An Interview with Aaron Wilburn

I recently had the opportunity to interview Aaron Wilburn—former member of the Happy Goodmans, Christian Comedian, and Southern Gospel songwriter.

DJM: Since this blog’s focus is Southern Gospel, I start with a few questions about your Southern Gospel background before transitioning to comedy. How did you become interested in Southern Gospel?

Aaron: Well, I grew up in Alabama, going to a neighbor’s house on Sunday mornings (we didn’t have TV) to watch the Happy Goodman Family and the Florida Boys on the Gospel Singing Jubilee. The Happy Goodman Family were my heroes.

Then years later I had the opportunity to travel with them, play in their band, and write songs for them for 3 ½ years—it was incredible.

DJM: I have the video New Haven issued a few years back of the Happy Goodmans in 1974, and you were in the band at that point.

Aaron: I was a few years younger and several pounds thinner. I don’t think I’d want to be that skinny again!

DJM: Was playing in the Happy Goodmans’ band the first thing you did in Southern Gospel?

Aaron: They were the first professional group I traveled with. I sang with my sister and three other kids in a little group from our church, Stateline Free Will Baptist. We sang and traveled to churches in our area, on the Alabama-Tennessee line. I can’t remember if we had a name!

We were on radio, and in those days, if you were on radio, you thought you’d made it, that you were big time!

DJM: Were you with any other groups after leaving the Happy Goodmans?

Aaron: No. I did sing with another local trio before joining the Happy Goodman Family, but I’ve been solo ever since those days.

Harmony really comes easy to some people. I can hear it, but I can be a tenor one moment and a baritone the next, ending on lead. I never could grasp that idea of one harmony part and always staying with it.

DJM: What many Southern Gospel fans don’t know is that you’re also a songwriter. How did you get started writing songs?

Aaron: I started when I was 11 years old. My first song was recorded at 15—“Modern Age of Progress” by the Sego Brothers and Naomi.

I continued writing songs for myself. But when I started traveling with the Happy Goodman Family, I think my level of songwriting came up to another degree, being around Rusty Goodman, and hearing the quality of songs they sang.

Out of that time, I wrote “What a Beautiful Day” with Eddie Crook. I wrote the lyrics and Eddie the music. “Just Any Day Now” was another top 5 song that we wrote together.

Through the years I’ve written quite a few songs. I’ve had two songs that won Dove Awards in the Contemporary / Inspirational field, “Who Will Be Jesus” and “Sometimes Miracles Hide.” I co-wrote those with Bruce Carroll, and he recorded them.

My wife helped me write “Four Days Late,” the Karen Peck & New River song. I had the idea for the song and one day I asked her to let me read the Bible study she’d written. I started taking parts of that and wrote the song in about thirty minutes.

One of the neatest things I’ve enjoyed, Daniel, was in the 70s when I had successful songs in five categories—Southern Gospel, Black Gospel, Praise & Worship, Bluegrass, and Country. In Black Gospel, Shirley Ceasar and the Mighty Clouds of Joy cut a number of my songs. One Shirley Caesar cut was “Satan, You’re a Liar.”

In the Praise & Worship field, there was “It’s Beginning to Rain,” which I wrote with Bill & Gloria Gaither. The Lewis Family, in the Bluegrass category, cut some of my songs. And I had a couple of cuts in the country field—Lee Greenwood and Tammy Wynette at that time, and others since, including the Oak Ridge Boys in Country, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in bluegrass.

DJM: How many songs have you written?

Aaron: We’re working on getting a number on that. Somewhere in the 1500-1700 range.

DJM: Wow! Does that work out to one a week or something?

Aaron: You know, I haven’t thought about it that way. I love talking with people whose mind works like that! I’m not sure what it comes out to per week.

DJM: I just ran the numbers – yeah, I think that comes out to roughly one per week for the last 30 years. Anyhow, do you have any idea what percentage of your songs have been cut? Is it half or a third?

Aaron: You know, there are songs we write for ourselves that the public may never hear. They may or may not be mediocre, they may be great and still never get recorded—or they may be songs that touch the heart of everyone out there.

When you write numbers like this—I’ve written 1,500+ songs, and most people that are knowledgeable of music and the genre I write in could quote maybe six.

I’ve had a lot more recorded than that, but may be they were hidden in an album, but sometimes nobody knows them. The fun thing about it is that every now and then I’ll get an email from someone about how a buried song really impacted their life.

