The ultimate irony in Still Here, the stellar project from Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, is that one of them no longer is.
But before Gulley died last year after a short fight with cancer, he and Stafford finished most of the work on this 11-song collection. If this is the end of the collaboration of two of the best songwriters and singers in bluegrass, then what a farewell.
The Mountain Home release spans the duo’s career writing together, with two songs from 2003, and some more recent efforts. The songs also cover the waterfront of emotions, from working a job you can’t stand so you can pay the bills and the tortured road to sobriety, to the pain of Alzheimer’s and suicide. All of the stories are told with beautiful, sometimes brutal, honesty, backed with emotion-packed melodies that are both stunning and simple at the same time. The instrumental performances from Stafford on guitar, Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Barry Bales on bass, and Thomas Cassell on mandolin, are as sublime as the singing.
Theres not a skippable track here, but there are a few that rise above the rest, at least in my subjective view. Especially worthy of special mention are So Far and She Comes Back to Me When We Sing.
“Steve and I felt like this was one of the best tunes we’d written,” Stafford writes about So Far in the liner notes. I’m almost in complete agreement. Almost, because to me it’s the very best I’ve heard from them. The song is expertly and intentionally presented the way Don Williams would interpret the work of songwriting great Bob McDill. There’s also a subtle surprise icing on this gem of a cake – a sweet three-word harmony from Gulley’s friend and former band leader, Dale Ann Bradley.
The lyrics on She Comes Back to Me When We Sing are especially poignant. It’s a straight from the headlines story of a woman robbed of her memory by Alzheimer’s – except when she sings. They sing, “She may not remember me, but she remembers every word.” Every time I hear this one, I seem to wind up with something in my eyes.
As a songwriter, I also want to tip my hat to Living Shouldn’t Be This Hard. We’re taught early on to avoid clichés in our writing. But for this one, Stafford and Gulley break the rule, to a wonderful end. They not only embrace the cliché, but they string a mess of them together. I’m going to resist the temptation to list some of them here so you can try to keep track for yourself. It’ll take more than one listen to get them all! The clichés and the uptempo bluegrass picking are so much fun that it’s easy to overlook the point about how hard life can be, COVID or no COVID.
Sometimes, it’s still hard to believe Steve Gulley is gone. I was brought pretty low when I played through this special collection the first time. It seemed unfair that we would never get to hear this special duo again.
But by the time the music stopped, and through every subsequent playing, I’ve had a different feeling: Gratitude that they came together to make music in the first place, and that this recording will always be available to serve as a lasting monument to what once was.