HOT DISH: The Preacher and the Song

Folklore Journal Looks at Origins of an O Brother Favorite

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by former Country Music magazine columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a phenomenon for Hollywood and Music City. The movie hit big time, DVD sales and rentals went over the moon and the soundtrack sold an incredible 7 million records. Acoustic acts who previously eked out a living suddenly made more than enough to pay their bills with money generated from songwriting, singing, television, acting and sold-out concert tours.

I still smile when I recall how thrilled and surprised record label chief Luke Lewis and artist managers were when the album, which cost next to nothing to record, was certified gold. Now, the Indiana University Press’ The Journal of Folklore Research has published an article that raises questions about the composer of “O Death.” The legendary Ralph Stanley’s a cappella performance of the song was one of the highlights of the soundtrack.

Even if you wind up still wondering whether all the facts are really true, it’s a fascinating story about a songwriter.

After the movie’s success, out of the North Carolina mountains came the story of a legendary itinerant crippled preacher named Lloyd Chandler who, following a weekend of sinning and shining in 1916, claimed he had a terrifying, God-sent vision through the Holy Spirit in which Death spoke to him and gave him a song he called “Conversation With Death.” Lloyd’s song closely resembles “O Death.” During his lifetime, Lloyd traveled mountain to mountain, from North Carolina to Virginia and Kentucky, from Tennessee to Alabama, by horseback, bus, car or on foot to preach the Word. He always sang the song he called his gift from the Heavenly Father. Lloyd died in 1978.

Handwritten lyrics of the song were passed down through the years. Followers called it “Lloyd’s Song” or “Crippled Lloyd’s Song.” During revivals, Lloyd’s preaching brother-in-law would sing the song and tell the story behind it. Friends and kin sang the song at church and home prayer meetings.

After the movie became available on home video, mountain folks began renting and watching the DVD and sharing it with neighbors. Those who could read were puzzled when they searched and failed to find Lloyd’s name on the O Brother credits. Older relatives and friends, who still talk about him in the present tense, claimed folks would “fall to the altar and get right with God” when Lloyd sang his song. Poor God-fearing mountain folks didn’t seem as interested in making money from the song as they were in making sure Lloyd got credit for what they believe he created.

His niece, Bertha Wallin McDevitt, claims residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s — who are expecting judgment day at any minute — affirm it is Lloyd’s song and his testimony. Frances Juanita Gosnell says Lloyd was “under the anointment power of God” when he wrote the song. Robena Adams allowed she was watching the Grammy Awards on TV when she heard Ralph Stanley singing and the first thing she said was, “He’s a-singing Lloyd Chandler’s song.” Lloyd’s son, Garrett Chandler, and daughter-in-law, Barbara Roberts Chandler, as well as other kin and friends, claim Lloyd would make your hair stand up when he’d sing the song.

In March 2002, folklorist Carl Lindahl was transcribing information at the Library of Congress. Also in the room, Jan Sohayda, a copyright specialist, was engaged in what she called a “labor of love” as she investigated a North Carolina family’s claimed that their father, Lloyd Chandler, composed “Conversation With Death” in 1916. When she showed Lindahl the song’s text, he immediately recognized it as “O Death” and told her so.

When Sohayda asked for evidence, Lindahl tried — but failed — to prove Lloyd was not the author and also failed to find proof that the song originated, as some suggested, in Africa or the British Isles. In 2002 and 2003, he traveled to North Carolina, where he interviewed several locals around the town of Marshall to gather the information published in The Journal of Folklore Research.

I hope you music and movie fans will read this and decide what you think is the truth. What you think is as close to right as what anybody else thinks. Lloyd is dead, but he still lives in the minds of those who knew him and knew of him. And the song, regardless of who wrote it, is more alive today than ever before.

The FBI’s Got Toby’s Number
“Mr. Keith, we’re with the FBI,” special agent Randy Thysse said backstage at the 2005 CMT Music Awards. Not to worry, though. Toby Keith was presented a commendation signed by FBI director Robert S. Mueller for his “exceptional service in the public interest.” The agent in charge complimented Toby for his patriotism and service to the armed forces through his USO trips to Iraq and other locations overseas. FYI: Toby’s May 17 appearance on the ACM Awards show will be live via satellite from the Middle East.

Scene and Heard
Seen working out at the Hendersonville “Y”: Lorrie Morgan and her son, Jesse Keith Whitley, and John Carter Cash and his lovely wife, Laura. My friend, Martha, and I ran into Lorrie’s daughter, Morgan, while we enjoyed lunch at, the restaurant owned by Lorrie and hubby Sammy Kershaw.

During the CMT Music Awards, Gretchen Wilson appeared with heroes Loretta Lynn and pop duo Heart. A few days later when she was about to go onstage in Dublin, Ireland, another hero, Tony Bennett, came to meet her.

Married men, if you plan on taking your girlfriend to a concert, you are a jerk who’s apt to get caught. That’s what happened to a state senator from Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was spotted by his wife’s friend at a Martina McBride concert in Nashville. D-I-V-O-R-C-E is imminent.

Rhett Akins, Daryle Singletary, Chad Brock and David Kersh had a hunting party in Dothan, Ala., and raised more than $100,000 for Wheelin’ Sportsmen, a program that reintroduces the disabled to hunting, fishing, bird watching and other outdoor activities. Joining them were Aaron Tippin, Blake Shelton, Tracy Lawrence, Jeff Bates, Craig Morgan, Gary Morris and Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry. Akins is one of the founders of the event.

Alison Krauss & Union Station have partnered with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store for recording an exclusive CD to be sold at the restaurants beginning May 10.

Like the late Tammy Wynette, Shelly Fairchild has a cosmetology license to back up her music career.

Wynonna is invited to join B.B. King at the 34th annual Academy of Achievement celebration on June 3 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Three days later, Wy will join Wynton Marsalis for two songs at the Apollo Theater during the season opener of the Jazz From Coast to Coast concert series.

Did you see Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich on the cover of Entertainment Weekly? Inside, there’s a story about the MuzikMafia, Lee Ann Womack’s great country CD, Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket” and Dierks Bentley’s love of traditional music.

Singer-songwriter Georgette Jones, daughter of the legendary George Jones and the late Tammy Wynette, has signed with SESAC for performing rights representation.

Trisha Yearwood went to Georgia to film a video for her new single, “Georgia Rain.” Said the singer, “The song is about young love, but there’s certain things that I don’t want to show in the video. I don’t think they need to show teenagers making out in a truck.”

Kenny Chesney’s “Anything but Mine” is No. 1 for a second week in Billboard. Kenny’s full speed ahead on that hillbilly highway with opening acts Gretchen Wilson and Uncle Kracker.

Appearing north of the border July 14-17 at Craven Country Jamboree in Saskatchewan
are Emerson Drive, Lonestar, Brad Paisley, Mel Tillis, George Canyon, Marty Stuart and Tim McGraw.

I see where Vince Gill was voted president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for a fourth term and E.W. “Bud” Wendell elected chairman for a fifth term. New officers include Trisha Yearwood, Robert W. McLean, Lyric Street’s Randy Goodman, Universal Music Group Nashville’s Luke Lewis and Tim McGraw’s manager, Scott Siman.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Chewy Bread.