Sometimes you don’t realize how much your senses absorb when you’re growing up, but you find out later how those experiences shaped you.

Russell Gulley grew up on Southern gospel and shape note music. His mother was very conscious of how much music and art can enrich lives. Russell sought a career in rock and roll, but later paid his mother’s gift forward by bringing the arts to communities and schools.

Russell is the 2024 recipient of the Alabama Arts Impact Award, given at the Celebration of Alabama Arts, May 16 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery.

Fred Hunter and Russell Gulley

He spoke with me recently about the unlikely arc of his career, starting with his time growing up in Fort Payne.

“Back when I was growing up,” Russell says, “musicians were kind of looked down on as being not very responsible people with bad habits. So that was the last thing that my mother wanted for me, to become a musician. 

“The only way I was able to get a guitar was if my brother and I promised to play in church,” Russell continues. “Ironically, the pastor banned me from playing, because he said I wasn’t playing to worship God. I was playing to have a good time, which is probably true. But right after that, I was hired by a gospel group and I worked with them for several years, recording two albums. That was my introduction to the recording business.”

It was the opinion of Leon Rhodes, music producer and guitar player for Ernest Tubb, that motivated Russell further. “He told my boss and me that he thought I was a pretty good bass player, that I could make it in Nashville if I wanted to move up there,” Russell recalls. “That was the inspiration I needed. If Leon Rhodes says I’m good enough, I must be good enough.”

Then, like many other young men of the time, Russell was drafted to fight in Vietnam. When he returned, he’d been divorced from his first wife. With nothing tying him to any certain place, he moved to Nashville and signed with an agent. There, he played bass for various artists of the era, such as Ronnie Dove and Ray Peterson (“Tell Laura I Love Her”).

Meanwhile, his brother Dennis’ band, Cross, was playing and making demos in Muscle Shoals. Producer Jimmy Johnson asked the band, ‘Which one of you guys wrote these songs?’ They told him, “We didn’t. Russell Gulley wrote them.”

“So the next thing I knew, I got a phone call and was invited to Muscle Shoals,” says Russell. “Apparently, I passed the audition and they signed me to the publishing company as a writer. 

“The kind of music that I was writing was not soul music,” he continues. “I didn’t write stuff like ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ I was writing stuff more like Frank Zappa and maybe some of the British acts. Lynyrd Skynyrd was just taking off, and Jimmy had worked with Skynyrd just before they changed companies. I think he was looking for another band to kind of follow in Skynyrd’s footsteps. In fact, during my interview, he played some of the original demos by Skynyrd. I’d never heard playback that loud. Jimmy looked at me and asked, ‘You think you’re as good as they are?’ Well, how could I say no if I wanted to pass the audition? So I looked at him and said, ‘You damn right I’m that good.’ Anyway, we got signed.”

Russell, his brother Dennis, drummer Ronnie Vance, guitarist Britt Meacham, and keyboardist Tommy Patterson were dubbed Jackson Highway after the street address of the studio. 

In the mid to late 70s, Jackson Highway decided to market itself heavily in Chattanooga. Radio play was picking up, and listeners started to request their single. Muscle Shoals Studios called and said they had landed Jackson Highway a deal with Capitol Records. Capitol and Muscle Shoals Studios formed a joint venture to sign the band. 

Jackson Highway was building a fan base and touring with rockers such as Ted Nugent, UFO, and Triumph. They were set to play the Omni in Atlanta, what might have been “the big gig” to take them to the next level. But arrangements changed and they ended up playing a smaller venue.

Jackson Highway returned to Muscle Shoals, and the day they were to perform a showcase for Capitol to renew their contract, Russell’s father passed away. 

“If there was anybody in this world that ever stood by me from the time I played gospel music to the time I went to Muscle Shoals and all of it, that was my dad. I could not stay in Muscle Shoals,” Russell says. 

He and Dennis went home to help with the funeral arrangements and be with family.

Without an appearance at the showcase, Jackson Highway’s contract was discontinued. He apologized to his bandmates because he felt he caused the Capitol contract to lapse, but he did what he had to do.

After losing his record deal, he returned to Nashville and began doing sideman gigs, playing with artists such as Gary Buck, who’d played on the Grand Ole Opry. The touring schedule left him with six months of the year where he didn’t play anywhere.

In 1986, he ended up moving back to Fort Payne, broke and not knowing what he would do next. A chance meeting at a benefit concert resulted in Russell being hired to oversee a new park in Fort Payne. His work with the City of Fort Payne led Russell to get involved in forming the Big Wills Arts Council, named for Big Wills Valley and nearby Big Wills Creek.

Russell took a leap from being a rock musician to working on organizational bylaws and grant distribution. Talk about different worlds. The sometimes cutthroat competitiveness of the music industry was nothing like the arts, he soon discovered. 

“I stepping into the nonprofit arts world where, if I needed something, if I didn’t know how to do something, I could call somebody within the network and have the answers or access to the supplies and the whole nine yards,” he says. “I’ve never been part of a network of people who were that supportive of each other. That’s why I felt like I did about the name Big Wills Arts Council. It goes back to part of the area’s heritage. It goes all the way back to the Native Americans.”

As his work with arts in the community and the schools attests, Russell is a believer in spreading the cultural wealth wherever possible, exposing as many people to the arts as resources will allow.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that the arts have no boundaries,” Russell says. “In fact, I was criticized one time because I got an arts in education grant for children’s theater. I put it in our city schools, but I also put it in four or five of the county schools. Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Why are you spending our money out in the county schools?’ I was astounded. I looked at them and said, ‘I got it in the city schools, but we had enough money to put it out there, and I felt like the county needed that service more than the city did.’

“I said I was going to do it any time I could. I don’t believe the arts have boundaries,” Russell says. “They’re as deserving as we are. And if I can help, I will. I’ve helped people out at Mentone, and I did an art residency out at Dogtown, for example.”

Russell eventually left the arts council and decided to concentrate on songwriting and performing with a blues band called the Beat Daddys (one of his songs went to No. 16 on the Billboard charts). A misunderstanding (not uncommon in the industry) led to his being cut from the group.

After a chance meeting with some members of the BWAC board of directors, he learned that unused grant funds were available from the state arts council. They asked Russell to return to run BWAC; that stint was from 2004 to just a couple of years ago. Eventually, he left to continue working on his music and to allow for a fresh change in leadership. 

But Russell is busier now than he’s ever been. His list of contributions to the arts is long and getting longer. Among other things, he’s been involved in the Council on the Arts’ Collaborating Artist Program and the Rural Touring Artist Program.

In the aftermath of the Impact Award celebration, Russell realizes that a strong sense of place fuels his passion for his own heritage (as well as the heritage of all people in the area) and his reverence for the beauty offered by all types of creative people.

I’ll venture to guess his mother would approve.