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Ready for the Country : Much-Acclaimed Western Singer-Songwriter Vern Gosdin Finally Finds Popularity Too

At 54, Vern Gosdin appears to have hit his stride. This year, two of his singles--"Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “Will You Believe Me Now?"--went to the top of the country chart, while “Chiselled in Stone,” the album that spawned them, received a Country Music Assn. nomination as album of the year. Gosdin himself was nominated as best male vocalist.

Though he has been acclaimed for years by such fellow musicians as Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard, mass acceptance is something new. Gosdin’s only previous visit to the charts’ high side was a brief one, 5 years ago, when the tiny Compleat Records released his “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight).”

“It’s so funny the way things happen,” Gosdin, who has been making music since the ‘50s, said with a laugh from his home outside Nashville. “Three years ago, right when country music looked like it was going to leave the country, I would’ve never thought I’d be able to get a deal because a lot of labels, including CBS (his current record company), didn’t seem to be looking for real country artists.”

Gosdin, who will be opening for George Jones at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim Saturday night, is as country as country gets. He started singing on the Gosdin Family Gospel Show on WVOK radio in Birmingham, Ala. From there, he moved to Atlanta.

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When things failed to gel, he moved to Chicago and ran a country nightclub. He began honing his bluegrass licks and in 1960 moved to California, where he joined his brother, Rex, in a group called the Golden State Boys.

Knocking around California, Gosdin met all sorts of people, including a rather serious young bluegrass player named Chris Hillman. Together they formed the Hillmen and worked bluegrass festivals around the state--until Hillman joined the Byrds and helped start the folk-rock revolution.

The Byrds eventually used one of Gosdin’s songs for the “Easy Rider” sound track. Vern, though, had no interest in pop. He had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, so that’s where his heart lay. He signed with Capitol Records. Nothing happened.

He moved back to Atlanta, opened a glass business and sang a little on the side. Independent record deals came and went, but none could offer the mass distribution and exposure needed to get to the charts’ upper reaches.

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“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)” threatened to break but didn’t. Gosdin got back to gospel, with an album called “If Jesus Comes Tomorrow, What Then?” And eventually, Bob Montgomery entered the picture.

Montgomery, a producer who had helped the O’Kanes get a record deal, was considered a champion of honest country music. “Though we’d met several times, we’d never worked with each other,” Gosdin recalls. “But we clicked right off.”

The result was “Chiselled in Stone.” “What’s funny is, this is one of the lowest-budget records I’ve ever done,” he says. “I think because we had the right producer and the pickers, we got into the studio and knew exactly what we were doing. We all got together in there, played and had one fun time!”

Soon after the album was released, Gosdin got a phone call from an old pal: “George Jones called to tell me he really loved the record. I’ve known George a long time, and I can’t begin to tell you how good that felt, because one thing about Jones, to get him excited it just about takes an Act of Congress.”

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Gosdin himself continues to lead a quiet life with his wife on their 40 acres. And he talks of wanting to do another gospel record when the time is right.


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