I would say I’ve had, counting some re-cuts—one year, in the 1970s, I had 150 cuts. It was an incredible year.

I think it would be much smaller than a third. The fact that I have literally probably hundreds of songs which no-one has ever heard because I’ve never taken the time, for whatever reason, to record a demo of the song to play to anyone.

DJM: You’ve had a hand in co-writing some of Southern Gospel’s best known songs, like “What a Beautiful Day,” “Home,” and “It’s Beginning to Rain.” For these songs and others, were you more often contributing lyrics or melody ideas? Or equal parts of both?

Aaron: I’m stronger on lyric. But there are a lot of times I’ll sit down and write a song alone. I may have listened to myself say what I just told you—and those kind of things, when we start saying it…

DJM: They can become self-fulfilling prophecies?

Aaron: Yes. You’re almost afraid to tackle the melody! But some of the songs I have tackled the melody on, have done very well, like Four Days Late.

But I am a word lover. I love words, I love rhymes. I love what a spoken line can do as far as affecting an audience. The spoken word can become a healer. A lot of times my spoken words in my humor bring laughter. Words are such an important vehicle, and I’m sure that’s the reason the Bible teaches us to watch the words that you speak, because they will affect yourself and other people.

DJM: Of all your songs, which one do you think it’s most likely people will still be singing 100 years from now?

Aaron: I think “What a Beautiful Day” has proven its staying power at this point. I believe in our genre of music, “Four Days Late” will hopefully be one of those songs. Other than those two, I’m hoping that people will still be singing, from time to time, “It’s Beginning to Rain.”

DJM: You know, I grew up not really knowing anything about Southern Gospel, but I did know the chorus of that song from the hymnal. It wasn’t until a few years back that I learned it had verses!

Aaron: Bill Gaither called me years ago to tell me this story. Some of the guys from the Eagles and other classic groups from that era had recorded a Gospel project, which I have a copy of somewhere around here.

They also thought “It’s Beginning to Rain” only had a chorus, and that it was a Public Domain song. They wrote their own verses, which were horrible, but it was so cool to have all those guys singing the chorus we had written.

One thing that has been fun lately has been watching some of my older songs come back around. “What a Beautiful Day” has recently been cut by the Perrys, Greater Vision, and Brian Free & Assurance.

DJM: “Home” has also had several cuts in the last few years.

Aaron: Yes, the Booth Brothers really do a great job with that one right now.

DJM: I think the Gaither Vocal Band just put it on their Reunion video that came out last week.

Aaron: Really? I hadn’t heard that.

DJM: I just checked—it’s on Volume Two.

Aaron: Okay.

See, I’ve got a few years on you, and it’s a really strange thing to write a song, have it be successful and then live long enough to see it get old. The other night Brian Free & Assurance sang it, then they started into one of the hymns, and said, “Here’s Another Old Song.”

When I came out I made a joke about how I wrote that old song. It’s so fun and yet it’s so strange to see another generation picking them up and going on with them

DJM: Starting to transition to comedy, you’ve written both serious and comedic songs. Which are you doing more of in recent years?

Aaron: Most of the comedy songs I sing, I find other writers for. Most of my writing is serious. I don’t even know how to explain it.

I have thought about this. When I’m on stage and performing, that humorous side, fun side, seems to come out, but when I’m alone and writing, my serious nature seems to take over.

It’s not that uncommon—Mark Lowry does the same thing. He does what he does in comedy, but when he sits down and writes, it’s “Mary Did You Know.”

DJM: Have you ever written a song together?

Aaron: No—with his A.D.D. and my A.D.D. it would be a lifelong endeavor!

For last two years of her life, Dottie had asked me write a song with her, which she did not do often. She turned down a lot of writers, even people that she loved, so she’d just say no. Dottie was like that, very straightforward.

Several times she’d asked me if I would write with her. You know, you keep putting things off, which is a lesson too late learned for me at times.

I’m trying to make every day count and doing the things that I really feel like I need to do, because no matter if I live thirty or forty years I still won’t have time to do all the things I want to do.

DJM: Over the years, you have toured and worked with some pretty funny people. Who was the first to move you in such a way that you thought, “I want to do that myself”?

Aaron: I’ve got to give all the credit to Mike Warnke. He was a Christian comedian on Word years ago. I traveled with Mike for a couple of years. I did the serious music at that time. I did do a couple of little funny songs, but I also did a lot of serious.

