The Sullivan Family Bluegrass Gospel Band, led by Enoch (1931-2011) and Emmett (1936-1993) Sullivan and Margie Brewster Sullivan (1933- ), was a renowned Alabama ensemble who performed throughout the United States and overseas for more than 60 years. Originally begun by Enoch’s father Arthur in Washington County, the family group performed regularly at evangelical services in rural churches and outdoor religious events. The Sullivans also were known for their gospel bluegrass festivals held at the Sullivan Family Park, their 69-acre property in St. Stephens.
Enoch was born on September 18, 1931, and Emmett on July 23, 1936, in Washington County, four miles south of St. Stephens, to Florence Bailey and James Arthur Sullivan, known as Arthur. The couple had ten children. Sullivan’s family had first settled in the area when St. Stephens was the early capital of Alabama, and many generations prior to Arthur were musicians in the community. In the early 1940s, Arthur joined the Pentecostal ministry after a heart attack caused him to suffer a near-death experience, and he committed to playing only religious music. He built two churches during his ministry, Victory Grove Pentecostal Church, outside Wagarville, and Bolentown Pentecostal Church. He taught his children to love and devote themselves to playing gospel music at the services, as well. As children, Enoch and Emmett learned guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, and they played together as Brother Arthur and the Boys at church, on local radio, and in live performances at various venues in the area. Enoch left school at 14 to work full time with his grandfather at a sawmill to help earn money when his father’s health deteriorated.
Margie Louise Brewster Sullivan, who would marry Enoch, was born January 22, 1933, in Winnsboro, Louisiana. She was the sixth of 12 children of sharecroppers Otis Leon and Ruby Alma Givens Brewster. Brewster developed an early love of gospel, and when she was 13 she bought her first guitar with money earned helping her father tend crops and pick cotton. Her father, a good musician himself, taught her basic chords so she could write her own songs.
Brewster’s father died when she was only 13, and she was forced to seek employment to help her mother financially; she answered an ad and secured a position as a traveling companion and musical accompanist for evangelist Hazel Chain in 1946. Brewster sent money to her mother to help out with the other five children still at home. While traveling with Chain, Brewster, then 13, met 15-year-old Enoch Sullivan at a revival in Sunflower, Washington County, in 1946. Three years later, during another revival in Sunflower, Enoch proposed to Margie, and she joined the rest of Enoch’s family playing gospel music. In 1949, they were invited to appear on local radio station in Jackson, Clarke County; Enoch and Margie married on December 16 of that year.
Sullivan Family The group began regular appearances in 1950 on radio stations WPBB in nearby Jackson and WJDB in Thomasville, and they decided to call themselves the Sullivan Family Band, being inspired by the famous Carter Family of Virginia. In 1954, the Sullivan Family made their first recording, of a series of songs by musician Dewey Coleman, a native of Frisco City, Monroe County, for Revival Records of California. Coleman often accompanied the family on their radio shows. In 1957, they signed to Sandy Records and released the single “I Can See God’s Moving Hand” backed with “Happy On My Way.” The song reached the top 100 on Billboard magazine’s hits chart.
Arthur Sullivan died of a heart attack while preaching at Bolentown Pentecostal Church outside Jackson, on November 23, 1957. After Arthur’s death, Enoch took on the role of group leader. For most for the band’s existence, Enoch’s brother Emmett was at their side playing the banjo. Many other musician family and friends, including uncle Gerrol “Jerry” Sullivan and his daughter Tammy Sullivan Causey, filled in on bass, guitar, and other instruments over the years as well. In 1958, the Sullivan Family became regulars on Jack Cardwell’s The Friendly Variety Show, in Mobile, Mobile County. They also appeared on Jesse J. G. Whitfield’s Gospel Singing Jubilee television show in Pensacola, Florida, in 1963. In 1968, they began appearing regularly at festivals with famed bluegrass musician Bill Monroe. The also appeared at the famed Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, as well as on country music pioneer Earnest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree radio program, which aired Saturday night after the Opry broadcast.
Young musicians often toured as apprentices with the Sullivans, notably, Mississippi-born future country music star Marty Stuart, who got his professional start with them. Enoch and Margie received several grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA) and participated in the organization’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship program for teaching folk traditions to younger musicians in the state. The band was often on the road more than 200 days a year and traveled to Europe, Canada, and Mexico and all over the United States. Emmett Sullivan died April 10, 1993, and the band continued to play with various other family members, including Margie and Enoch’s daughter Lisa. In 1994, the Sullivans joined Bill Monroe’s “Father and Son Tour.” They received the Alabama Folk Heritage Award from ASCA in 2005. Margie Sullivan suffered a major heart attack in 2009 and ceased performing. Enoch Sullivan died on February 23, 2011, in St. Stephens. The last members of the family to constitute the band were Jerry and daughter Tammy, and they continued to perform until the early 2010s. Jerry died in 2014, and Tammy died in 2017.
The band earned several accolades, including induction in the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2000, Alabama governor Fob James proclaimed the third week in October as “Sullivan Family Week” and October 20-21 as “Sullivan Family Days.” A similar decree was made for them in Washington County.
Sullivan, Enoch, Margie Sullivan, and Robert Gentry. The Sullivan Family: 50 Years In Bluegrass Gospel Music. South Shore, Mass.: Sweet Dreams Publishing, 1999.