Family keeps Albert E. Brumley’s classic gospel music alive and thriving

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As it says on the Albert E. Brumley & Sons, Inc. home page, “It is a desire of Robert (Bob) Brumley to keep alive the songs of his father.”

Those songs, of course, include the standard “I’ll Fly Away” along with “Turn Your Radio On,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” “He Set Me Free” and more than 800 other southern gospel songs: The late Albert E. Brumley’s company was responsible for publishing hymn and song books.

Bob Brumley, as president/CEO, continues to operate the Albert E. Brumley and Sons/Hartford Music Company in the offices built by his father in the 1940s in Powell, Mo.; the company itself was founded in 1944.

“It’s plumb back in the sticks,” says Kevin Bernier, husband of Bob Brumley’s daughter Betsy Brumley-Bernier, and with her, her father, sister Elaine Johnson and her husband Brad Johnson, make up what remains a family business.

“There’s a creek behind the house and across the road is the business,” Bernier continues. “A paved road goes in and out, but the rest is all gravel and dirt roads–and a post office. There’s Internet, but no cell phone service, so we have to forward our cell phones to the office line when we go to the office.”

Albert Brumley used to call the vicinity “Memory Valley,” says Brumley-Bernier.

“We made millions of songbooks there,” she says. “Grandpa invented iTunes! People were selling songbooks and we’d print them, and then we made custom songbooks for people where we picked the songs and manufactured the books.”

Bob Brumley grew up in the business, and three years ago his kids and their spouses left their outside jobs and joined in officially.

“He’s kind of cute and we thought we’d hang out with him!” jokes daughter Elaine. “When we were younger we worked in the office—but it was slave labor!”

Now they’re all looking to “reinvent the company,” she notes, though some assets, like “I’ll Fly Away,” need little help: Brumley-Bernier notes that a new version of the song reached No. 2 in Australia just last year, and it is always prominently used in films, most notably in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but more recently in Greater: The Brandon Bulsworth story—a biopic about perhaps the greatest walk-on in the history of college football, who was tragically killed in a car accident 11 days after being drafted into the NFL.

“`I’ll Fly Away’ was his favorite song, and Bob sang it on the soundtrack version,” says Brumley-Bernier, noting how her father, who is an inductee with his father in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, once performed gospel music with his brothers.

The Brumleys are also maintaining the company’s long-running—since 1969—annual Albert E. Brumley Gospel Music Sing, a four-day event featuring dozens of gospel performers and more than 20,000 fans, now held in Lebanon, Mo.

“It’s personal service all the way!” says Brumley-Bernier. “We sell all the tickets over the phone.”

For many years the company also ran a big arts and crafts fair, and hosted the Grand Ole Opry likes of Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones, Del Reeves and Jimmy C. Newman. Bob Brumley also booked the top southern gospel groups, and still brings in acts including Dailey & Vncent, The Hoppers, Greater Vision and Karen Peck & New River—all of which are lined up for this year’s Gospel Music Sing.

But now they produce smaller concerts locally, donating some of the profits to charities and organizations supporting food pantries and veterans. Additionally, the four-year-old I’ll Fly Away Foundation is fulfilling it’s mission of inspiring youth through songwriting as a means of self-expression.

“It’s our own version of Schoolhouse Rock!” says Brumley-Bernier. “We bring professional songwriters into schools and help kids write songs about whatever they’re studying or using—math, pencils. They can be silly songs, but educational—to help kids remember stuff.”

This year the foundation reached 600 third-graders in McDonald County, Mo.—where Bob Brumley lives—and next year looks to expand to 2,400 kids in Oklahoma City and Muskogee, Okla. and Rodgers, Ark., as well as McDonald County.

“Music education improves children’s lives through music,” says Brumley-Bernier, “and is another way of keeping Grandpa’s legacy going.”

To this end, she and the rest of her extended family’s generation are trying not only to get more classic Brumley song covers, but recordings of catalog songs that haven’t been so frequently cut, if at all.

“There are maybe 25 songs that are really well known,” says Kevin Bernier. “Part of the rebirth of the company is to introduce people to the lost works.”

While many of these works are so old they’re on microfilm, the old Brumley songbooks are still very much alive and in print.

“We still sell to individuals, congregations and wholesalers,” says Bernier, citing such evergreen songbooks as The Best of Albert E. Brumley—featuring 120 of his best known titles—and Albert E. Brumley’s Book of Radio Favorites. Also popular are “smaller books” like the three volumes of Songs of the Pioneers, Great Inspirational Songs, Olde Time Camp Meetin’ Songs and All Day Singin’ & Dinner on the Ground, which includes both songs and old recipes. The songbooks are available at the Brumley Music website, which is being updated.

“We’re revamping everything,” says Brumley-Bernier, revealing that a reality show, tentatively titled Reinventing the Brumleys, is being planned, to shoot later this summer.

“It pulls us out of 1954 and no cell service to the twenty-first century,” says Brumley-Bernier.

“I don’t know if I want to go!” adds Elaine Johnson.