Margie Sullivan passes 

Margie Sullivan, The First Lady of Bluegrass Gospel Music, so named by Bill Monroe, and matriarch of the famed Sullivan Family Gospel Singers, passed away on May 31, 2023, at age 90. 

Margie Louise Brewster Sullivan was born January 22, 1933, in Winnsboro, Franklin Parish, Louisiana. She was the sixth of 12 children of sharecroppers Otis Leon and Ruby Alma Givens Brewster.

Brewster developed an early love of gospel music, and when she was 13 years old, her father used some of the little profit from their cotton crop and bought her a $12 Montgomery Ward guitar with money earned from tending to their crops and picking cotton. Her father, a good musician himself, taught her the basic chords so that she could write her own songs.  

They used to listen to the Louisiana Hayride on Shreveport’s Radio KWKH, enjoying artists such as Hank Williams; Johnny & Jack and Kitty Wells; and the Bailes Brothers, some of whom they would see in person at the little country schools that dotted the area. Not surprisingly, she heard Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff from further afield.   

It was Wells, Molly O’Day, and Wilma Lee Cooper who had the biggest effect on Sullivan’s distinctive and robust singing style. 

Still only 13 when her father died, she was forced to seek employment to help her mother financially; she responded to an advert and became a traveling and musical companion for evangelist Sister Hazel Chain, with whom she did Pentecostal revivalist shows and camp meetings throughout Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and east Texas. Brewster sent money to her mother to assist with feeding and clothing the other five children still at home.

While traveling with Chain, from Mount Olive, Mississippi, Brewster met the distinguished-looking 15-year-old Enoch Sullivan at a church revival in Sunflower, Washington County, Alabama. After corresponding for three years, while at another revival in Sunflower, Sullivan proposed and she joined the rest of Sullivan’s family – the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers, as they were known then. 

In December 1949 Enoch and Margie married. 

The Sullivan Family, started by the Reverend Arthur Sullivan with Enoch Sullivan (vocals, fiddle, and guitar), Emmett Sullivan [1936-1993] (vocals and banjo), Margie Sullivan (vocals, bass, and guitar), being the mainstays throughout about 40 years. Another brother Aubrey (guitar) played with them early on.

They launched their career on December 23, 1949, at Radio WRJW Picayune, Mississippi – “this was the first radio work that we did as the Sullivan Family” (according to Enoch) and were invited to appear on Jackson radio station WPBB – on which they performed every Sunday for seven years – and on WJDB in Thomasville (both in Alabama). At WJDB their 15-minute early morning segments were broadcast live five days a week for five years from 1951.  

As was common practice, The Sullivan Family used the radio to advertise their personal appearances at church events, family reunions, and revival shows. 

Based in Jackson, Alabama, they made their first recordings in 1954 – a 78 rpm single for Revival Records of California. Margie Sullivan was otherwise engaged at the time, giving birth to a second child.  

In 1957, they signed to Mobile, Alabama label Sandy Records, and in the following January cut the single I Can See God’s Moving Hand, backed with Happy On My Way (1006). With Margie Sullivan singing solo, the recording reached the Top 100 on Billboard magazine’s hits chart.

Arthur Sullivan died of a heart attack while preaching at Bolentown Pentecostal Church outside Jackson, on November 23, 1957, and Enoch led the band thereafter, and in 1958 Enoch and Margie felt they should go into the music ministry full time.

In the mid-1950s the folks at Radio KBKH heard that the Forrest County School Foundation, Inc./Private School Construction, Inc. needed assistance in raising funds to build a Christian school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Sullivan Family agreed to donate their talents and they did an all-night session at Senerve Studios, Long Beach, Mississippi, recording an LP to help the cause.  

Country/folk singer, KBKH disc jockey, and politician Jimmy Swan (real name James Edgar Schwann) sings a couple of songs on this LP. 

Soon afterwards the Sullivan Family became regulars on country music singer, Jack Cardwell’s TV show The Friendly Variety Show, in the port city of Mobile. 

Meanwhile they started recording for the Loyal Records label, owned by fellow evangelist, revivalist, and broadcast musician Walter Bailes. They released six LPs, an EP, and two singles as they stayed with Bailes between 1959 and the early 1970s. Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill and Brush Arbors were among their most popular songs from that period. 

The Sullivan Family – Does The World See Jesus In You (Loyal EP-102, 1960) 

The Sullivan Family – Give Mother My Crown (Loyal EP-102, 1960)

Also, Margie Sullivan is credited as being on a single with guitarist and singer Marshall Fillingim, Unseen Friend/Jesus Is The Loving Savior (Loyal 111, January 1962).

Beginning in 1962 the Sullivan Family did a series of ‘string band Gospel concerts’ with Bill Monroe. Margie Sullivan did the bookings and they split the proceeds, and so successful was the venture that they got together again in 1963 and 1964.

