Bertie Sullivan passes

Bertie Sullivan, a mainstay of the Mississippi bluegrass community, died on February 21, 2019 at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, MS. She was 78 years of age, and had been hospitalized since a serious auto accident in January.

Sullivan was known to nearly everyone who played bluegrass music near her home in Hattiesburg, and to most touring acts as well, through the sound reinforcement company she and her husband, Newell, ran. Sullivan’s Superior Sound handled live sound at numerous bluegrass festivals in the region, with Bertie as their ambassador.

Eventually she and Newell were promoting their own bluegrass events, and Bertie was voted Promoter of the Year by both Magnolia State Bluegrass Association and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. Everyone who ever attended one her festivals was considered a friend, and performers and music industry people around the country will cherish her memory for a good long time.

Longtime friend Benita Murphy of Alabama tells us that Bertie was like an Energizer Bunny, always on the go, doing everything she could think of to help promote and raise the profile of bluegrass music. And that her outsize personality was a staple at every show.

“She was always scheming, thinking, coming up with fun things to do at her festivals, like a take off on the game show, Deal or No Deal. She might dress up like Lulu from Hee Haw. You’d find her anywhere around a festival, always on a golf cart, or on stage, behind stage, at the band tables, always smiling, and always wearing a crazy hat, maybe with sequins, or feathers. Dwight Dillman would take one from her every year at Bean Blossom. He’s got a huge collection from over the years.

Bertie was everywhere, knew everyone, and everyone knew and loved her. She never met a stranger, loved to talk, and would have you volunteering for something before you knew it. She was a dynamo….so full of energy and truly bigger than life. The young bluegrass pickers that she loved and helped called her  “Grannie Bertie,” and she was a mama to all.”

Fellow Mississippian Carl Jackson recalls her in the same way.

“Bertie will always be remembered as one of the most innovative promoters in bluegrass. She was always looking for that angle that would make her events stand out from the rest. About 25-30 years ago, she put together a songwriter ‘extravaganza’ near Hattiesburg, MS with me, Jim Rushing, Larry Cordle, and Jerry Salley. She made it a formal event and had us all dressed in tuxedos… even got my Dad to wear one!

We are all gonna miss her very much… and I’ll betcha Saint Peter bought a raffle ticket right after she passed through the Pearly Gates!!!”

Another artist who loved her dearly was Larry Cordle, who reiterated how she treated him and his fellow artists like their mama.

“We heard that our longtime friend, and friend to everyone who knew her, Miss Bertie Sullivan, had lost her battle to survive a terrible car wreck from a month or so ago. I’m really gonna miss, Miss Bertie. She was always first to offer to help me out at festivals, and loved to hear me tell stories. She fed us, housed us, found work for us, and just loved us. She was like a close relative to me, and I’m going to miss her badly. I know she’s back with her beloved husband, Newell, but the old human me is going to miss her terribly, while I’m still here.”

When most of her friends learned of the auto accident in January in which both Bertie and her dear friend, Mary Wiggins, were injured, they expected her to pull through, just as she had beaten cancer a few years earlier. But multiple complications from surgery to repair her badly damaged leg were more than she could handle, and eventually sapped her strength.

Murphy mentioned how Sullivan helped her band, Delta Reign, get a break at a major festival.

“She was always helping bands get started, encouraging, helping them get bookings or references. She’s the one that got us on at Bean Blossom, as well as booking us at her festival. She included youth bands at every event that she promoted. She was close with Dwight Dillman at Bean Blossom – the whole staff there knew and loved Bertie. She was so connected in bluegrass, and was always working to help others get connected.”

And photographer and friend, LuAnn Smith, mentioned what a gracious and generous soul she was.

“She managed the Bean Blossom workshop stage for years. Also helped Martin Guitar at many events, selling raffle tickets on guitar fundraisers. She promoted Saga Instruments and Blueridge Guitars, as well as Deering Banjos, and Chord Buddy. She never showed up at my house without a ‘happy’ for me – something I’ve only found in Mississippi folks as a hostess gift. Many bands would stay with her over the years – Lost and Found, Larry Stephenson Band, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, and many more.”

Another Gulf Coast grasser, Alecia Nugent, also expressed her sadness at learning of Sullivan’s passing.

“I am so very sorry to hear this news. I’ve known Miss Bertie since I was a little girl. Because of her, I met so many people in this business, which led to many great things in my career. I’m so grateful for her and so saddened by this. RIP Miss Bertie. Praying for her family.”

Family and friends gathered for a graveside service on February 25 at the National Cemetery in Biloxi, MS.

A Celebration of Life service will be held on March 3 at the First Baptist Church of Glendale in Hattiesburg.

Bertie’s daughters are asking that memorials to Bertie be made to the church, or to the March of Dimes.

R.I.P., Bertie Sullivan.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.