"I never did believe in gloom and doom, I never did think you ought to preach to somebody in a song," says Jerry Sullivan, a jovial man in his mid-sixties. "Sing a song about truth and hope, and that will get a message to a person a lot quicker than when you try to tell him 'don't, don't, don't.' I always thought the word was, 'tell them the good news of the gospel,' and that brings a smile to my face when I think of that."
Sullivan's got something to smile about these days. He and daughter Tammy, 35, just released a new gospel album called "Tomorrow" on Ricky Skaggs' Ceili Records label, filled with songs that are as enriching musically as they are spiritually.
Like their last two albums -- 1995's "At The Feet Of God" was a Grammy nominee -- it was produced by Marty Stuart, who first played with Jerry when he was barely into his teens.
"He just knows our music so well, and he's a big part of it," Tammy Sullivan says. "We couldn't find anyone else that would know us like he does. He grew up on that kind of music, and it's part of him, too."
The Sullivans frequently refer to their music as "brush arbor"style, named after the informal, temporary shelters built by country people for worship meetings. Though it bears a close resemblance to bluegrass, it can be subtly different.
"The kind of music that the Sullivan Family, which Jerry came out of, listened to in the old days was like the 1940's version of Bill Monroe's music, early Stanley Brothers sounds, those kinds of things," says Stuart. "Plus they have their own rhythms that come out of Louisiana and Alabama -- just the overtones of the South."
On "Tomorrow," the duo is backed by Stuart, country artist Andy Griggs and a stellar assortment of bluegrass pickers, including famed fiddler Stuart Duncan, consummate banjo picker Charlie Cushman and bassists Mike Bub (Del McCoury Band) and Mark Fain (Kentucky Thunder). Filled out with Jerry's guitar, the result is a sound that ranges from powerful, driving traditional bluegrass to gentle acoustic country.
What really lifts "Tomorrow" into the company of the year's best releases, though, is the songwriting. With but one exception, the old Stamps-Baxter hymn, "You Never Mentioned Him To Me," all of the material comes from Stuart and Jerry Sullivan, most of it written together.
"I wrote my first song in 1949," recalls Jerry, who started playing music with his daughter about 20 years ago. "It was called 'I Can See God's Moving Hand.' From then on, I just wrote what I felt in my heart. I'm not somebody that can just say, 'hey, I'll write you a song.' I pray about it, and when I get the urge to write, God has always blessed us with songs. And that's the way me and Marty write together, we'll get together and have a prayer meeting, and then he'll get out the guitar, and we'll set up the table and we start, and God always gives us some songs, every time. He's given us some wonderful songs, and I thank him for it."
"We can't write songs for a particular denomination," adds Stuart. "We have to just write through the eyes of the spirit, through spirituality, with no condemnation, no finger-pointing. We can tell Bible stories, or we can share our own beliefs or our own experiences, but we can't condemn, poke fun or take anybody to Hell. We have to really just watch and be pure hearted about it."
Tammy Sullivan underlines just how experience-driven the process is by telling about one of "Tomorrow's" most compelling songs, the blues-tinged "Jesus Cares For Me."
"That came about when we were riding down the road in the bus. I was going through a very dark time in my life, I was going through a divorce, I was becoming a single mother, just a lot of things, and I was kind of down and had been that way for several days. Marty said, 'You know what? We're going to write this song for Hattie' -- he calls me Hattie -- we're going to write this for her. And so that's kind of like my song; it's where I was at the time."
Indeed, if the Sullivans' gospel songs favor an "uplifting" message, as Jerry puts it, that doesn't mean that it ignores life's sorrows and dangers, and the vocals -- especially Tammy's muscular, full-throated leads -- are filled with powerful, heartfelt emotion that effectively conveys both a world-wise acknowledgment of the here-and-now and the promise of salvation.
"You can take them to any office or any auditorium or any street festival in the world, and after people hear them for about three minutes, they get it," Stuart says. "As I grow spiritually and check into the eyes of the modern church, I find that most people Tammy's age, and this baby 21st century generation, they're tired of playing church, they're tired of the game of church. They want something real, something that feeds them spiritually, and whether they've got tattoos all over them or have been to prison 20 times, or they're pregnant and unmarried or whatever, I think that's what Tammy speaks for, and I think that touches a lot of people's hearts."
As Stuart's comment suggests, Alabama natives Jerry and Tammy perform in a variety of settings, and Tammy says that both the music and its message have found favor with their audiences.
"I've found that because some of the concerts we play are gospel concerts, a lot of people are coming to hear the message, but then there's a lot of people that love the music, too. We played some bluegrass festivals in Alaska not long ago, and those people -- I'm sure they weren't there to hear the gospel, but they loved the music, and they loved what our songs have to say, too."
"We had the best time on that trip," Jerry laughingly recalls. "We went salmon fishing, and made a vacation of it. We had Andy (Griggs) along with us" -- and that wasn't the first time the rising young star had sung with Jerry and Tammy. "See, he married my baby daughter Stephanie, and so he traveled with us," Jerry explains. "He was learning to sing, and he needed experience on the road, so when he married into the family, I heard his voice and said, 'come on, I'll put you to work.' He just enjoyed it so much, and we did, too. He's a fun person you know, and we enjoyed him. He made us laugh and blessed us all."
Yet though the Sullivans have headlined at concerts and festivals and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, they haven't forgotten their roots.
In fact, maintaining their connection to the myriad of small Southern churches continues to be vitally important to them.
"Every once in a while, I tell Tammy 'look, let's block our regular bookings and go to those backroads churches again,'" Jerry says. "It's like going to a filling station and filling up."
"I've seen so many times that people come into places and then they walk away feeling worse at the end, after being in church, than they did before they got there, just from being preached at," Tammy concludes, as she returns to the Sullivans' fundamental outlook. "You can tell somebody enough times that you've got to do this, you've got to do that -- well, it's not about a bunch of rules. We just want to reach out to people and say hey, we love you, and listen to this."