Earl Freudenberg: The Gospel Song Nobody Seemed To Want

  • Sunday, November 27, 2022
  • Earl Freudenberg

“I’ll Fly Away” was written in 1929 by the late Albert C. Brumley while he was picking cotton. Brumley said he was dreaming of flying away from the cotton field when he penned the song. The songwriter also authored hundreds of other Gospel songs but none of his songs has topped “I’ll Fly Away” in popularity.

Shaye Smith, whose family started the Chuck Wagon Gang, now owns the group. Ms. Smith’s grandmother, Anna Carter Gordon Davis, was the original alto. The Chuck Wagon Gang released “I’ll Fly Away” in 1948 for Columbia Records, the label for which they recorded for nearly 40 years.

In a radio interview, Ms. Smith said Mrs. Brumley told the gang her husband sent the song to several Gospel groups in the 1930’s but they weren’t interested. Mrs. Brumley said her husband put the song in his desk and that’s where it stayed for 16 years until he pulled it out and sent it to the Chuck Wagon Gang in Fort Worth, Texas.

When Columbia records recorded the CWG singing the tune in 1948, all of a sudden the song nobody wanted was being heard on radio stations all across the United States. Ms. Smith said sales soared and the song became a million seller.

I think I first heard the song as a youngster when my mother listened to WLFA radio in LaFayette, Ga. Charlie Guinn was host and featured 30 minutes of the Chuck Wagon Gang every afternoon. “I’ll Fly Away” was played just about every day and I eventually knew the song by heart.

The late Gaylord McPherson was on the air at WDOD for several decades. Mr. McPherson said in the late 40’s the station was playing Big Bands, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Spike Jones, Doris Day and the Chuck Wagon Gang. Mr. McPherson hosted a Gospel music show entitled the Gospel Train - the CWG’s I’ll Fly Away was the most requested song. Mr. McPherson said it was a 78 RPM and became scratchy. Columbia ended up sending them several copies.

“Hello Chattanooga” by David Carroll lists the Chuck Wagon Gang singing at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium several times. Those who attended many of the concerts said the CWG always sang, “I’ll Fly Away.”

In 1967, the CWG appeared on a WDOD Country music show with Porter Wagoner, Norma Jean, the Wilburn Brothers, Loretta Lynn and Little Jimmy Dickens. I introduced the CWG and they opened with “I’ll Fly Away.”

A few of those who have recorded “I’ll Fly Away” include The Gaithers, Alabama, Chet Atkins and the Boston Pops, Jars of Clay, Kanye West, Allison Krause, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Andy Griffith, Ernest Tubb and Alan Jackson. It was included in the 2000 movie, “Oh Brother, Where Art thou?”

Pop Singer Etta James said the song was one of her favorites and she recorded it. “I’ll Fly Away” has even been heard for years at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

The late radio personality Luther Masingill said, “The Pops Goes Country” by the Boston Pops and Chet Atkins was released in 1966 and the most requested song from the LP was “I’ll fly away.”

Chattanooga Funeral Home North Chapel Location Manager Tom Tallent has been serving families and conducting funerals since 1988. Mr. Tallent said “I’ll Fly Away” is a favorite and down through the years has been one of the most requested songs.

Jay Craven went from room to room playing his clarinet at Memorial Hospital for over a decade. Mr. Craven said the patients loved “I’ll Fly Away” and he had to play it nearly every day.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the late J. Basil Mull out of Knoxville, Tn., hosted the Mull’s Singing Convention on several 50,000 watt radio stations late at night and sold Chuck Wagon Gang LP’s. Rev. Mull said those ordering the records always asked if the collection had the song, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Fiddle Player Fletcher Bright said one of his best memories was when the Dismembered Tennesseans recorded, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Mr. Bright said in a radio interview one of the last things that group leader Frank McDonald told him was; “I’m fixing to fly away, buddy sing that song one more time for me.” The bluegrass group received standing ovations every time they performed “I’ll Fly Away” at the Mountain Opry.

On one of his “Health and Happiness” radio programs Hank Williams said “I’ll Fly Away” is one song he wished he’d written.

Country Singer Red Foley said next to “Peace in the Valley” “I’ll Fly Away” was second in requests. While appearing in Chattanooga at a Bethel Bible Village benefit, Foley’s son in law Pat Boone remembered singing “I’ll Fly Away” at many family gatherings. Boone was married to Foley’s daughter Shirley.

Country singer Roy Acuff recorded “I’ll Fly Away” several times including his CD “Hand Clapping Gospel Songs.” While performing in Henagar, Alabama, in 1983 at the Louvin Brothers music park, Acuff said “I’ll Fly Away” was his most requested Gospel song on the Grand Ole Opry. He would always ask other Opry singers to join him.

Since “I’ll Fly Away” is one of Dr. Charles Stanley’s favorites, producer Gerald Wolfe included the song in the Hymn Sing video recorded in 2016 at the First Baptist Church, Atlanta. On the video, Dr. Stanley sings his favorite with over 2,000 voices in the large choir and audience. Dr. Stanley served as senior pastor of the church for nearly 50 years.

Country superstar Marty Stuart penned a dozen songs for the CWG which they recorded and entitled, “Meeting in Heaven.” Stuart put together a video “The Legacy Lives On” and in the introduction he said: “There’s probably no way of knowing the times that song (I’ll Fly Away) has been sung in a weeks’ time around the globe or the effect it’s had on countless lives or the times it’s been recorded. It’s just a simple country song. However it was the song that transported things to a completely different plane for the Chuck Wagon Gang.”

The music history books will all have to agree it was the Chuck Wagon Gang who made “I’ll Fly Away” popular.

Before the COVID pandemic, the Chuck Wagon Gang sang to a packed audience at Bill Hullander's Farm in Apison. Mr. Hullander has been hosting the third Sunday red back hymnal singing for several years and always has the audience sing “I’ll Fly Away.” As you listen to a portion of this concert recorded by Ben Cagle on October 19, 2019 you’ll hear the CWG sing “I’ll Fly Away” as they recreate a live radio show.

Click here to listen.

Next time you sing “I’ll Fly Away” you can add your name to the list of people singing the song that collected dust for 16 years.

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