bye”
An old Blackwood Brothers classic perfectly brought up to date for the 1971 sound of the Statlers. Very rarely has a group covered an old standard so well, althewhile maintaining the unique sound that established them in the first place. The Nashville musicians were clearly having a good time in the studio with this one. The Statlers hardly changed anything about the original Blackwood arrangement from the early 50s. Where the Blackwood Brothers‘ high harmonies brought a joyous intensity to the spiritual, it was the ease of the Statlers’ vocals that kept the song so pleasant, making their version equally enjoyable as the original. And speaking of the Blackwood Brothers…..
“The Blackwood Brothers By the Statler Brothers”
I doubt that I have ever heard a more creative musical artist tribute in song. The song was every bit truth for the Statlers’ lives and every bit nostalgic for music fans. The song was a medley and not a medley at the same time. Over a span of around four minutes the Statlers either mentioned or sang a bar or two of fourteen of the Blackwood Brothers‘ most beloved hits. Although not necessarily a gospel song, this one has every bit of the same gospel heart and soul. Also worth mentioning here is the superb piano work of studio musician and Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who clearly was a Blackwood fan himself.
The Holy Bible – Old Testament/New Testament
One of the Statlers’ longest-awaited and most ambitious projects, this entire album is one of two real crowning moments in their contributions to gospel music. The Statlers had worked for nearly a decade on this mammoth project, and it paid off. It became their second gold-selling album. The album serves almost as a Statler-style “cantata”, with spoken word readings by each of the members of the quartet, and gospel classics mixed with Statler-written story songs that highlighted the Bible as thoroughly and chronicologally as could be covered in a two-record album with twenty-two songs. Fifteen of them were written by members of the Statlers themselves. Among the most memorable contributions to the album were the original songs, “Have a Little Faith” and the poignant “Who Do You Think”, while “How Great Thou Art” and “Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord” became Statler staples until their retirement, equally as popular as some of their top ten hits.
“He Went to the Cross Loving You”
In 1975, the Brothersattained their biggest chart hit since “Flowers on the Wall” with “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You”. Written by Don, the song was hailed by many Statler fans and media as simply a country tribute to their gospel roots. The harmonies, rhythm, and chord structures paralleled so much of the gospel quartet sound. Harold clearly took note of this, and penned a gospel lyric with the same melody. They included it on their underrated 1977 album, Short Stories. The result was quite profound.
Lew Dewitt had been an integral part of the Statlers’ identifiable sound, and his departure from the group in 1982 due to Chrohn’s Disease was a heartbreaking blow to the group. Jimmy Fortune proved to be a Godsend, and quickly established himself as one of the greatest quartet tenors of any genre of music.
“Amazing Grace” was the first song the Statler Brothers ever sang together, and was the final song they performed together at their Farewell performance in 2002. The studio version from 1985 is sung by the quartet if they had waited their entire career to place the perfect stamp on the timeless hymn. Each member took a verse, and came together to once again sing the first verse, with a power-packed final note and full string ensemble at its triumphant ending. It was recorded at the peak of their career, and for one of their most popular albums, Pardners in Rhyme. Three of the Statlers’ most popular hits, including their number one classic, “Too Much on My Heart”, were on this album, but none of them possessed the soul, fervor, or conviction as “Amazing Grace”. Such is the case of a powerful gospel lyric.
“I Believe I’ll Live for Him”
Another Statler original from 1986, it was impossible not to tap your toes to this bouncy tune. Longtime friends, The Cathedral Quartet, obviously liked what they heard as well, as they recorded it on their 1987 album, Land of Living.
“On the Other Side of the Cross”
This song had everything that a Statler fan could want in a gospel song. It was a heartfelt ballad written by Don Reid, it had big vocals with a high ending, and it was just plain southern gospel quartet singing at its finest. The Statlers guested on the Cathedrals’ Farewell Celebration taping in 1999 (one of Bill & Gloria Gaither‘s very, very best video productions), and their performance of this song was one of the many highlights of that memorable evening. The Statlers had been singing the song for years, but did not officially record it until their 2000 album, Showtime. Remember when I said that the Holy Bible album was one of two crowning moments of the Statlers’ gospel music? Well, “On the Other Side of the Cross” is the other.
“A Place on Calvary”
The Statlers released their final studio album before their retirement in 2001, appropriately a gospel album, and entitled simply, Amen. “A Place on Calvary” was every bit up to the standards of what had been released by the group at the apex of their career. While I enjoy the studio version, I even more love the version found on their Farewell Concert recording. The tempo is much faster, and the adrenaline rush and spirit in the vocals, combined with the hard-driving, energetic accompaniment of longtime sidemen, The All-American Band, gives it the very special touch that somehow, only the Statler Brothers could bring to a song like this one. As the evening of that final performance progressed, the Statlers and the band performed each song with more enthusiasm than the last, clearly knowing that their stage time was getting shorter. “Place on Calvary” was near the end of the evening, and they certainly sang it like it was their last time.
James Blackwood said that if the Statler Brothers had chosen to become exclusively gospel music artists, they would have been the greatest gospel quartet (well, second greatest he later amended) of all time. Yet the Statlers had an even broader field ahead of them. Some of the greatest tools for breaking down barriers in a mission field are laughter, nostalgia, and just good clean wholesome family fun. The Statler Brothers embraced all of these and then rounded out their evenings with spiritual lyrics. What a testament to sharing the gospel. The Statlers could tug the heartstrings with the nostalgic lyrics of their youth, make you laugh until you cried, and then leave you feeling truly inspired as they closed their concerts with “How Great Thou Art”, or perhaps “Amazing Grace”. They are among America’s greatest groups because they knew how to communicate with their listeners, an ability that not even the most trained or seasoned vocalists necessarily possess. Now nearly 15 years into their retirement, the re-release of their Farewell Concert DVD went Gold for a second time. Their music clearly remains a template of “How to do it”, and will for years to come.
Thank you, as always, for your kind words, emails, and private messages in regard to this column! I will gladly try to answer any questions or requests at my email – firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to visit my website at www.alankendallmusic.com. I would love to see each and every one of you at any one of my concert appearances! Happy New Year!!