There is only one artist in this history of country music whose singing is so revered, he’s referred to simply as “The Voice.” But the career of Vern Gosdin also may contain one of the most sinister secrets in the history of country music. Did Vern Gosdin really contract two men to murder his producer Gary S. Paxton?
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• A full transcript of the episode, as well as sources for the story can be found below.
Other Country History X Episodes:
Episode #11: The Lost Bloodline of Hank Williams, and the Search for Hank IV
Episode #10: Marty Robbins Saves Life of NASCAR’s Richard Childress
Episode #9: Country Music’s Most Important Artifact
Episode #8: Randy Travis Versus Lib Hatcher
Episode #7: Johnny Cash, Joseph Stalin, & the Morse Code Crack
If this isn’t one of the craziest stories in country music history, it most certainly is one of the most unexpected, overlooked, and rarely told.
Think of all the incredible voices that have graced country music over the decades: the intrinsic pain found in the singing of George Jones, the uncanny pentameter of John Anderson, the caramel tone of Dwight Yoakam, or Johnny Cash, who sounded like God himself. And of course, let’s not forget the angelic sounds of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly.
But there’s one artist and one artist only in the history of country music who is unarguably referred to simply as “The Voice.” That’s how revered his singing ability is. We’re talking about Vern Gosdin, who despite his 19 Top 10 hits and multiple #1’s, and a consensus behind the conclusion by fans and fellow artists alike that he’s one of the best singers in the history of country music, is one of those characters who seems to be continuously overlooked in country history. Still on the outside looking in at induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Gosdin’s legacy is one that deserves reconsideration, and retrospective.
Yet despite however one might feel about Vern Gosdin’s country contributions and legacy, it also very well might hide one of the the most scandalous moments in country music history. Though there has never been any concrete confirmation, let alone a conviction, there’s nonetheless a greater than zero chance that Vern Gosdin could have contracted to kill, or at least assault his producer, that being early rock ‘n roller, late Gospel singer, and songwriter for the massive novelty hit “The Monster Mash,” one Gary S. Paxton.
This is the story.
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You can almost bury the lede of any story simply by broaching the subject of the life and career of Gary S. Paxton. It’s a pretty inexplicable tale all unto itself. And even if you’re not familiar with the name, this guy was everywhere in the music industry as a performer, songwriter, producer, and label owner for decades, and across the rock, pop, country, and Gospel realms.
Gary S. Paxton was born Larry Wayne Stevens on the 18th of May 1939 in Coffeyville, Kansas during The Depression to an unwed 14-year-old mother and 15-year-old father. Though he was nine pounds when he was born, by his 1-year-old birthday, he only weighed 7 pounds since all his parents could feed him was ketchup and water. When he was still very young, he was adopted by an older couple who had lost two children of their own. It was a strict Christian home that Gary S. Paxton grew up in, and they lived in an old schoolhouse with no electricity, no water, and no heat source.
When Gary S. Paxton was 12, his family moved to Arizona, and by the age of 14, he was playing in early rock and roll bands. The way he first found fortune and fame was kind of an accident, and pretty crazy. After flunking out of high school and pinballing around in various music projects, when he was 16-years-old he met a country artist named Clyde Battin. They formed a group called The Pledges that didn’t go anywhere, but one day they cut a demo of a song called “It Was I” that they hoped to pitch to a bigger band like The Bell Tones.
The “It Was I” recording sat on a shelf for a year or so, until a producer named Bob Shad at Time Records was turned onto it, and loved it so much, he decided to release it as a single. He had no idea who was actually singing on the song to start, so out of whole cloth, he created a duo he named “Skip and Flip” that was named after his wife’s poodles of all things, and released the song to the public.
Meanwhile Gary S. Paxton is living in the Pacific Northwest, picking fruit for a living and trying to scrape by. At one point he was actually playing in the band of Bakersfield legend Buck Owens who was performing at clubs and dancehalls in the Tacoma, Washington area. One day Paxton was in the fields picking away, with his car pulled right up to the field and the radio blasting when he hears himself on the radio singing that “It Was I” demo he’d cut a year previous. So he drives to the radio station, finds out about Skip and Flip, calls the label, and gets filled in that the song has become a smash, and Dick Clark wants to book the duo on numerous television shows.
Skip and Flip had another big hit with the song “Cherry Pie,” but the duo didn’t last long after that. Nonetheless, it put Gary S. Paxton on the map, and he moved to Hollywood where he started writing songs and producing bands, working with groups like The Association and Paul Revere and the Raiders, opened record labels left and right, and at one point owned as many as five studios.
Gary S. Paxton became sort of an enigma and madcap in town, super prolific, but also very strange. The legendary Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was said to admire Gary S. Paxton, while producer Phil Spector was said to fear him. Paxton was quirky, and had success with novelty songs like “Monster Mash” that shouldn’t have worked as big pop singles, but became exactly that due to their catchy and quirky nature.
