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Sullivans' Tomorrow Taps Sounds Of Yesteryear

Father-daughter act carries on rare tradition of 'brush arbor' music.

NASHVILLE — Though there aren't any more "brush arbors" — crudely fashioned places of worship — father-daughter duo Jerry and Tammy Sullivan carry on the rare tradition of "brush arbor" music.

It's a unique blend of old-time gospel singing with country string-band accompaniment that signifies a vanishing part of the South's history.

"In the back roads of the South, there was this special music, rural music that not many people knew about. We want to help preserve it," said country star Marty Stuart, who produced the Sullivans' new album, Tomorrow, on Ricky Skaggs' Ceili Music record label. Stuart also plays on the record and co-wrote songs for it with Jerry Sullivan.

"Seems like this was one of the best projects we ever done," Jerry Sullivan said. "Marty and I go way back. He grew up in our part of the country and he sort of looked up to me as a hero or whatever when he was learnin' to play.

"Then he came up here to Nashville and got to be real famous, and then he sort of reached back for us," Sullivan continued. "This is really his roots music too. The first playin' he done, he done with the Sullivans, and then he got a job with Lester [Flatt], and you know the story from there."

Hard Times, Humble Worship

"Brush arbor music started in the '30s," Sullivan said. "After the Depression, people was just reaching for something. It was a lot of poor people that had got caught in the Depression. They started listenin' to a voice from on high. Revival started. People started praying and askin' God to help through these times.

"The preachers begin to travel through the communities and erect the brush arbors, cause they wasn't no churches in those areas," Sullivan explained. "They just set four or five posts in the ground and put poles across it, and they'd pile brush on top of that. It would keep out the sun. It wouldn't keep out the rain, but it would keep out the sun. It was a humble place where they would go and worship."

That became, he said, the local church, for meetings and singings.

Sullivan learned drop-thumb banjo picking — what he calls "knockin' banjo" — from his father, growing up in Wagarville, Ala. "But the Christian part was from my brother, Rev. Arthur Sullivan," he said. "He built the brush arbor in our community ... he started carryin' all of us — it was a family of 12 — to those brush arbor meetings, and we all really got saved there. And he instilled this music in our hearts — my Daddy and my brother did. He would play the mandolin and lead the choir. A lot of the times the sound came from slapping their hands and patting their feet, if they didn't have instruments. That's where our rhythm comes from, from that shoutin' Pentecostal singing in Alabama and Mississippi."

Tammy Sullivan recalls going to those early meetings. "It was wonderful," she said, "For a long while, I felt this is the only music there was. It was all we knew."

She began to sing with Jerry — her father — in 1979, with her powerful mezzo-soprano matching his baritone. She takes the lead on most songs, such as "Tomorrow" (RealAudio excerpt) and "It'll Be Worth It All" (RealAudio excerpt), and they sing such duets as "Hear Jerusalem Calling" (RealAudio excerpt).

Changing Times, New Audiences

The Sullivans record regularly — including a landmark 1991 album, A Joyful Noise, for the Country Music Foundation label in Nashville. And they're still on the road, mostly taking their musical ministry to churches.

"We also play colleges," Jerry Sullivan said. "We play festivals and we're on Fan Fair this week and the Opry, and we'll be at the Ryman [Auditorium] on the 25th [of June] for bluegrass night. Andy Griggs is my son-in-law — married my baby daughter — and he'll be on the show."

The brush arbors started fading away in the '40s, Jerry Sullivan said. "They started buildin' churches and sometimes the music didn't move indoors along with the people. It didn't seem fancy enough for some people. So, we're just doing what we can do. I was just so proud that Marty and Ricky both found a spot in their heart to help us keep this brush-arbor-style music alive."