There are a couple of clichés used to describe a good guy. One is he would give you the shirt off his back. The other is that he didn’t seem to have an enemy in the world.
Both of those are getting worn out right now to describe bluegrass artist and songwriter Steve Gulley, who died Tuesday night at University of Tennessee Hospital after a short fight with pancreatic cancer. He was 57 years old.
Gulley would give you the shirt off your back, and you could bet your last dollar that if you were a Kentucky fan, it would be bright Tennessee orange. And I’d love to meet the guy who didn’t care for Steve, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting. I don’t think he exists.
Steve’s many friendships were evident on social media in recent days. I can’t recall anyone in bluegrass who was the recipient of as many public prayers as Steve.
Gulley was a first-rate songwriter and an underrated tenor singer who left his mark with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Mountain Heart, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, and, more recently, his own band, New Pinnacle.
But even more than that, he was a true gentleman and a heart-on-his-sleeves Christian. It didn’t matter if you were a Hall of Famer or a rookie, once he met you, he remembered you.
“When I was a newer writer on the scene, Steve always made a point to say hi, remembered my name, and was quick with a smile and a hug,” said songwriter Dawn Kenney. “That sort of thing means the world to a newbie. He was good people.”
Gulley’s death hit his best friend, Phil Leadbetter, especially hard. Leadbetter, an award-winning respophonic guitar player, has been though several bouts of cancer. Gulley was with him every step of the way, eventually getting Phil back on stage with the Dale Ann Bradley Band after he had a stem cell transplant. They went on to play together in Gulley’s band, New Pinnacle, and Leadbetter’s All Stars of Bluegrass.
“I have never had a better friend than Steve Gulley,” he said. “It is so ironic that the disease that I battled 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. He would always say to me, ‘you know, old buddy, I may get sick one day and you will have to help me.'” When Steve was diagnosed just a few weeks ago, Phil was one of the first people he told. The friendship that formed at age 12 lasted until the end.
Another close friend, Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford, called Gulley “one of the finest men I ever had the privilege of knowing. I count every blessing that I was able to work with him and write so many songs together.”
I know Steve felt the same way about Tim, because he told me on multiple occasions. When Steve and Tim had a writing date, Steve was as excited as an eight-year-old boy on Christmas Eve.
They created two duet records, Dogwood Winter in 2010 and the just completed Still Here.
“He was a sensitive writer, always in tune with what we were writing about,” Stafford said. “‘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.”
They’ve written a number of songs that you’ve heard on the radio, including the 2008 IBMA Song of the Year, Through the Window of a Train.
As with Leadbetter, Stafford’s connection with Gulley ran deeper than music. “Steve helped me through some rough times, and I tried to do the same for him.”
“Shew, this one is tough,” Stafford said. “Gone way too soon.”
Like Leadbetter and Stafford, Alan Bibey remembers Gulley for his music and his unbending faith. “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.”
Indeed, Steve’s wife Debbie, mentioned on social media that when he was hospitalized and fading, when he could have been asking, “Why me,” he was still whispering prayers.
“His suffering is over, and I have no doubt he has received the ultimate healing and is in Heaven rejoicing,” Bibey said.
I feel safe in saying that Steve Gulley is one of those folks who will be remembered long after he’s gone. His voice and the songs he wrote will still be on the radio, of course, and his friends will still share the stories they collected with Steve over decades on the road.
See, that’s the other thing about Steve Gulley. He was hilarious. You only needed to be around him for a few minutes to learn that. “Steve, Phil and I used to laugh so much on the way to shows that I’d lose my voice before I got there,” Bibey said.
Somewhere tonight, while Steve’s songs echo in this world, he’s no doubt teaching a few of them to the Angel Band, while at the same time trying to convince them to wear blaze orange t-shirts over their wings.
In addition to his wife, Debbie, Steve leaves two daughters, Alyson Robinson and Lyndsey Hunley, and a son, Brad Gulley.