Being the daughter of Julie and Bill Pursell was a gift from the creative heavens, and a challenge. My mother was a distinguished journalist, gifted writer, artist and storyteller; my father was a musical genius. When the stars aligned in the late 90’s to begin performing and recording with my Dad, a new father/daughter relationship was forged. I was a late bloomer in the musical world, having spent most of my 20’s hopping from job to job, trying to be a working actress in LA. Dad heard my voice during one trip back to Nashville, and we all turned a corner. And now we were on the fast track.
It was a family affair. My uncle Raymond Clawson produced all of our recordings in Nashville over the next 20+ years, and my mom helped launch a cavalcade of performances anywhere there was an opportunity - Cheekwood, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, venues in California and even in St. Petersburg, Russia. My uncle gave us opportunities to play at countless events in Newport Beach, Savannah, and Cartersville, broadening our audience and drumming up support for these exciting, rich recordings. It also became another late-in-life career for Dad - a welcoming space to keep creating. The studio was his palette, and he had free rein to use his decades of knowledge and musical training, with me at his side. How lucky was I?
Over these years, Dad and I grew closer, as musical colleagues, friends and collaborators. We had our ups and downs and a few artistic differences, but in the end I always deferred to Dad. We did scores of radio interviews and appearances, and even a news talk show in LA. I was so proud of him, and he of me.
In August, 2019 Dad and I went into The Tracking Room with Steve Mauldin and a rhythm section to cut three new tracks: “Sweet Dreams”, “Motherless Children” and an original composition he wrote for my mother, “Lilacs (Lost in Time)”. My mother had heartbreakingly died in 2018 from the effects of vascular dementia - a cruel blow to a brilliant mind. Dad put his grief into words and music. It was to be the beginning of our final album together.
Tunes were chosen and Dad started writing arrangements. He said this was a very important album to him, very personal, and a tribute to my mother. We were set to finish the album in 2020, but then the pandemic hit. Dad continued working on the arrangements sporadically. We had no idea when we could get back in the studio.
He finished “Convince Me,” from a Nashville demo we had first heard 20 years earlier which had journeyed its way back to us. Dad loved the tune and wrote the arrangement very quickly. He also finished “Far Away Places”, a bittersweet song which reminded him of his travels with Mom, and he insisted on including it. “Every Love” was a Janis Ian song I found and loved, and I asked Dad to please prioritize it. He did. The last chart he finished was “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, and he was so proud of the string arrangement. “Wait’ll you here this!” he said on the phone. “There won’t be a dry eye in the house!”
In the summer of 2020, my uncle Ray got married and Dad wrote a beautiful instrumental as a gift for him and his wife Kay. He called it “Tender Wish” and performed it for the first and last time at their home on August 7. It would be the last piece he ever wrote, and the last time he played the piano..
The following week, Dad was horrifyingly diagnosed with Covid. After a fierce brief battle, he was taken from us on September 3 at the age of 94.
Before he left, I promised him that I would finish this album.
I went into his music room and found all of the handwritten orchestrations he had painstakingly created on large Judy Green manuscript paper, all with cover pages bearing his unmistakable signature with a flourish, held together by metal O-rings, lying on top of the piano. I hung onto them until I could gather the emotional resources to revisit this album.
In late 2021, I finally showed the arrangements to Steve Mauldin, and we both cried. It was time to finish this, for Dad. We needed three more tracks though, and it would be up to Steve to complete them.
I remembered that one of Dad’s favorite songs we performed was “Where Do You Start?” By Marilyn and Alan Bergman. I found an old cassette tape from our show at TPAC in 1998, and Steve used that scratchy recording as a starting point. I found a lead sheet for “A World Without Gigi”, a tune Dad had written to a poem I had presented to Mom on Mother’s Day a few years earlier. I also found his handwritten lead sheet in pencil for “Tender Wish”. Steve was given the task of orchestrating and arranging these three tunes, in the manner of Dad’s taste and style. And boy, did he deliver.
Ray, Steve and an entire band of all star Nashville musicians convened at Ocean Way on January 24, 2022. Bob Marler and Jason Webb filled in for Dad on piano. I don’t envy either of them for shouldering that burden.
I want to thank Steve for his brilliant writing and a shoulder to cry on during the sessions. I want to thank Liz Johnson for the vocal training it took to pull this off, and endless thanks to Ray Clawson for ensuring this final family collaboration was brought to completion. It’s a bittersweet coda to a very long, beautiful journey.
I hope we realized Dad’s vision. What began as a tribute to my mother is now a tribute to both of them.