The Sullivan Family journeyed across the South, making appearances in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas, and in 1963 on Jesse J. G. Whitfield’s Gospel Singing Jubilee television show in Pensacola, Florida. Whitfield was the bass singer, founder, and manager of the Southern Gospel group, Gospel Melody Quartet, later known as the Florida Boys.  

Having had very little exposure outside of a large regional network of radio programs and churches hitherto, the Sullivan Family appeared at Monroe’s festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana, on Sunday morning June 23, 1968. 

This led them to begin appearing regularly at festivals with Monroe, as he championed their music more and more. Soon the Sullivan Family gained a whole new following, finding as much acceptance at bluegrass festivals as on the Gospel music circuit. 

For a while the Monroe Bluegrass Talent Agency represented the Sullivan Family, who were among the initial clients when the agency was set up on 16th Avenue South in Nashville in 1974.  

In the 1970s the Sullivan Family and Monroe co-promoted some festivals near the Sullivan’s 69-acre Sullivan Family Park in Alabama, where they held their own bluegrass gospel festivals. Later, the family helped run the annual Magnolia State Bluegrass Festival; and, with local radio station owner A. R. Byrd, at the Stone Country Music Park, both in Wiggins, Mississippi.

The Sullivan Family-Scarlet Purple Robe – – 1971

The Light In The Sky [1971] 

The Sullivan Family – Working on a Building – circa 1972. 

In 1972 they collaborated with the Father of Bluegrass Music to set up the Bill Monroe Dixie Bluegrass Festival at Chatom, Alabama, and three years later they added a spring show. Subsequently, the event was moved to the Sullivan 69-acre homeplace near St. Stephens, Alabama, where it thrived for a few decades.

Live! – The Sullivan Family 

Sullivan Family Live (LP-DS 332-1172, 1972)

Emmett Sullivan (vocals and banjo); Margie Sullivan (vocals and guitar); Enoch Sullivan (vocals and fiddle); Ronnie Dickerson (bass); Carl Jackson (guitar); Marty Stuart (mandolin). 

During the latter half of the 1970s they recorded three LPs for Carl Queen’s Atteiram Records, and another was released by the Ontario, Canada-based Country label. 

For years, the band performed more than 300 shows a year, travelling all over the United States in their very own bus, emblazoned with the words, “The Famous Sullivan Family,” on its sides. Venues in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Mexico were on their itinerary also. 

In May 1975 Sullivan Family played at Ralph Stanley’s 5th Annual Memorial Festival at McClure, Virginia. Ronnie Freeland recorded the three-day event for Rebel Records, with the resulting two-LP set including two songs by the Sullivan Family – Satisfied and When The Saints Go Marching In

They made their debut on the famed Grand Ole Opry stage the following year, as well as performing on country music pioneer Earnest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree radio show. 

The Sullivan Family spread their wings even further when in November 1980 they made the first of three visits to The Netherlands. On that initial tour they recorded an album Live In Holland

While the band kept up with a grueling schedule of personal appearances, Old Homestead Records releases two of their LPs in very quick succession. The second of these was The Gospel Train Is Coming …. 

The Sullivan Family – There’ll Be No Dying

I Have Found The Way (1989)

In 1989 Margie and Enoch Sullivan founded a newsletter called The Bluegrass Gospel News.

The Sullivan Family live concert in Denton, Texas (part 1)

The Sullivan Family … Denton, Texas (part 2)

The Sullivan Family. Matthew 24. Louisville, Kentucky – 1997

At the turn of the century Margie and Enoch Sullivan told Robert Gentry details about their lives together for the book The Sullivan Family – Fifty Years in Bluegrass Gospel Music 1949-1999 (Sweet Dreams Pub Co., September 1, 2000).

Sullivan Family – Buffalo River Valley Bluegrass/Gospel Festival (July 26, 2003)

Shady Lane Acres, Mondovi, Wisconsin. 

The Sullivan Family Band (June 2008) Some storytelling, plus The Scarlet Purple Robe

Margie Sullivan was hospitalized in April 2009, suffering a suspected heart attack, and underwent five-way cardiac bypass surgery.  She was soon back on her feet, however, and by the August she continued performing. Three months later the couple celebrated 60 years together in the gospel music business with a show at Nashville’s Texas Troubadour Theatre.  

This World Is Not My Home Enoch Sullivan, Golden Valley, NC July 2010

Enoch and Margie Sullivan at Ottis Cook Memorial Gospel Music Park Afternoon Session of the Golden Valley Crusaders Gospel Music Festival on July 10, 2010  

Enoch and Margie Sullivan Up Calvary’s Hill and fiddle tune, July 10, 2010 

WNED filmed them at the Osborne Brothers Hometown Festival

Enoch Sullivan died on February 23, 2011, at the age of 79. Despite yet another setback Margie Sullivan carried on with her gospel mission, performing with family and friends. 

