Some further thoughts on the passing of Steve Gulley

The passing on Tuesday evening of Steve Gulley, bluegrass singer, songwriter, band leader, and all around great guy, has really had a profound impact on the bluegrass community.

As our obituary on Tuesday night said, Steve was well loved by everyone in the music, whether they were on the business, creative, or consumer side of the ledger. A testament to that admiration can be see in the fact that more than 35,000 people have read that piece since it was posted, and it continues to draw new readers. We hope his family and close friends can take some comfort in seeing how many souls he had touched during his life.

Nearly everyone associated with bluegrass posted touching tributes yesterday on Facebook, some of which we will share, and we would also like to take up some of the aspects of Steve’s career that weren’t the focus of his obituary.

While most of us knew Gulley music through his time with Doyle Lawson, Mountain Heart, Dale Ann Bradley, or his own group, New Pinnacle, he had learned how to be an entertainer in his several years at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in central Kentucky. There he delighted thousands of visitors with his soulful renditions of bluegrass and classic country songs, not to mention his uncanny impressions of popular country artists.

Here he is as Marty Robbins…

…and as John Conlee.

But surely his best known was the remarkable Gulley take on George Jones, which grew over the years from an impression into a memorable tribute, and ultimately his most requested number at live shows. Here is his rendition of The Grand Tour with Dale Ann Bradley in 2012. It’s one not many singers are willing to tackle, given its consensus status as Jones’ greatest vocal triumph.

The obituary contained some comments from his closest friends in the music business, which were excerpted for inclusion, but they are so poignant and deeply felt that we wanted to share them here in their entirety.

First from his oldest friend in bluegrass, Phil Leadbetter.

“I first met Steve Gulley when I was 12 years old. This was the same night that I met Josh Graves, and Steve was in the backup band which was a country group that featured him on electric bass and vocals. Steve and I were just a few months apart in our age, but we were both 12. My birthday is in March and Steve’s in October. He would always tease me on stage about being older than he was.

I lost track of him for several years as I went to Nashville, and he was at Renfro Valley working as Music Director as well as a band member. In 1991 when I started with JD Crowe and the New South, we were playing the festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky. A bus belonging to Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver pulled up and out stepped Steve Gulley. I had lost track of him over the years but here we were standing face-to-face as members of our very favorite bands.

From that day me and Steve stayed very close through his days with Mountain Heart and mine with Wildfire. We eventually decided we wanted to do something together, and along with Alan Bibey we formed the band Grasstowne. I departed Grasstowne after a couple years and joined up with The Whites. It was in 2011 that I was diagnosed with cancer, and it was around that time that Steve joined up with the Dale Ann Bradley Band. After my stem cell transplant in 2012, Steve invited me to come and watch him and Dale Ann. Steve coaxed her to hire me, and though I was not ready to play, I took the job.

Steve and I traveled every weekend together, show to show, and this continued through his days with his band, New Pinnacle, and then with my band the All-Stars of Bluegrass. I have never had a better friend than Steve Gulley, and I can say without a doubt I had no better friend on earth then him.

It is so ironic that the disease that I battle with, and continue to battle with today, has taken him. I always used to thank him for coming to get me and helping me out, and he would always say to me, ‘you know old buddy, I may get sick one day and you will have to help me.’ I never dreamed he would ever fall ill to this terrible disease. There was no better friend on earth than Steve Gulley, and I have never known anyone that has upheld God and Christianity as much as Steve has.

I cannot say that God has ever had a better Warrior here on the earth than Steve. I just hope one day we end up at the same place. I think where Steve is going he has a direct pass. He was a very good man. He helped make me a much better man just being around him. God bless him and his family, his wife Debbie, and all his children as well as his parents

Steve’s father, Don, was his first teacher in the ways of music. While he was just a youngster, his dad performed with The Pinnacle Mountain Boys, a very popular band in the Tennessee/Kentucky region. Not only did the young Steve Gulley hear traditional bluegrass music regularly as a boy, he also got to meet and spend time with the greatest practitioners of the trade. Even before he was a teen, Steve learned to play bass and sat in often with his dad’s group, and as Phil mentioned, found his way into other bands near his home in east Tennessee.

His father’s influence was reflected in the name of Gulley’s band, New Pinnacle.

Another great friend of Steve’s was Tim Stafford, who recalls him as a prince among men.

“Steve Gulley was one of the finest men I ever had the privilege of knowing, and I count every blessing that I was able to work with him and write so many songs together. Our two duet records, Dogwood Winter (2010) and Still Here (2020) are definitely two of the best things I’ve ever done, and I know Steve was very proud of them—especially the new one, and couldn’t wait for people to hear it.

