News Column

Former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune set to play bluegrass festival

August 15, 2013


Aug. 15--He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame. And Thursday night, Jimmy Fortune, who was a part of the legendary Statler Brothers for 21 years, will bring his music to McDowell County.

Fortune is one of the headliners for the 39th Annual North Carolina State Bluegrass Festival at Tom Johnson Rally Park. He will perform a solo show at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. He will come back to the stage at 9:20 p.m. to do a show with acclaimed bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent.

In a telephone interview with The McDowell News, the 58-year-old singer and songwriter said he's more of a country artist rather than a bluegrass artist. But he's always loved the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass and is looking forward to tonight's show.

"I am not a bluegrass artist but I am a big, big fan," said Fortune. "I am sure one of these days I will try my hand at it."

Like the other members of the Statler Brothers, Fortune is a son of the mountains and foothills of Virginia. He is originally from Nelson County, Va. That place is also the home of writer Earl Hamner, who created the classic television show "The Waltons." This show was based on Hamner's memories of growing up in the Virginia mountains during the Great Depression.

In September of last year, Fortune was invited to a reception for Hamner and the cast of "The Waltons."

"They rolled out the red carpet for me and treated me like gold," he said of that experience.

Jimmy Fortune was the seventh of nine children who all grew up with music in the rural Virginia community. In 1967, when he was 12, his parents gave him a guitar.

"When I got that guitar, I knew -- if I could learn to sing and play -- that I would make a living in music," he said. "I just loved group singing, quartet singing."

Fortune worked at a car dealership in Charlottesville Va. and did car repairs on the side before he got his big break. One time, Fortune and the group he had at the time stopped at a hotel in Manassas, Va. They approached the hotel's owner and asked him if they could perform there. The owner told what he really needed was some help in unloading a shipment of fresh mattresses for all the 180 rooms at the hotel.

"We got out there and loaded those mattresses into his hotel rooms," said Fortune.

By the time they were done, Fortune and his bandmates were exhausted. But the hotel owner was impressed with what they were willing to do in order to get a gig.

"He hired us and we had work for years," he said. "I was trying to do something I loved."

In 1982, Fortune got his big break when he was asked to audition for the Statler Brothers. The legendary group had already won a Grammy for "Flowers on the Wall" and had recorded many country music classics such as "The Class of '57" and "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You."

But in the early 1980s, member Lew DeWitt was in failing health due to Crohn's disease. DeWitt heard Fortune singing at a ski resort and recommended that he could be a temporary replacement.

"(DeWitt) heard me singing that night," said Fortune. "He came up and we talked."

Fortune and the other members went to Harold Reid's house where they tried out some songs together. It was obvious that he would be a perfect fit for the group while DeWitt recovered.

"I never dreamed that they would wind up hiring me," said Fortune. "Lo and behold they called me to come down to Nashville. The blend was still there. After it was all over with, they said we want you to do it."

Fortune performed his first show with the Statler Brothers on Jan. 28, 1982, in Savannah, Ga. Unfortunately for DeWitt, his Crohn's disease did not get better. He was unable to return to the stage with the Statlers. DeWitt told Fortune and the others that he did not think he could handle the road any more. Fortune became a permanent member of the Statler Brothers on July 4, 1982. He thanked DeWitt and the other members for giving him this opportunity.

In addition to his singing, Fortune contributed some of the group's biggest hits. He wrote the group's second No. 1 hit, "Elizabeth," on their 1983 album "Today,"

"The first song I ever wrote and it became a No, 1 song won Music City News Songwriter of the Year for that," said Fortune.

He followed it up with two more No. 1 hits -- "My Only Love" (from 1984's "Atlanta Blue") and "Too Much On My Heart" (from 1985's "Pardners in Rhyme"). Fortune also wrote the top 10 hit "Forever" from 1986's "Four for the Show" and co-wrote the top 10 hit "More Than a Name on the Wall" from 1988's "The Greatest Hits."

As member of one of country music's greatest groups, he got to perform in places that others could only dream about. The Statlers performed at the White House on a couple occasions. The first was for President Ronald Reagan and the second was for President George H.W. Bush. The group also went out to Los Angeles and got to meet such stars as Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra and Burt Reynolds.

One memorable event concerns legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. In the mid-1980s, the group was performing in Tucson, Ariz. Taylor was filming a movie there at the same time and it also happened to be her 52nd birthday.

"Her manager heard we were there and asked if we could sing for her," said Fortune.

Naturally, the group sang "Elizabeth" for her birthday party. "Harold (Reid) stepped up and said we wrote that song for her," said Fortune. "That was not the case. I wrote it because it was a beautiful name. I just fell in love with her, her blue eyes. She was so beautiful."

Fortune and the other members of the Statler Brothers would perform in all 50 states and throughout Canada. Every year, they would hold their Happy Birthday USA concert and parade celebration in Staunton, Va., The Nashville Network's popular "The Statler Brothers Show" aired for seven seasons and debuted in 1991 as the highest rated show for that network.

"The love for it was the payoff for me," he said. "I have made a lot of great memories and made a lot of great friends along the way, The Statlers knew that I was really serious about music, about what I did."

In 2002, the Statler Brothers decided it was time to retire from the road and the group came to an end. Fortune said he still keeps in touch with the other members, Harold Reid, Don Reid and Phil Balsley. Lew DeWitt died in August 1990.

"We love each other like brothers," he said.

Fortune quickly launched his solo career after the group retired, "When One Door Closes," was released in August 2003 on the Audium/Koch label. He released a gospel album, "I Believe," in June 2005, a Christmas CD, "Feels Like Christmas," in 2006, a live concert DVD in 2007 and another country CD, "Windows" in 2009. He now lives in Nashville and keeps himself busy touring and recording.

Jimmy Fortune and the other Statler Brothers (including the late DeWitt) were inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame on Oct. 29, 2007 and the Country Music Hall of Fame on June 29, 2008.

"I still have a hard time believing that I am even in the Hall of Fame," he said. "The Lord looked after the Statlers all these years.

Thursday, he will do a solo show and then he will take the stage with Dailey & Vincent. Their tribute CD to the Statler Brothers was released through Cracker Barrel and cannot be found at regular music stores.

"They have got their own sound," he said of how Dailey & Vincent approached those songs.

On Saturday, Fortune will perform at the Johnny Cash Festival in Jonesboro, Ark. along with the Gatlin Brothers and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill. The festival will raise money for scholarships for needy children and help restore Johnny Cash's boyhood home,

"It has been a great life, 21 years in the Statlers and 11 on my own," he said. "It has been quite a blessing."


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