Margie Sullivan, Richard Tew, and friends sing Using My Bible as a Road Map at the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration in Rosine, Kentucky, on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

Marge Sullivan has been described as “Bluegrass Gospel Royalty.” Here she sings Amazing Grace at the Osborne Brothers Hometown Festival, Hyden Citizens Bank.

They have the distinction of giving a 12-year-old Marty Stuart his first professional job. He had first heard them in 1970 at a show in Jackson, Alabama, about 50 miles south of his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and two years later he spent the summer months travelling with the Sullivan Family, playing mandolin and fiddle. 

Someone else who spent that summer with the Sullivan Family and has since gone on to receive great acclaim as a banjo player, guitarist, and songwriter was then 19-year-old Carl Jackson. With another teenager, Ronnie Dickerson (bass), they can be heard on a recording of a concert at the Lakeside Auditorium, Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

In March 1973 the 45-year-old versatile veteran, Joe Stuart [1928-1987], joined the family, preferring a less hectic schedule than that with Bill Monroe. Stuart played second fiddle on their Working On A Building and The Prettiest Flower Will Be Blooming LPs, and played bass and sang on their Louvin Brothers tribute album. Stuart continued playing with them on the road into the mid-1980s. 

Others who have played with the Sullivans are several family members; uncle Jerry Sullivan [1933 – 2014] – who stayed with the band for almost 30 years, daughter Lesa and son-in-law Richard Tew; and a teenage banjo picker Alan Sibley. 

The band earned several accolades, including induction in the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame (1993) and America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2000, Alabama governor Fob James proclaimed the third week in October as “Sullivan Family Week” and October 20th-21st as “Sullivan Family Days.” A similar decree was made for them in Washington County.

Governor Edwin Edwards of Louisiana proclaimed December 31, 1995, as “Margie B. Sullivan Day” in Louisiana. 

In 2005 the Alabama State Council for the Arts presented Margie and Enoch Sullivan with its highest honor for the folk and traditional arts, the Alabama Folk Heritage Award. Also that year, the couple received the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award for their lifetime commitment to the music. 

And on November 6, 2009, the US House of Representatives gave tribute to Margie Sullivan for her accomplishments and dedication to the bluegrass gospel music industry.

With her husky alto lead and harmony singing, Margie Sullivan stayed right up front with her husband, off stage and on.

Throughout her long life in the ministry, from childhood for 80 years and more, Margie Sullivan experienced many low points including the loss of other family members, including her eldest son Wayne, personal injury – several fractures in an automobile accident – preaching the Gospel and singing for what they called “free will offerings” while living on produce from their own farm and income from sales of records and other merchandise, as well as highs, as she and Enoch touched thousands of people with their music over their career. 

R.I.P., Margie Sullivan  

A Discography 

The Sullivan Family

  • In Bluegrass Gospel (Loyal LR 168, December 1960) (re-issued in 1964 as Loyal Records Presents The Sullivan Family)
  • The Sullivan Family With Jimmy Swan (No label no #, 1966) (Also issued as Sing Daddy A Song, (Sullivan no #, ????))
  • Old Brush Arbors (Loyal LR 231, 1968), with Rabe Perkins, of Rebe & Rabe fame. 
  • Gospel Train (Queen City QCA 10476, 1971) 
  • The Sullivan Family (Loyal 24482-1,)
  • Light In The Sky (Loyal LR 252, 1971) 
  • What A Wonderful Savior (Loyal LRLP 266, 1971)
  • Working On A Building (Loyal LP-SR- 219-1171, 1971) (Issued in Canada on Country CS 6003 in 1972)
  • Sullivan Family Live (LP-DS 332-1172, 1972) (re-issued as Live In Philadelphia, Mississippi (Pioneer no #, 1989))
  • The Prettiest Flower Will Be Blooming (Atteiram API-L 1518, 1975)
  • My Old Cottage Home (Atteiram API 1545, 1977)
  • Old And New (Country [Canada] CGS 2-801, 1978 (2-LP set))
  • The Sullivan Family (Atteiram API 1599, 1980)
  • Gospel Train (Free [Netherlands] 3068, 1981)
  • The Sullivan Family Remembers The Louvin Brothers (Lowland 1983, 1983) (re-issued on cassette, Pioneer no #, 1988)
  • Life’s Restless Sea (Old Homestead OHS 70069, 1987)
  • The Gospel Train Is Coming (Old Homestead OHS 70070, 1987) (Actually a re-issue of Queen City QCA 10476); Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side replacing what was entitled Steer Me On The Righteous Pathway, a line from Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side.) Aka Get on Board (cassette)
  • I Have Found The Way (Sullivan Family 1814, 1989) (cassette)
  • Pure And Simple (Homeplace 5001, 1991)
  • In Concert: Live In Holland (Sullivan no # – 1997)  
  • Lonely Road To Calvary (Melrose Music (Canada) MCD 15509, 2000) (double)
  • Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys – Live! At McClure, Virginia (Rebel SLP 1554/55, 1976) (double)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.