He was a sensitive writer, always in tune with what we were writing about. ‘Brotherman…’  I can hear him say with a smile… ‘What do you feel strong about today?’ We’d find a topic and then we’d work on a lyric together. When he got up and looked out the window at his house, I knew he was thinking it out and something good was about to happen.

We had some memorable sessions. I believe it was our second session, we wrote four songs: Rider on an Endless Line, Pacific Time, Always Never Enough and Nothing but a Whippoorwill, and we were thrilled when all of them were cut. On more than a few occasions, a real experience of his, or from his family and friends, led to a song (Angel on Its Way, A Town That Isn’t There, Heather and Billy, and Long Way Around the Mountain and He Threw Herself Away from our new record).

One of my proudest moments was to stand up with Steve at IBMA’s Awards Show in 2008 to accept Song of the Year for Through the Window of a Train.

As good of a writer as he was, Steve was one of the best singers period, and I’ll never understand why he didn’t get more recognition. He sang tenor on just about everything I ever put out, and he even filled in for Wayne Taylor in Blue Highway for a few weeks when Wayne had colon cancer surgery. But our connection went deeper than music—Steve helped me through some rough times, and I tried to do the same for him. I always thought of him and Bobby Starnes as the brothers I never had but always wanted.

You don’t get to experience many truly good people in your life, much less count them as friends. Steve Gulley was one of a kind—he would literally give the shirt off his back to a stranger, and you will never find a man stronger in his faith and who tried hard every day to live up to it. Prayers for Debbie—he loved you so—and his Mom and Dad, who he absolutely adored, and his extended family.

Shew. This one is tough. Gone way too soon. We are really gonna miss you, Brotherman.”

His other Grasstowne partner, Alan BIbey, remembers him mostly for his personal attributes.

“Steve loved his family as much as anyone I’ve ever met. He was a supremely talented singer and songwriter and he loved it and lived for it, but most of all he loved and lived for the Lord. You can believe he didn’t pass away, he just passed on. His suffering is over and I have no doubt he has received the ultimate healing and is in Heaven rejoicing.

Steve, Phil, and I used to laugh so much on the way to shows I’d lose my voice before I got there. Steve was my friend. We are grieving his loss terribly but he will live on here on earth through all the lives he touched.

Please keep his dear family in your prayers. We love you Steve.”

Other major figures in bluegrass memorialized Gulley on Facebook, like this from Kenny Smith, who drew a caricature of him to use in helping raise funds for his medical expenses.

It is available still on t-shirts online.

“Steve Gulley was one of the best friends I ever had. We would stay up almost all night talking about stories that we both lived. He loved characters just as much as I do.

What an honor for me to draw Steve. When I drew that pic of Steve, I would close my eyes and think of Steve singing The Grand Tour, and it was that moment after he finished the crowd would go crazy! I watched him sing that particular song a bunch, and with each time it seemed somehow better than the last.

I really got to know what a good guy Steve was, watching him interact with the students at LMU Acoustic Music Camp. He was the biggest inspiration to all of us that were lucky enough to teach there. He was so passionate about teaching, and passing on what he had learned from playing all those years.

Steve was a pro – all the way around. When he would sing and play it touched you, and deep.

Steve was a great husband, dad, and grandad. I’ve seen him tear up about how happy he was with being all three. We used to stay up all night talking about how good God was to us, and how He was using us… how blessed we were to be saved. There’s no doubt in my mind that Steve was ready to meet our Lord and Savior.

I just wasn’t quite ready for Steve to leave yet. I am praying for Debbie Gulley tonight and their family to get through these days ahead. I am proud to have met and called Steve Gulley my friend all these years.”

Another was shared by Jimmy Olander, guitarist with country band Diamond Rio.

“Steve Gulley is one of my bluegrass heroes who had that special kind of lonesome that rang through in every note he sang. I met Steve in Bean Blossom, IN where Phil Leadbetter was putting on a Diamond Rio/Restless Heart concert. Phil had been struggling with cancer, and Steve drove Phil there while showing us all the great example of what friendship looks like. He was by Phil’s side all day, and did what ever was needed.

For the longest time I had truly loved Steve’s vocals. It’s the grit and authenticity of this kind of artist that pushes all my buttons. When Phil introduced us, Steve went out of his way to gush on my guitar playing, while all the time I was silently thinking, ‘Hold it together Olander…this is Steve Gulley!!!’

This was a profound moment for me, as someone I admired so much took the time to lift me up. I felt like Steve and I really connected that day, and from then on we would be friends. I’m sad to say that was the ‘only’ chance I got to spend time with Steve. I’m very grateful to Phil Leadbetter for that introduction and to my partners to have put me in a position to meet my heroes.

Rest In Peace Steve Gulley.”

That may not say it all, but it says an awful lot. Well loved, well remembered. We miss you Steve.

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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.