A Few Moments with… Jimmy Fortune

Fortune indeed! Of all the tenor singers in the United States who could have replaced Lew DeWitt in the Statler Brothers, Jimmy Fortune was chosen. Born in Nelson County, Virginia, just twenty miles from the Statlers’ hometown, Staunton, Jimmy always fit right in, very aware and very grateful that he’d been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Younger almost by a generation, he was born the year that the Statlers first performed together, so it was pretty clear that when the three original members retired in 2002, Jimmy would carry on. These days, his shows are a mix of Statler Brothers favorites and newer songs from his solo career.

He called us from his porch in Nashville on a gorgeous fall day. He’d just celebrated his first Gospel Music Association Dove Award for co-writing the Bluegrass Recorded Song of the Year.

Where were you when you got the call telling you that you were a Statler Brother?

It wasn’t quite that simple. Some friends of mine were playing at a ski resort. I wanted to go up and see them, and my girlfriend, who's my wife now, said, “You're not going to take the only night you've got off and go up there and play are you?” I said, “Well...yeah.” I sat in, sang a couple of songs, and Lew DeWitt was there that night. That was around Thanksgiving 1981. When he needed to take time off for surgery and they needed a replacement, mine was the first name out of his mouth. Lew returned to the Statlers for their big Fourth of July concert in 1982. He was back about a week, but just couldn’t face the road. He had Crohn’s Disease. They asked me if I’d like to fill in full time. I credit God with putting me in a position where I was able to do that. I’d have been a fool to turn it down.

Have you ever met anyone who said, “I was up for that job”?

Lots of people, but I won’t say who! The great thing is that everyone says, “They picked the right guy.” There are a lot of great singers around, but I was blessed to be called. I think part of what made it work was that we were from the same background. Earl Hamner, who created The Waltons, was from around where I grew up, and he based the show on our part of the world. The only difference between me and the other guys in the Statlers is that they were from a small town in Virginia and I was from across the mountain in the country.

Was there one singer more than any other who made you want to perform?

No. I learned to appreciate something in all genres of music. I’m influenced by it all. My dad got a record player when I was twelve, around the time I got my first guitar. I loved those early LPs he bought – Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell, Hank Williams, George Jones. And I loved the old time gospel quartets. And then I loved the harmony groups like the Eagles, America, Seals & Croft, and so on. To me, music was either good or bad. If it was good, I loved it.

Quartet singing is an art form beyond singing. Where did you learn it?

That’s a strange thing, I never did quartet singing before the Statlers. I sang with a cover band, and we did harmony singing. I’d sing lead or tenor. And our family sang … all nine of us kids. But quartet singing was a talent I didn’t know I had. After I joined the Statlers, we rearranged some songs for my comfort zone. All I can say is, I had the ear. It was just a God-given gift. If I sing one part, I can hear the others. On some level, you can’t learn that.

What were you doing in life when the Statlers called?

I worked at a car dealership in the service department and, like I said, I was in a cover band. We worked Holiday Inns, gigs like that, six nights a week, four hours a night.

You wrote some big hits for the Statlers (“Elizabeth,” “My Only Love,” “Too Much on My Heart,” and “More than a Name on a Wall”). Were you writing before you met them?

Never had written a song before I joined. There was no time. But, after I joined, I went to the other guys and asked if I they’d take a song from me. Harold Reid said, “Yes, if it’s good enough.” Next day, I wrote “Elizabeth.” Talk about a God thing! If not for the Statlers, I never would have written a song.

What was your career highlight with the Statler Brothers?

So many, but probably meeting President Reagan and working with Nancy Reagan in DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Program). President Reagan was so nice to us. He never made us feel like we were less than he was.

Was there one lesson above all others that you picked up from the other Statler Brothers?

They were pretty smart with business. I wish I’d paid more attention to that sometimes. The thing that stays with me came from when they retired. They knew I was carrying on. Harold said, “Go be yourself. Do what you do best. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. If you’re true to yourself, the fans will love you.” It helped build my character. Best advice I ever got, except maybe from my Daddy who said, “Play your guitar and sing. You’re no good at anything else!” He also said, “Love people.” And I do!

Was it always clear to the Statlers that if they retired, you would carry on?

I think so because I was that much younger. They started off with Johnny Cash in 1964 when I was nine. I told them, they started with Cash and ended with a Fortune. I went out on my own with their blessing.

What have the other three guys been doing since they retired? Has it been difficult for them to adjust to life off the road and out of the studio?

We stay in touch. They miss being on-stage performing for the fans, but nothing else. Me, I still love going out on the road. My wife goes with me. We have a big time.

So what did you do on October 27, 2002, the day after the other three retired?

Started work on my solo career. Eleven days later, I opened for the Oak Ridge Boys. They said, “Come out and do a few shows. Get your feet wet.” It was just me and a guitar after twenty years with three other singers and a five-piece band. My legs were shaking so bad, I was so nervous, I thought I’d just set my guitar down and walk off. All of a sudden, apples started rolling out on-stage. It was Joe Bonsall of the Oaks rolling them out. Later, I thanked him for distracting me and getting me through. He said, “I was trying to mess you up!”

Of all the songs you’ve written, is there one that seems to resonate more deeply with the fans?

“More than a Name on a Wall.” Going to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall was so spiritually moving. I heard stories from both men and women. The worst part was that people spat at them when they came home. Fortunately, the country doesn’t feel that way about our veterans any more, thank God. Every name on that wall, all fifty-eight thousand of them, is a story. I went straight home, and me and John Rimel, who’s an English teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote the song. It gets hugs, handshakes and tears every time I sing it.

What can fans expect to hear at your shows on-board the Country Music Cruise?

I tell the folks where I’m from, all about my family, because if you don’t know where you’re from, you won’t see where you’re going. I’ll do some Statler Brothers songs. Sing my hits. Tell folks how much I love this country. I’ll sing some new songs, talk about working with Mr. Bill Gaither. I might even sing a song I haven’t finished yet!

Are you looking forward to the Country Music Cruise, and getting a chance to meet the fans?

Man, yes! The biggest gift from God is love for people. I loved other cruises I’ve been on, and I know I’ll love the Country Music Cruise. Performing is great, but so is meeting people, taking photos with them, talking to them. They tell me their stories, I’ll tell them mine. So, yes, I look forward with all my heart to meeting everyone!


- Colin Escott © 2016