Jerry Salley, Life is “Sweet”

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Jerry Salley: Life is "Sweet"

by Stephen Pitalo

(feature photo by Kathryn Stengel for Rock Killough Music)

When Billboard Magazine called him “One of Music Row’s greatest veteran tunesmiths,” Jerry Salley was already celebrating an incredibly successful, multi-award-winning songwriting career.  In 2019, Salley was nominated for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame & for a GRAMMY for producing the multi-artist project Gonna Sing, Gonna Shout. Salley is also the 2019 & 2018 IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Songwriter of the Year and was named the 2003 SESAC Country Music Songwriter of the Year. Salley has had over 500 different songs recorded, and his songs have sold more than 18 million records worldwide.

Writing and singing in Nashville since 1982, he has written multiple hits in country, bluegrass, and gospel music. He may well be the most successful songwriter to have earned equal recognition from all three genres of music. When the opportunity presented itself to work on the Country Faith Bluegrass project, Salley had a goal—let’s get Dolly Parton.

For Country Faith Bluegrass, Salley produced eight new recordings and gathered six classics performed by some of the top names in bluegrass, including Dolly Parton’s never-before-heard version of the old hymn “In the Sweet By and By.” Salley and bluegrass favorites Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Bradley Walker accompany Parton, singing harmony vocals as a quartet. Still, Salley said the process was a natural roll of the dice to connect with the legendary Dolly Parton.

“In the past, all of the Country Faith projects have been just ‘leased’ songs,” explained Salley. “In other words, they would pull something out of an album and get licenses on those, so the compilation albums consisted of previously released songs.”

Deborah Evans Price, co-owner of the Country Faith brand, mentioned to Salley, Creative/A&R director of Billy Blue Records, and Ed Leonard, president of Daywind Records, about producing a Country Faith Bluegrass record. 

“Every song that they wanted to do was a bluegrass record, so we approached Price and her team and said, what do you think about going in and recording some new songs that have never been released? Billy Blue Records could be a part of that and partner with you on this. They loved the idea!”

Salley is no stranger to the bluegrass genre. His song “All Dressed Up,” recorded by Joe Mullin and The Radio Ramblers, won the IBMA Gospel Recorded Song of The Year award in 2016. Salley is a five-time IBMA Award winner, which includes receiving the 2006 IBMA Album of the Year award for his contribution (as an artist) to the Celebration of Life album.

He has written eight #1 Gospel hits, multiple #2 Gospel hits, and over a dozen other top ten/top twenty gospel songs. In addition to his songwriting, producing, and artist touring, in 2018, he was tapped to lead Billy Blue Records and Billy Jam Records, Nashville’s newest Bluegrass, and Americana Records labels.

“Dolly brought Tom to Nashville when he was sixteen years old, to Nashville from Indiana. Next thing you know, Tom is playing for Dolly Parton,” explained Salley about Rutledge’s connection to the self-proclaimed Backwoods Barbie. “They became very good friends, and she sort of raised him up in the country music business. Tom and I became really good friends when he started his management company, and he helped me a lot on some of my bluegrass records early on. Long story short, Tom is working again for Dolly in her offices in the publishing department and helps re-demo and repurpose a lot of her songs. Sometimes you have these demos that lay around, and they sound kind of dated, so they go back in and re-record them. Once we decided to try to get Dolly, I thought, well, I’ll call Tom to see if that’s even a possibility.”

Tom asked Dolly about using one of her songs for the project but hoping to use something she hadn’t released before. Parton was interested in providing a new recording, but she did not want to travel to a studio because of the pandemic. She had previously recorded “In The Sweet By and By” on her Little Sparrow bluegrass album released in 2001, with a Celtic feel, backed by Celtic band, Altan, from Ireland. But, she also had a different, never-before-heard un-released recording of “In The Sweet By & By” in her studio archives with just a guitar and her vocal. Dolly gave Rutledge permission to send that version to Salley to use for his production.

“She told Tom, ‘You give this to Jerry, and he can do anything with it as long as I approve it in the end,'” said Salley. “So, I listen to it, you know, for probably four weeks, trying to figure out exactly what I want to do. Once I knew what I wanted to do, I took her vocals and arranged a band all around her vocals. If you listen to the song, you’ll notice that it kind of starts off slow, kind of like her original guitar vocal did. After the first chorus, we double-time it. Once I had the tracks done and had her vocal, you know, in there with everything together, I asked my good buddies Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Bradley Walker — the three of us are like, well, we are brothers, and we’ve been doing this a long time. I wanted to put four guys together and make it sound kind of like a Jordannaires thing, you know?

For Country Faith Bluegrass, Salley produced eight new recordings and gathered six classics performed by some of the top names in bluegrass, including Dolly Parton’s never-before-heard version of the old hymn “In the Sweet By and By.” Salley and bluegrass favorites Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Bradley Walker accompany Parton, singing harmony vocals as a quartet. Still, Salley said the process was a natural roll of the dice to connect with the legendary Dolly Parton.

“In the past, all of the Country Faith projects have been just ‘leased’ songs,” explained Salley. “In other words, they would pull something out of an album and get licenses on those, so the compilation albums consisted of previously released songs.” Deborah Evans Price, co-owner of the Country Faith brand, mentioned to Salley, Creative/A&R director of Billy Blue Records, and Ed Leonard, president of Daywind Records, about producing a Country Faith Bluegrass record.

“Every song that they wanted to do was a bluegrass record, so we approached Price and her team and said, what do you think about going in and recording some new songs that have never been released? Billy Blue Records could be a part of that and partner with you on this. They loved the idea!”

Enjoy this video of Salley’s tribute to his good friend, Carl Jackson

(Carl is also featured in this issue.)

Country Faith Bluegrass, the 10th installment from the acclaimed series, is available across all digital platforms via Billy Blue Records, with physical CD copies exclusively available on CrackerBarrel.com and in Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations starting Oct. 4.

Dolly
Jerry
Bradley
Larry
Carl