Friday, October 15, 2010

A Visit with Steve Gulley & Dale Ann Bradley

The road west from Big Stone Gap towards Cumberland Gap follows a mostly four lane path through a widening valley where the first signs of agriculture we've seen in several days appear.  The Cumberland Gap area is geographically and politically complex as Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky come together atop Cumberland Mountain where the views look out on four states. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina.  The presence of Daniel Boone and the menace of the Civil War hang over the area through which  armies of settlers pushed west and a century later Union and Confederate troops fought back and forth.

We had visited Steve Gulley at his parents' home in Cumberland Gap a few years ago.  We drove around Gulley Curve, past the little Baptist church where Steve grew up.  The dilapidated remains of the Gulley store, where Steve spent much of his childhood, stand covered with vines across the curve from the church.  We crossed the creek and pulled into the Gulley drive, suddenly realizing that Steve, in his red pickup, was right behind us.  He greeted us warmly and welcomed us into his small, neat home where we spent an hour or so catching up with him and his projects, the progress that Grasstowne has been making, and chatting about mutual friends.

Steve Gulley at Home
The mile-long tunnel between Tennessee and Kentucky takes us into a new world.  The Tennessee side is agricultural, feeling neat and prosperous.  Lincoln Memorial University, a growing and well-thought of private university that could have become Duke in another incarnation, dominates the area.  On the Kentucky side of the tunnel we were immediately thrown into the commercial strip that often dominates the area just outside important state and national parks.  Motels, chain eating places, and strip malls serve the needs of both local residents and tourists alike.  We met Dale Ann Bradley for a late breakfast at Waffle King for a late breakfast.  Or was it lunch?

Steve with Grasstowne at IBMA Fan Fest - 2010
Steve Gulley is currently lead singer with Grasstowne, a band he, Alan Bibey, and Phil Leadbetter formed about three years ago, after Steve had left Mountain Heart. Grasstowne has recently experienced some personnel changes that have vastly strengthened it.  His soulful tenor voice is recognized as one of the finest in bluegrass and he is in constant demand as a harmony singer.  His recent album with co-writer Tim Stafford of Blue Highway, "Dogwood Winter" has been very well received. He has been working a great deal recently in his studio, Curve Recording Studio, as producer on a variety of projects.  Steve's wife, Debbie, is a performer at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Personally, he is warm and forthcoming, an articulate and thoughtful analyst of where bluegrass music is going and where it's been.  He's steeped in the music and history of the region where he grew up and speaks with passion and insight about both.  It's always a pleasure to spend some time with him.

Dale Ann Bradley Performing at IBMA Fan Fest - 2010
Dale Ann Bradley has three times been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year (2007, 2008, 2009) and has had a stellar recording and performing career.  Her recent album "Don't Turn Your Back" on Compass Records was an artistic and commercial success.  She has recently been touring, along with Steve Gulley and a moveable feast of pickers you want to see as the Bluegrass All-Star Jam as well as with her own band.  Perhaps less known as a harmony vocalist, Dale Ann is, nevertheless, a sought after back-up singer as well as a renowned lead.  Dale Ann lives her life with enthusiasm and vigor despite battling with some health issues. Having sampled the demands of living and working in Nashville, she has returned to eastern Kentucky where her roots are, and appears happier and more comfortable in her skin than we've seen her in the several years we've known her.  Her enthusiasm for music and life is nearly unmatched in anyone.

We drove north on U.S. 26 and then turned left through an open flood gate into Dale Ann's home town of Pineville, KY, which is one of the poorest towns in the state.  In the 1977 floods on the Cumberland River, Pineville was nearly destroyed under twenty feet of water.  That it has recovered at all is a miracle.

Around the Pineville Town Square
The Bell Theater

 Steve and Dale Ann were eager to talk about their latest project. They have announced the formation of The Cumberland River Academy of Bluegrass and Appalachian Music.  It has long been recognized that there is a wealth of bluegrass, Appalachian, and country music in this three state region surrounding the Cumberland Gap.  It is also clear that the mountain culture of the last two centuries is slowly disappearing due to improved transportation and communication, better economic opportunities in other regions, and the general homogenization of American culture.  Dale Ann and Steve, whose musical collaboration and friendship dates back to the days when they were both singers at The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, have determined to develop a project to support and encourage the development and spread of the local musical culture.
Dale Ann and Steve at the Bell Box Office

The resulting project has a three prong approach.  The Academy will be teaching lessons in the full range of bluegrass and mountain instruments as well as a range of skill areas like radio broadcasting, small band development, songwriting, harmony/vocal singing, and clogging.  A strong group of local musicians will teach in this element, including Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Don Gulley, Ben Jenkins, Darron and Vanessa Nichols and others.  More information will be available soon at the Academy Web site.  A component of this program element will be bluegrass in the schools programs designed to acquaint the young people of eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee, and western Virginia with their musical heritage. 

The Theater Auditorium
A second strand will be to sponsor performances by bluegrass, old-time, and traditional mountain music performers at the refurbished Bell Theater on the Pineville town square.  Because Pineville is near a route commonly traveled by many bands on their travels to larger venues, it's likely that Steve and Dale Ann will be able to book first rate bands into the Bell on a regular basis.  While we were outside the theater talking, several town boosters stopped by to comment on their excitement at this element of the project.

The Cumberland River Academy will also present a Mountain Roots Music Camp from March 24 - 27 at the Pine Mountain State Resort in Pineville.  This music camp will present instruction at all skill levels from some of the top bluegrass musicians anywhere.  Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, and Darron & Vanessa Nichols will head the list, with Alan Bibey (mandolin), Tim Stafford (guitar), Ron Stewart (banjo and fiddle), and Missy Raines (bass) on the teaching staff.  More information will become available soon.  The program of the Cumberland River Academy of Bluegrass and Appalachian Music is far-seeing and ambitious.  The two people proposing it are competent, thoughtful, and dedicated to the communities from which they come.  This project will have the support of the Pineville community as well as surrounding areas. Keep an eye out for further programs and information.

After a brief reunion with Steve's attractive and talented wife Debbie, he led us to the top of Cumberland Mountain, where we walked to the overlook to stand where three states come together and look out into the haze to North Carolina.

From the Park we drove back to Steve's home for a visit to his studio.  Hidden away in a non-descript garage, Steve's studio, Curve Recording Studio, has all the necessary equipment and design to provide a wonderful recording environment and Steve is well known as a talented sound engineer.  We sat behind his mixing board as he showed us some of the wizardry sound engineering requires, a world we hear terms from but which remains a mystery to me.  Nevertheless, Steve played some of the new material that will be heard at home and over the air in coming months as we chatted about the level of talent he finds and hopes to promote from this three state region.  Meanwhile, his own work as a studio musician can be done from home and e-mailed to the producers, wherever they are.  This well designed studio will be providing high quality recordings and important inputs to others' work for years to come.


We drove home past the coal town of Harlan, KY and through Pennington Gap where the sun still goes down about three in the day as hills rise sharply from the road and the little mountain communities still cluster up the hollers.