Gary S. Paxton even once organized a quote/unquote “protest parade” that included 15 cheerleaders and a live elephant pulling a Volkswagen down Hollywood Blvd., all because a local radio station said a song he was working called “Elephant Game (Part One)” was quote “too black.” Gary S. Paxton was certifiable, and by-the-way, always insisted his name was Gary S. Paxton, and the ‘S’ always be included in his full name.
By 1967, Gary S. Paxton had completely relocated to Bakersfield, and was immersing himself in the Bakersfield Sound that was working like a counterbalance to the more genteel and overproduced Nashville Sound that was taking over country music at the time. Then in 1970, when his wild life and bad music business investments were beginning to catch up to him, Paxton made the big move to Nashville at the behest of songwriter Dallas Frazier and others. Having made many connections in Nashville over the years through his wheeling and dealing in the music business, Paxton arrived with a host of connections on Music Row.
But Nashville wasn’t ready for Gary S. Paxton, and he wasn’t ready for Nashville either. With long blonde hair down to his waste, wearing a flag for a cape, and carrying around his songs in a paper bag while feverishly consuming drugs and alcohol, he got arrested for petty offenses often, and was sort of spiraling out of control. He tried unsuccessfully to start a duo with performer Thomas Wayne to be sort of like a second version of Skip and Flip, but when they released a single that flopped, Thomas Wayne ultimately committed suicide, which sent Paxton spiraling even further.
So there was Gary S. Paxton, virtually destitute, walking up and down Music Row in Nashville, desperate and contemplating his own death after the death of Thomas Wayne. And then, in perhaps a moment of divine intervention, he walks into the small Church Of Christ and bookstore located on Music Row at the time, and inside happens to be contemporary Christian superstar Michael W. Smith, and a teenage Amy Grant. At that moment, Gary S. Paxton reconnects with his strong religious upbringing, gets and stays sober for the rest of his life, and starts writing and performing Gospel songs, and later country songs, and very, very successfully.
Gary S. Paxton wrote the #1 song “Woman, Sensuous Woman” for Don Gibson. He wrote the Top 5 hit “Honeymoon Feelin'” for Roy Clark, “Travelin’ Light” recorded by George Hamilton IV, and a host of other well-recognized songs. At the same time, Paxton was recording and releasing both country and Gospel songs under the pseudonym Rusty Dean. “Woman, Sensuous Woman” was nominated for Country Song of the Year at the 1972 Grammy Awards. In 1977, Gary S. Paxton won the Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for his album entitled quote, More, From The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable Gary S. Paxton. Unquote. He never did lose his flair for the atypical.
Along with his Gospel success in the mid and late 70’s, Gary S. Paxton also wrote numerous songs for you guessed it, “The Voice,” Mr. Vern Gosdin, including the titles “It Started All Over Again” and “We Make Beautiful Music Together” from Vern’s 1977 debut solo album Till The End, and the song “I Sure Can Love You” from the 1978 album Never My Love.
Compared to the wild road Gary S. Paxton took to Nashville, Vern Gosdin’s seems relatively tame. Born in Woodland, Alabama as the sixth child of nine siblings, Gosdin grew up singing in the local Baptist Church, and later formed an early group with two of his brothers to sing Gospel. After living in Chicago for a stint, Vern moved out to Los Angeles, and became a player in the West Coast country movement.
At one point Vern Gosdin was a member of The Hillmen with Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers fame. He also formed his own group called The Gosdin Brothers with his brother Rex, and they collaborated on an album with Gene Clark also of The Byrds. Many often overlook this era of Vern Gosdin’s career, but he was right in the thick of it as California country came alive.
Also during this time Vern rubbed elbows with the Bakersfield crowd. The Gosdin Brothers were signed to to a label called Bakersfield International, and had a minor hit called “Hangin’ On.” Who owned the Bakersfield International label? None other than Gary S. Paxton. This is presumably where the two first met. This was around 1967.
But Vern wasn’t sure if he was fit for the up’s and down’s, and wild characters of the music business, and retired at some point in the late 60’s to Georgia, and operated a glass company of all things. But he got lured back in by a deal from Elektra Records, and made his way to Nashville in 1977 where his solo career would commence in earnest. He re-released that “Hangin’ On” song previously released in Bakersfield as a duet with Emmylou Harris, and Vern was off to the races. His first official album, the aforementioned Till The End from 1977, didn’t just feature numerous Gary S. Paxton songs. Gary S. Paxton also became Vern Gosdin’s producer.
