Jerry Lawson praises God almost every other breath.
“Ain’t God good?” he’ll ask, without waiting for an answer, of course, when talking about his recent stint in Nashville to record a country and R&B-laced album for Eric Brace’s Red Beet Records. The CD will be released in the autumn.
“It’s the first-ever Jerry-only recording,” says Lawson, who found fame and everlasting glory, of sorts, as the lead singer of The Persuasions, an a cappella gospel and rhythm and blues outfit that toured the world, singing of the Gospels, salvation and sin.
His week in Nashville was at a much more leisurely pace than his only previous stop here.
“I was here one time before, with The Persuasions,” he begins.
That visit was owed to an impressed audience member at a show in the Big Apple.
“We were singing at The Bitter End in New York about 35 years ago. A lady was in the audience,” he says, awe and laughter mixing in his voice.
That “lady” sent word that she was so impressed with The Persuasions that she wanted to take them on the road with her. The lady was the daughter of Judy Garland, a pretty good singer and actress named Liza Minnelli. That’s Liza, with a Z.
“We opened for Liza in Nashville. We didn’t get to see the city. But this time, my wife made it so we went down five days early (before the recording began). So we got to see the city of Nashville somewhat.
“We went to Uncle Bud’s and had some catfish and hush puppies and we went to Smyrna at Melvin and Verna’s and had chitlins.
“We set there. It was so funny, he (Melvin, he reckons) was such a nice guy and he started talking and everything. When I talked about The Persuasions, He was blown away. He said ‘Oh, man’ and he came out and gave us cake and pudding.”
When he tells that story, there is a singsong lilt in his voice. Fact is, during the hour-long conversation from his home in Phoenix, Ariz., Lawson frequently launches into solo renditions of gospel and R&B and even country classics.
He’s not ready to stop talking about the day of the chitlins, though. “You sort of forget, because you lived in New York and all the hustle and the bustle, you forget how people outside of New York are.
“Those people we met in Nashville? The Southern hospitality melts on you like butter. I told my wife, they just boiling over with love.”
Some of that love was reciprocated, though, when Brace took Lawson along with him to The Station Inn in March for a gig he had scheduled with his Brace & Cooper duo partner, the singer-songwriter-producer and Tennessean writer Peter Cooper, and cast of stellar pros.
It was a pure acoustic club and bluegrass-flavored set for Brace & Cooper, who sometimes have their accompanists – generally slumming Nashville A-Teamers and sonic flamethrowers – plug in for their band outings.
Lawson, whose knees are “bone-on-bone,” forcing him to use a cane, sat in the front row at one of the worn, beer-and-popcorn-stained tables at the venerable club, Nashville’s best place to hear music, a stage where Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, where Bill Monroe, where this writer’s old friends “Uncle Josh” Graves and Vassar Clements played, where Peter Rowan and his like rolled out some new grass long ago.
“Can you believe it? All my life I’ve loved bluegrass music. And here I was, sitting in The Station Inn in Nashville, Tennessee? When I got to Nashville and Eric told me we were going there, it blew my mind,” says Lawson.
Course he didn’t just sit there, at the altar of Flatt & Scruggs. He was summoned onstage to sing along with the top outfit of musicians who provided a lively tapestry behind the deadpan (and often dead-on) harmonies of Brace & Cooper.
“To get up there on that stage and sing with that bluegrass band? That’s the first time in my life I’ve sung bluegrass. That little girl that was playing on that banjo was amazing. What’s her name?”
When reminded it is acoustic wunderkind Sierra Hull, he laughs. “Yeah, Sierra. “
And she played the mandolin, not the banjo. And she truly was and is “amazing,” as Lawson says.
Lawson recounts that night, a few weeks ago, as he shuffled up onto the stage and was offered a chair by Brace (or was it Cooper?) so he could rest his bone-on-bone knees (he’s scheduling knee replacement surgery soon – “then I’ll be gliding,” he notes). During the interview, this gentle soul sings part of the tale in gospel harmony.
“It felt so wonderful to be at The Station Inn. It is like in my church you enter the kingdom of heaven when you are born again. I felt like I was born again.
“I felt like a 15-year-old, kid, man. I felt that the musicians, they were in their comfort zone, and I wasn’t in the same zone that they were. I was like a little child. I guess they don’t know that, but I was just so humbled and so happy to be there.”
The band launched into an oddly powerful – considering these were all bluegrass cats and kittens this night – version of “People Get Ready,” followed by a soulful rendition of Cooper lamentation and celebration “Wine,” and then Sam Cooke’s “I’ll Come Running Back to You.”
Between songs Lawson reverted to the Bible thumping stump preachers of his Florida youth.
“I had to hold back,” he says, laughing at himself but not, of course, his beliefs. “I get carried away. I’m like an old country preacher.
“When they was doing ‘People Get Ready’ I had to make sure I didn’t overdo it.”
He also almost forgot he is hobbled when in the swirl of emotions and song at The Station Inn. So, he started to get up and go down into the audience, for a little R&B/gospel laying on of hands. Then he thought better of it and sat back down.
“I sorta kinda-like forgot I was supposed to be entertaining. I said to myself ‘This is unbelievable. This is what I been listening to all my life, bluegrass music. And this is where I’m at, 70 years old and singing on the stage at The Station Inn.’”
It’s unlikely that the robust voice of Jerry Lawson has seen many competitors in the generally low-key hillbilly haunt in The Station Inn, let alone in the neonlit yuppie district that has sprung up, around it, gobbling up most of the old railroad Gulch’s character.
“It was almost like reincarnation. I been born again. Some things happens in your life that you are not aware of but God got something planned, like me down at The Station Inn.”
Lawson takes his passion for the Lord into his work as supervisor of a Phoenix group home for developmentally-disabled youth. It’s a job that he loves. And he’s convinced he was prepared for it and summoned to it by a higher power.
“My Moms came down with dementia, God bless her, and I took her home. She died in 2000. I had to take care of my mother, had to change her and do her hair. Little did I know that God was priming me to work with disabled kids.”
Lawson pauses a second, thinking about those kids and how much he missed them when he was in Nashville recording the album that will be released in the autumn.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get to heaven … I’m still down here doin’ the best I can,” he sings, continuing to navigate with passion the rest of the David Ruffin classic “I’m Just a Mortal Man.”
It’s one of the songs on the recording produced at Red Beet. And it truly describes the delightful fellow who sings it as if Ruffin had written it as Lawson’s heartfelt biography.
“I’m deeply honored that Eric’s giving me the chance to record this album.”
*First photo: Gospel legend Jerry Lawson may not be on his feet, but he’s singing full-powered with Peter Cooper (left) Eric Brace (right) and bassist Mark Fain at The Station Inn.
Second photo: Lawson’s bluegrass dreams were answered when he climbed on stage with Thomm Jutz (guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Peter Cooper, Eric Brace, Sierra Hull and Justin Moses (far right) at The Station Inn.
Both photos by Stacie Huckeba courtesy of Red Beet Records.