Less than a month after learning he had metastatic cancer of the pancreas, Steve Gulley, a widely admired bluegrass musician from East Tennessee, died Tuesday night in a Knoxville, TN hospital. Just 57 years old, Gulley had an impactful career as a founder and leader of bands, an award-winning songwriter and a commanding tenor singer.
“I'm deeply saddened by the passing of Steve Gulley this evening,” wrote IBMA Executive Director Paul Schiminger. “One of kindest people and very best singers anywhere, he made me feel like a lifelong friend from the moment I met him. Rest in peace, Steve. We are blessed to have known you, and you will be missed by many.”
A native of tiny Cumberland Gap, TN, at the confluence of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, Gulley grew up steeped in bluegrass and mountain gospel. His father Don was a renowned DJ, a founding member of the Pinnacle Mountain Boys and key figure at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Steve sang there as a youth and joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in 1994. In 1996 he and fellow Quicksilver musicians Jim VanCleve (fiddle) and Barry Abernathy (banjo) formed their own band, Mountain Heart. After five years and five albums, Gulley left to co-found the band Grasstowne with mandolinist Alan Bibey and dobro award-winner Phil Leadbetter. Since 2014, Gulley has helmed his own outfit, Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle.
“As a singer, he didn’t have off days. Because he was so in tune with himself,” said VanCleve, who leaned on Gulley, 16 years his elder, as a young band mate. “He loved Keith Whitley and George Jones. He and his dad, that was their thing – those monster country singers of old. Steve grew up listening to them and learning to emulate them. And he could. He could literally sound like every one of them and knew every word to every song.”
Besides playing the Grand Ole Opry more than 90 times, Gulley also followed in the footsteps of his father as a radio host for WDVX in Knoxville. He was active in the arts in his home region and was co-owner of The Curve recording studio.
Gulley’s songs were recorded by a variety of bluegrass artists, including Doyle Lawson, Kenny and Amanda Smith and Blue Highway. “Through The Window Of A Train,” co-written with that band’s guitarist/singer and his close friend Tim Stafford as an album title track, was named IBMA Song of the Year in 2008.
“As good of a writer as he was, Steve was one of the best singers period, and I'll never understand why he didn't get more recognition,” Stafford wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. The two made a duo album Dogwood Winter in 2010 and have been preparing to release their second project together, sadly entitled Still Here.