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God & Country: A Conversation with Jimmy Fortune

There is a unique serenity that hangs like a mist over the Shenandoah Valley in Central Virginia; a palpable peace that looms over the rolling hills. Not only is the valley home to stunning landscapes and a feeling of ‘the simpler life’, but a rich musical tradition balanced perfectly between Appalachian Folk tunes and old school Southern Gospel. It is there where Country Music Hall of Famer, Jimmy Fortune, began his musical journey. Well known for his Gospel songs and a twenty-one year stint with local favorites, The Statler Brothers, Fortune is releasing a brand new project in partnership with Ben Isaacs (Producer) and Gaither Music Group, titled God & Country. Lula 1892 had the opportunity to sit down with Fortune to chat about life back home in Virginia, how he got his start on the hotel circuit in Charlottesville, and how that led to the rich and varied career for which he thanks God every day.

Born and raised in Nelson County, Virginia, Fortune’s love for music was inspired from a young age by the church. “As far back as I can remember, my family sang in churches and things like that,” Fortune remarked, “Of course Gospel music is a big part of my background- the biggest part, you might say. When I was twelve years old I got my first guitar. By the time I was thirteen I put together a little group with a couple of friends of mine and we started playing high school dances and VFW halls and Moose lodges. From there we ventured into some clubs around Charlottesville, Virginia, and then the Holiday Inn hotel circuit. I played six nights a week in central Virginia until I was about twenty years old.”

Working a day job to support his music habit and burning the candle at both ends paid off for Fortune, who would cross paths with Lew DeWitt of The Statler Brothers at the popular Wintergreen Resort in Wintergreen, Virginia, effectively changing his life forever. “I played a jam sessions up at Winter Green and Lew DeWitt just happened to be there. He heard me sing that night and we wound up singing some songs together. He was one of my heroes, so singing with him was really special. I had no idea it would go any further than that, but I got a call a few weeks later, around Christmas 1980, and they wanted me to audition for the band because Lew was going to have to be out for about six months to manage his Chron’s Disease. I was the first name out of his mouth. He told the guys ‘hey I heard a guy from across the mountain over in Charlottesville that you might want to give a listen to and give him a chance.’ I spoke with them and auditions and they hired me as a temporary replacement. In July of 1982, they hired me full time. Thus began a twenty-one year career with the Statler Brothers.”

As Fortune reflected on his time with the Statler Brothers and experiencing instant fame, he thanked God for the opportunities put forth to him and marveled at the talent he has been able to experience, laughing as he remembered how often he found himself a little bit starstruck. “Everything happened so fast, sometimes I couldn’t stop to realize what was happening. I went from playing little clubs in Charlottesville to being on a pick up truck with lights all over driving around the Houston Astrodome with over 40,000 people screaming and hollering at us. I remember wondering what happened and how I got there, but I felt deep down that there was something special going on that was beyond anything I could have imagined. Then I found myself in the White House, talking to President Reagan. These are people that one thinks, ok in my life I’ll never see or talk to these people in person. I’ll never shake their hand. Then all of the sudden we’re in Hollywood to do some work on the D.A.R.E. program when it was first started and we’re in a room with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra. I still look back at photos and think did that really happen? I’ve been blessed beyond measure in this life and career.”

With a wildly successful tenure that began in 1964 with the original four, The Statler Brothers were ready to retire long before Fortune. In 2002, when Fortune was only forty-seven years old, the band made the decision to retire from performing. “When the Statler Brothers retired they asked me what I was going to do. At the time I thought about retiring, but there was this voice inside saying it wasn’t time. I took it as God speaking to me and saying hey, you know, continue on. I asked the guys about it. I didn’t want to start another group because I know I’d be compared to the Statler Brothers. Don [Reid] pretty much guided me in terms of what to do. He said “look, when you came through the door to audition for us and you sang, we fell in love with Jimmy Fortune. If you go out and do what you do and don’t try to be anybody else, people are going to love you for who you are. If you try to be the Statler Brothers or Johnny Cash it’s probably not going to work, but if you’re going to go out and be Jimmy Fortune people are going to love you just like we did when you came through the door.” That was like giving me a shot in the arm and saying ok, you’ve got to believe in yourself and your message. I didn’t come back out here thinking I was going to set the world on fire and be the next big thing, because that probably wasn’t going to happen at fifty years old in this industry. I wanted to come out with a positive message in my music and be satisfied with what I create and build on that.”

Not only did Fortune recreate himself as a solo act, he has set the world on fire. With a strong following of loyal fans from the Statler Brother days and a brand new generation of new listeners, Fortune is able to share his music as a southern Gospel and Country music artist. “I promised God that whatever I did, it would be positive and something that my Mom and Dad would be proud of; something that my children would be proud of. I hope that my kids and can sit back one day and say my dad stood for something good.”

Fortune’s newest project, God & Country, proves to be another contribution to the positivity and power music can carry in our lives. A mix of patriotic and spiritually based songs, the project successfully captures the peace that can be found in both patriotism and faith. “These songs were chosen very specifically. If there’s anything this country needs right now, it’s these songs. For me, I believe in God and have faith to be strong in today’s world. We see so much division, and something has to bring this country back together. I don’t want to beat people over the head with faith or patriotism, but I do see a need for our country to come back together in peace. We did it during 9/11. It didn’t matter where you were, if you were Democrat or Republican or independent. It didn’t matter if you were Presbyterian or Catholic or Baptist or not religious at all. We came together with and for love. I felt like this project needed to be a collection of songs to celebrate our independence and freedom and celebrate belief in a higher faith.”

As we concluded our conversation, I asked Fortune what’s next. He replied “You know, I’m always saying that this is fine. Every day I get up and put one foot in front of the other, and whatever God puts down means that is what I’m meant to do. I can’t ask for anything. I want to be able to continue to use my voice for as long as my health allows me so I can continue to carry on a message of positivity through music. The message that God wants me to give is one of hope, that no matter what door closes in your life, there’s always something else out there that God is providing. I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to touch a lot of people. But affecting one person would have meant the same. God has allowed for many blessings in my life, and all I can do is look at them as blessings and say thank you.”

The album, out Friday, May 24th, will be available everywhere music is sold and streamed. To keep up with Jimmy Fortune news and upcoming show dates, please visit his website and follow his social media.