The combination of Vern Gosdin and Gary S. Paxton would result in three albums in the late 70’s. It was Paxton who convinced Vern to cover The Association’s “Never My Love” as the title track to his second record, and it became a Top 10 hit. But the collaboration failed to produce any Top 5 songs, let alone a #1, and the personality differences between the rather stern Vern Gosdin, and the wild Gary S. Paxton started to create friction.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where the story takes a very, very dark turn. On December 29th, 1980, Gary S. Paxton was at his home in Nashville when two men came to his door, claiming they had car trouble, and asked Gary if he could drive them to their car and help get it started. Remember, at this time, Paxton’s Christian faith is his guiding light in life, and this is apparently what made him receptive to helping two perfect strangers who arrived at his door professing car trouble. But Gary also says quote, “A very strong feeling from the Lord told me something wasn’t right.” So before leaving with the two men, he took off his jewelry, and put a .38-caliber pistol in his left coat pocket. Then the three men loaded up into Gary’s van, presumably to go and retrieve the broken down vehicle. But of course, the story was all a ruse.
Once in the van parked at Paxton’s house, 24-year-old Darrell W. Bailey of Jonesboro, Georgia, and 20-year-old Darryl C. Langley of Hampton, Georgia, proceeded to assault, and potentially attempt to murder the then 41-year-old Gary S. Paxton. Yes, the two assailants were both named Darrell. One of the men put Paxton in a hammerlock, and told the other Darrell to shoot the singer and songwriter. A scuffle ensued, and Gary had both his collarbone and shoulder broken in the brawl, and experienced a cut near his right eye that caused blood to gush into it, blinding him.
Paxton was unable to retrieve the .38 pistol in his coat pocket since he was being restrained by the assailants. Then the 20-year-old Darryl C. Langley drew his own pistol and pulled the trigger, but Paxton was able to put his hand in front of the gun at the last second, getting shot in the hand instead of in a more vital spot. Reportedly throughout the entire melee, Gary S. Paxton was also yelling, quote, “In the name of Jesus, you cannot kill me!”
As the scuffle continued, Paxton was able to wrestle the gun away from Darryl Langley, ultimately shooting him as Gary escaped out of the van. But badly injured, Paxton collapsed to the ground, and he was shot twice in the back and left for dead before the uninjured assailant Darrell W. Bailey fled the scene. Neighbors hearing the gunshots and scuffle called the police. First responders arrived, with Gary S. Paxton eventually being rushed to Vanderbilt University hospital. Paxton professes that in the ambulance and before he lost consciousness, he forgave his two attackers, and this is one of the things that helped keep him alive.
Paxton underwent emergency surgery, and claims quote, “I died twice in the operating room. But God sent me back. I’m here because Jesus forgives, so I forgave.” Unquote. The would-be assassin Darryl Langley was rushed to Nashville’s General Hospital for treatment as well, and was kept under police guard. The other attacker Darrell W. Bailey was tracked down in Georgia where he’d fled, was arrested, and extradited back to Tennessee.
Homicide Detective Michael McDerman told the press at the time quote, “The motive is murder. We are sure of that. But we don’t have any idea yet why the suspects wanted to kill him.” Unquote. Speculation around who hired the two men to kill Gary S. Paxton and why soon ran rampant throughout Nashville and country music, with one prevailing theory that emerged, though it wasn’t the only one.
During Gary’s Gospel revival, he also worked as a producer for Tammy Faye Bakker—yes, the heavily makeup’d wife of tele-evangelist Jim Bakker. Tammy Faye released 16 albums between 1970 and 1996, and was said to be close friends with Gary S. Paxton for a spell. When Jim Bakker experienced a fall from grace after it was exposed he payed hush money to church secretary Jessica Hahn for an alleged rape—and later was found to be embezzling church funds—allegations came out in The Washington Post that Tammy Faye Bakker and Gary S. Paxton had been involved in an adulterous relationship.
Both Gary S. Paxton and Tammy Faye flatly denied the allegations, with Gary saying quote, “It was all lies. I did not have any kind of relationship whatsoever. I was her friend. She depended on me because a lot of the things going on at PTL all fell apart. I encouraged her. I never touched her, nor had anything to do with her.” Unquote.
But the rumors made some wonder if Jim Bakker—who did like to throw around money to solve problems of his—might have hired the two Darrell’s as hitmen. But the timing of this theory seems off, since much of what transpired with Jim, Tammy, and the PTL happened later than December of 1980. The theory seems to be one that was more constructed years later, after the The Washington Post allegation of the affair came out as opposed to something plausible in the aftermath of the attack on Gary S. Paxton.
But the prevailing theory, and really the only one that seemed to make any bit of sense, and the one that seemed to be validated by later developments, was that Gary S. Paxton’s would-be killers were hired by none other than “The Voice,” Vern Gosdin. What we know for sure is that Darrell W. Bailey and Darryl C. Langley were specifically hired by somebody to assault or kill Gary S. Paxton, because they confessed as much, and had no motive of their own.
