One simple definition of survivor is: “One left alive when others have died.” However, Marty Martel had something a little more jubilant in mind when he assembled an all-star choir of country “survivors” to record one of his songs Wednesday night in a Nashville recording studio.
Some of country music’s greatest voices gathered at the historic RCA Studio A (now called Javalena) on Music Row to perform “I’m a Survivor,” a song Martel co-wrote with Mike Shrimpf with hope that it will bring attention to artists who still have a fan base but have been abandoned by most major record labels and mainstream country radio stations.
A who’s who of the Grand Ole Opry were present to lend their support. Country Music Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Louvin, Ralph Emery, Jack Greene, Stonewall Jackson, Jimmy C. Newman, Jeanne Pruett, Gail Davies, Narvel Felts, Merle Kilgore, Jo-el Sonnier, David Frizzell, Dickey Lee, Sheb Wooley and about 20 other artists were on hand to cut the song.
A group of session musicians including guitar ace Harold Bradley and harmonica wiz Charlie McCoy kicked off the song, and the entire group sang the choruses, with solo performers singing lines of each verse.
The age of the choir members ranged from 38-year-old Eddie Stubbs — a former fiddler for the Johnson Mountain Boys and a current announcer for the Grand Ole Opry — to 90-year-old Opry great Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle (who celebrates another birthday this month).
Other stars, including Johnny Paycheck, Jean Shepard, Johnny Russell, Jim & Jesse, Mac Wiseman, The Jordanaires, Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright had scheduling conflicts and are expected to overdub their voices on to the recording in the next few days. George Jones and Charlie Daniels, though not scheduled to participate with the recording, sent letters to Martel expressing they are behind the project in spirit.
The Governor of Tennessee also championed the effort. Steven Brown, the producer of the recording, read a letter to the group of seasoned musicians from Gov. Don Sundquist shortly before recording began. “Your hard work and dedication to the country music industry is one of the highlights of Nashville, Tennessee,” the Governor wrote in part. “I support all of you, as well as many of your listeners for the ‘Survivor Project.’”
Once completed, a CD single of “I’m a Survivor” will be shipped to radio stations for airplay. The song will be released on Brown’s independent label, Southstar Records. A video was also being shot during the performance, and the finished project will be very similar to “We Are the World,” with both the single and video available for sale to the public. A television special to coincide with the project is also in the talking stages. All proceeds from the project will go to Special Olympics of Tennessee and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Writer royalties have been donated to ROPE, the Reunion of Professional Entertainers organization.
Those involved might be discontent with the music industry’s lack of support for older musicians, but the recording session took on the spirit of a joyous homecoming of friends and peers rather than some kind of protest rally. “Hurry up — Bill Carlisle has to get to his funeral!” one country star joked, obviously feeling comfortable with his company, while patiently standing still through the group photo session. “Yeah, I’m already dressed for it,” the dapper-looking Carlisle quipped in return, showing he’s a good sport.
“I want this project to be a celebration of what these country veterans have been and what many of them still could be,” project coordinator Martel said. No rookie at defending veteran musicians, Martel is a former performer who now handles Johnny Paycheck, Ray Price and other musicians as their manager and/or booking agent. He previously released a song called “You Won’t Play Their Records Anymore” directed towards radio programmers.
“We are making a statement with the ‘Survivor Project,’” Martel continued, “but it’s a very positive statement. We’re not telling radio that they have done us wrong. There were two versions of the song. One was a negative version, and I just sort of put it in ‘File 13.’ We just want to make a statement to radio that all these people still sing pretty daggone good, and there should be a place in their format to still play their records. There are a substantial number of country music fans who still want to hear and see the deserving acts.”
One verse of the song goes: “I’ve made it this far and I’m still here now/And I ain’t walkin’ away, ’cause I don’t know how/I’ve kept my music country, even singin’ in a choir/No matter what they say, I’m still a survivor.”
Inspired by a saying that Country Music Hall of Fame member Pee Wee King once told Martel, a large banner was hung in the recording facility that reads: “Sometimes for the sake of the future we need to look at the past … Welcome each of you — The survivors of country music.”
Martel admitted some invited singers didn’t show because the word “survivor” bothers them; they don’t want to be labeled a survivor yet. Some feared the project might be too controversial. Others simply felt it would be a wasted effort.
“I called a major veteran artist and offered to have him do this,” Martel explained, giving an example where he was able to change the mind of at least one performer. “He said, ‘What for? What are you going to get out of this?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to get anything out of it, but I’ll tell you this, when this song is finished, whatever I do will be more than what you have had done for you in the past 10 or 12 years. This song makes a statement. It says stuff that needs to be said, in a nice way.’ The artist said, ‘I’ll be there. That’s good enough for me.’”
Charlie Louvin, one half of the legendary Louvin Brothers, doesn’t have any qualms with the “survivor” tag. In fact, he says he is downright proud of it. “I’ve survived being a duet partner with my (late) brother (Ira), I’ve survived being a duet partner with Melba Montgomery, I’ve survived being a duet partner with Emmylou Harris. I’ve survived life on the road as the principal driver of my bus — over eight million miles without scraping the paint on anybody’s property. So, I feel I’m qualified to be a survivor.”
Eddie Stubbs, even though he is almost half the age of Louvin, echoed his sentiment. “I feel like I am a survivor,” he said. “I’ve had my share of obstacles that I’ve faced personally and professionally over the years. I feel very honored to be here. These people here are my heroes.”
Jimmy C. Newman, who has been an Opry member for 43 years, summed up the feelings of many of his peers in the studio. “Yes, I’m a survivor. Think of the alternative. I’m very lucky to be a survivor … We’re just trying to state a fact: We are survivors. We’re still in the music business.”