Bluegrass gospel favorites Jerry and Tammy Sullivan — a father-daughter team — have had a little taste of the “big time” in country music, but they remain true to their roots in the Pentecostal church.
Saturday night (July 8) they made another of their frequent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.
Marty Stuart produced, played on and wrote songs for their new CD, Tomorrow; Ricky Skaggs put it out on Ceili Music, the record label he owns.
Stephanie Griggs — Tammy’s sister and Jerry’s daughter — is married to country singer Andy Griggs, whose debut album just went gold. Both Griggs and Stuart have traveled with the Sullivans, taking inspiration from their powerfully exuberant singing style and their spiritual grounding.
“We’d be that Johnny Paycheck-gone-gospel kind of sound, and here they come with that true, old-school bluegrass,” Griggs says of the days when his band opened for the Sullivans. “That’s when I fell in love with the picking and got to understand the art. Sometimes I think there’s more art in bluegrass than just about any other kind of music.”
Jerry Sullivan, 65, still lives in Wagarville, Ala., in the southern part of the state, near the Mississippi border. Tammy, 35, moved to Nashville a few years ago to be near Stephanie, who played keyboards and sang with her family before marrying Griggs. “My sister and I have been very, very close,” Tammy says.
Though their music plays well on university campuses and at folk festivals, bluegrass festivals and city arts festivals around the country, the Sullivans still appear most frequently in churches.
“We try to include a church every weekend,” Tammy says. “We’ll have a festival and then we’ll play a church, too. Then, there’s weekends where we play all churches, three or four dates.”
Jerry opens each show by telling his listeners that the Sullivans are on stage not to entertain, but “to lift up the Lord,” and he invites them to worship in whatever way they feel moved to do so.
“A lot of times, there are people who can’t sit still,” Tammy says. “They’ll stand up where they’re at, raise their hands and clap their hands for pure joy. I’ve seen some people come forward while we’re singing and the pastor or the elders of the church will come forward right then and pray for them.”
The new CD — the Sullivans’ first in five years — is loaded with original sacred numbers such as “Show Me the Way Home,” “He Lives” and “Jesus Cares for Me.” Jerry co-wrote eight of the selections with Stuart. They prayed before each writing session, asking for divine guidance as they put pen to paper.
“I told Marty, ‘God’s going to give us the songs,’” Sullivan recalls. He was more concerned about finding someone to release the album; then Skaggs stepped in and gave the green light to record.
“Finally, Marty was sitting down behind the controls [in the studio],” Sullivan says, “and we was out there in front of him. We were laughing then.”
Despite a recent bout with colon cancer that required surgery and subsequent, debilitating treatments, Jerry is performing again, carrying the Sullivans’ hope-filled Christian message to their audiences.
“I want ‘em to know that I’m real,” he says of his priorities. “They won’t go tomorrow and see me some other way than what I am today. I really do believe in what I’m doing and I want to get that over to them and let them feel that. There’s something about love — everybody wants that.”