With the bluegrass world still smarting from the untimely death of Steve Gulley, undoubtedly among the finest singers and songwriters our music has brought forth, it is easy to forget that not long before his passing, Steve left us with a final piece of work, another album of songs written and sung with Tim Stafford.
That record, soon to be released by Mountain Home Music, will be our last look at Gulley’s artistry, but it can’t begin to capture the depths of wisdom and love that resided in his heart.
That will be left to those who knew him best to tell, like Stafford, his long-time songwriting collaborator, and good friend. Their second single from this farewell album, Long Way Around the Mountain, releases tomorrow with Mountain Home, and Tim shared a number of memories and details about this song, and how it came to be.
“Long Way Around the Mountain comes from Steve Gulley’s memories of a family story about a coal ‘war’ in the coalfields of East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky in the 1940s. The song was special to Steve because of his family’s connection to the events. Steve had a keen sense of family history, and as a History major at Lincoln Memorial, he was well aware of the role of coal mining and labor unrest in Appalachia, and specifically his region. We had written about it before, with songs like A Town That Isn’t There, (recorded by Mountain Heart) which dealt with the company towns that many of his ancestors lived in.
During the Fork Ridge Coal Mine War of 1941, just over the Claiborne County, Tennessee line from Middlesboro, Kentucky, miners in the Yellow Creek fields were told through the grapevine inside the mine that people were being killed up top—the anti-union company gun thugs were ‘shooting men down at the gate.’ Some miners had to take a long route home that involved travel across Bell County, Kentucky.
Steve’s Dad, Don Gulley’s, great uncle and father were miners—one of his uncles, Marcellus Gulley, is the one who described the events that happened in the song. Steve’s mother, Linda (born 1943), is from that area, and Don’s father worked there in a mine where his brother Corum was killed when slate fell on him. Don says there were many gun battles in Fork Ridge, where the Union miners confronted the non-union miners and the company men. There was one spot in the road there, where there was a huge rock—the rock was eventually shot to pieces and blood often covered the road. During this particular event, Marcellus and his fellow workers had to take the long road to get home, because it got so rough. Steve said they could hear guns being discharged as they were coming up the mine shaft.
Don said that Steve had also spoken quite a bit with Don’s mother—Steve’s grandmother—about what happened, and I remember Steve’s vivid recollections about the miners being told to find another way home from the mine since there was ‘blood running down the highway’ and ‘they were shooting men down at the gate.’ We put Steve’s words directly into the song. It was one he had wanted us to write for a number of years.
We wrote the song at Steve and Debbie Gulley’s house in Cumberland Gap, TN on March 28, 2019, and recorded it at Bobby Starnes’s Hat Creek Studios in Jonesborough, TN on March 6, 2020 with Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Barry Bales on bass, Thomas Cassell on mandolin, and myself on guitar and vocals—Steve sings the lead, tenor on the chorus.”
It’s a mighty powerful number, delivered in a driving bluegrass style.