Mike and I became very good friends, and in the process Mike kept encouraging me to do some of the fun stuff. Here I was traveling with a guy that would have 5,000 people a night or more come to see him in concert. I thought, “Man, these people are here expecting Mike Warnke to make them laugh,” and that was not not something I had even considered.

Then Mike, later on, moved on to a more serious time of life, began speaking more and preaching more, and insisted I tell more funny stories.

One night—I don’t even remember where it was—Mike said, “Don’t come off stage till you’ve done some comedy. When you introduce me, I am not coming out until you’ve done some of your funny stuff.”

Man, it scared me to death! I did what I usually do, and then I started doing some of my fun stuff, and the audience went nuts, it was crazy!

I realized they were there to laugh, and I had a gift of making them laugh. It moved from there into me doing a cassette in a studio with about 30 people. I was doing comedy that now seems so elementary, but someone got laughing so hard they were choked and we had to stop the session for them to go do something to drink! It started selling like crazy, and I just started telling more stories.

Yesterday, I received a phone call from old friend of mine, whom I’ve known since the 1970s, and we talk from time to time. It had been a long time, and he said, “Aaron, I just wanna call you and tell you how extremely proud of you. Do you know how many YouTube hits you have?” He started giving me numbers into the millions on the YouTube thing, I don’t keep up with that, but to have an old friend notice that and give me a call about it—that is so cool.

DJM: Most Southern Gospel groups tour through the South and Midwest, doing few if any dates out West or in the Northeast. Has comedy opened doors for you to do events in places outside the typical Southern Gospel circuit?

Aaron: Oh yeah, I do a lot of corporate events. I go into a lot of churches in which if I asked, “How many of you have ever heard of the Happy Goodman Family?” in an audience of 500, I may have 20 hands show.

If I ask “How many of you are familiar with the Gaither Videos, the Gaither Tour?” it’s more but not nearly a huge percentage. More like maybe 30 percent.

So I realized that I am going into areas where I have stepped for the most part out of my SG roots, where maybe 15% at the most came to see because of Southern Gospel. Then other times it’s totally different, maybe 50% or 75% that have seen me on the Gaither tour.

I was in California a few weeks ago, and my opening act was a rap artist. I was sitting there, realizing a lot of the people there are his fans! I was thinking, “I need to sneak out of here now!”

I got up there and said, “Hey, I’m not a rapper, and I’m not cool, and I’ve just gotta do what I do, and then I talk about the fact that we all love the same God, serve the same Lord, and that same Lord uses all of us in different ways.” I had one of the best nights! A lot of those kids—including the rappers—are now my friends on mySpace!

DJM: What can we expect from an average event? Do you sing some of your serious songs, or is it mostly comedic material?

Aaron: It’s totally up to the promoter.

Corporate events, that’s probably gonna be pretty close to 100% comedy. I will, without fail, tell one of my stories of someone who has touched my life, or how my life has been by my faith and the people in my life, but the songs are usually more secular based comedy and I will usually not do the serious songs.

However in church I would say that 20% of what I do will be inspirational based or serious music. And the thing I found out is that in doing that 80% of humor, the 20% is a lot more effective than it would be if I had spoken or sung serious songs for 45 minutes.

DJM: Do you release comedy videos on a regular basis, like once a year, or is it more whenever you have worked up enough new material to be ready?

Aaron: It’s just kind of when I gather together what I feel like is quality material, then I put it together. There have been times it was a couple of years between projects. But I have a project, Why, coming out on March 17, and I’m already looking for material for my next one. I’ll be doing it in early fall, released maybe around December or early 2010.

DJM: After this many years in the spotlight, you’ve probably done hundreds of interviews. Is there any question that you’ve never been asked, but you’re hoping some interviewer might ask someday?

Aaron: That’s a good question!

Nothing comes to mind. I would probably have to manufacture it, and that’s not what you’re looking for. If there is, it doesn’t come to mind.

DJM: Any other thoughts or comments?

Aaron: This next project is really fun for me. The Why routine is probably one of my favorite routines. This is just a little sidebar, since the DVD is done now, and it is too late to put this on there—but the whole premise is that there’s a lot of things that make me wonder, “why?” This week I had a why answered—“Why do politicians not mind high taxes?” Because they don’t pay them!

I love to look at life and man, you take a big piece of life and you start squeezing, and you’re gonna get some humor out of it!

DJM: Thanks for doing this interview!

Aaron: Thank you!