My husband and I went to see the movie, Greater, not really knowing what to expect. Greater was co-written by a local homeschool father, David Hunt, so I wanted to support the movie because of the homeschool connection. My husband, a University of Arkansas alum, was interested in seeing it for the football story. It ended up being one of the best movies we’ve ever seen!
Greater is about Brandon Burlsworth, a walk-on to the the University of Arkansas Razorback football team, and the effect his faith had on those around him. Early in the movie, when we first heard “I’ll Fly Away,” my husband and I looked excitedly at each other because we live in Powell, Missouri, the home of it’s writer, Albert E. Brumley. As the movie progressed, “I’ll Fly Away,” was woven through it in different forms, playing a prominent role. At the end of the movie, I lingered to watch the closing credits. I saw one giving credit for “I’ll Fly Away,” but was surprised to see a second one thanking Bob Brumley for singing.
Thinking back through the movie I wondered which voice had been Bob’s. As soon as I got home that evening, I wrote an email to the Brumley Music office, asking about it. Bob’s daughter, Elaine, was kind enough to respond, explaining that it was towards the end of the movie, when Brandon was driving home and listening to the radio. We went to see the movie a second time, and sure enough, there was Bob singing. How had I missed that before?!
Since I recently wrote about Bob’s father, Albert, in “Memory Valley,” I wanted to write a follow-up about “I’ll Fly Away’s” role in Greater. I was so excited for Bob and his family, for his father’s song to be chosen for such an inspiring movie! Bob was gracious to grant me another interview.
A New Experience
Bob said that even though he’s been in the music business his whole life, this was his first experience being in a movie and that it was exciting to see his name in the credits. I was surprised to learn that Bob made the actual recording in March of 2014, almost two-and-a-half years before the movie’s release. I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned it to me in our earlier interview, and that explained it. Of this experience, Bob said, “It was an honor for me to be able to do that. It was so well done, I was glad I was a part of it.”
The recording was made at Haxton Road Studios in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas, using a 1937 Gibson guitar. Owner, Neil Greenhaw, gave me permission to include this statement he made about the session:
“The experience with recording some of the music for the movie, Greater, was powerful. I remember standing there listening to what was going on in the room and helping produce some of the musical aspects and all of a sudden, the moment happened for me. I’m watching playback on the screen while recording a song with Bob Brumley playing a song on my 1937 Gibson acoustic guitar in the living room. This wasn’t just any song, but the most recorded gospel song in history, “I’ll Fly Away.” It dawned on me; this man’s father wrote this song and it changed the world. It changed music. It shaped culture. It was a very meaningful moment for me at the studio seeing this song performed by Bob. Thanks to the Brumley family for sharing that moment with us!”
Albert was first inspired to write “I’ll Fly Away” while working in the cotton fields of his boyhood home in Oklahoma. He often sang “A Prisoner’s Song,” and had the idea to adapt it as a gospel song. However, it wasn’t until after his marriage to Goldie Schell in 1931, that he submitted it for publishing as a result of her encouragement. “I’ll Fly Away” was published by Hartford Music Company in 1932. Considering its popularity, it was interesting to learn of Goldie’s influence. I asked Bob about that, and nodding, he elaborated, saying, “Dad had self-doubt and was discouraged about making a living with music.” With the resounding success of Albert Brumley’s songs, it’s amazing that at one time he lacked confidence.
When “I’ll Fly Away” was used in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” they wanted to add a verse that included shackles and chains. They were given permission to do so, and Greater also used that version.
Originally, Brandon was supposed to sing along with the radio when Bob sang, “I’ll Fly Away,” but that was changed.
“Victory in Jesus,” was also used in Greater. It was originally published by Hartford Music company, but is now owned by Brumley Music Company.
Keep it Simple
“I’ll Fly Away” has been recorded thousands of times and translated in different languages, including Spanish and Japanese. I wondered why it is so endearing. Bob said he thought it was because it was simple, but had a great message. “It’s a 3-chord song,” Bob explained, “using only G, C, and D chords. It’s easy to remember, easy to sing, and has a rousing message. Dad always said, ‘Keep it simple.'”
I found another viewpoint in this excerpt from the Neosho Daily News archives:
“In the years of the depression and the struggles of the country before World War II, the new fangled invention, radio, carried Brumley’s songs across the country. “Turn Your Radio On,” “I’ll Meet You In the Morning,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand” – these were the songs that America listened to, sang, and looked to for inspiration. Few song writers did more toward helping America retain her hope and heart than did Albert Brumley. There’s no wondering why his popularity has endured.”
Even though it doesn’t specifically list “I’ll Fly Away,” I suspect it also deserves some of the credit.
Brumley Music gets a lot of inquiries about licensing, so I asked Bob how he initially felt about “I’ll Fly Away” being used in Greater. Bob said that he was contacted by Producer and Co-Writer, Brian Reindl, and “there was just something about him…he believed in the movie so much.” When asked what he thought of the end result, Bob replied, “I thought that was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen! David Hunt did a great job as a director.”
I couldn’t help but ask how Bob thought his father would have felt. “He’d think it was great. He lived to see some success, but I wish he lived to see what happened with movies and television. I think he’d be well-pleased, that song being used a lot.”
In fine print inside The Best of Albert E. Brumley, it states, “He (Albert) has never had a publicity agent. Instead, he has preferred to let his songs speak for him, his religious beliefs and his whole philosophy of life in general.” While Albert’s music spoke for him, Brandon’s testimony was his character both on and off the field. Both men lived lives of faith that inspired those around them, and legacies that continue to do so.
The Best of Albert E. Brumley and other books are available from Brumley Music.
Thank you for letting me write about you, Bob. It was an honor!