Then in January of 1982, the two Derrell’s were put on jury trial in Nashville. During that trial, Darryl C. Langley claimed under oath that the two had indeed been hired in Georgia by Vern Gosdin. He allegedly paid the pair just $200 to drive to Nashville and assault Gary S. Paxton. Remember, between his time in California and returning to the music business in Nashville, Vern Gosdin resided in Georgia operating a glass company. This is allegedly where he met the two assailants. But why would Vern Gosdin do such a thing? What was his motive?
When Vern Gosdin began working with Gary S. Paxton, it was said he had to sort of coax Paxton out of retirement—at least as a producer—to take the position. Remember, Paxton was always a wheeler and dealer, starting and folding record labels, production companies, studios, publishing houses, and the like. Apparently as the working relationship between Vern Gosdin and Gary S. Paxton soured, there were stipulations in a contract Vern had signed with Gary that wouldn’t allow Gosdin to move on without Paxton. So the theory was that Vern Gosdin hired the two Darrell’s to either rough up Paxton to convince him to let Vern Gosdin go, or to kill Paxton so Vern could move on with his career free and clear.
But what is weird is that since at least one of the attackers outright confessed that it was Vern Gosdin who hired them, and Gosdin apparently had a motive unlike the two attackers themselves, why was Vern Gosdin never arrested and charged with a crime as well? Vern Gosdin was never formally charged with anything in connection to the attempted murder of Gary S. Paxton.
But Vern Gosdin also never really did anything to help clear his name. Gary never addressed or denied the allegations, at least in public, and always refused to answer any questions posed to him about the matter. I reached out to some folks from the Vern Gosdin camp to try and get more insight on the matter, and nobody really had anything further to add.
Dr. Gerald Murray was Vern Gosdin’s manager and agent starting shortly after the incident, and wrote a book called True Life Stories About “The Voice” Vern Gosdin, but had no insight either. He told me quote, “I managed him pretty much from 1980 until his death. He never elaborated on the thing with Paxton and mainly just was quiet about it to me.” Unquote.
You can’t say conclusively that Vern Gosdin hired two men to kill Gary S. Paxton. You can only say it’s alleged. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone else who would be in a position to perpetrate such a crime. Complicating matters is we just don’t have a ton of good insight into the personality of Vern Gosdin since he was mostly a private person. Was he really that vengeful that he would be part of a contract killing? Meanwhile, we know that Gary S. Paxton was incredibly eccentric and prone to hyperbole, so how should that factor in the way we view the situation?
The other thing that must be considered is that maybe the two men were just supposed to intimidate Paxton to get him to agree to let Vern Gosdin go from his contractual obligations, and things ending up getting much rougher than intended. After all, $200 dollars is not exactly a going price for a murder, even in 1980. The fact that Gary S. Paxton ended up getting shot three times along with other injuries is the reason the incident has always been characterized as an attempted murder as opposed to an attempt to intimidate the producer. Indeed, the two men did try to murder Gary S. Paxton, but that might not have been Vern Gosdin’s original intent, only the outcome.
Either way, Darrell W. Bailey and Darryl C. Langley were both convicted of the crimes, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Vern Gosdin walked away scott free. There was also apparently a civil suit filed by Gary S. Paxton against the two Darrel’s and Vern Gosdin for $2 million dollars, but the outcome was never publicly revealed.
Gary S. Paxton later claimed that in the aftermath of the incident while he was incapacitated, a partner in his recording studio embezzled $500,000 from him, and left him basically destitute. Paxton claims that for two years, he lived in an old house that he owned through a publishing company called Raise Your Name, with no electricity, no heat and no light. He slept in a sleeping bag on a concrete floor, similar to the poor situation he grew up in.
What’s for sure is that Gary S. Paxton virtually disappeared from the music business for about eight years in the aftermath, but in 1989, he married what would be his fourth wife and relocated to Branson, Missouri where he started getting involved in music once again, though in a limited capacity since he now suffered from Hepatitis C. Gary S. Paxton would die in Branson on July 17, 2016 at the age of 77 from complications of heart surgery and liver disease.
Meanwhile Vern Gosdin moved on with his career, with the rumor and suspicion from the Gary S. Paxton attack always sort of hanging over his head. He continued to do well, with the song “Dream of Me” going to #7 on the charts in 1981, and then enjoyed a Top 10 hit with a song he co-wrote called “Today My World Slipped Away” that George Strait would have a hit with about 15 years later. Vern Gosdin also earned his very first #1 hit in 1984 with “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight).”
But it really wasn’t until late in 1987 when Vern Gosdin signed to Columbia Records that he would find his greatest footing. The album Chiseled in Stone would include multiple signature songs from the singer and songwriter, including the Ernest Tubb tribute song “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” Chiseled in Stone became Gosdin’s first Certified Gold record, and the title track went on to win the 1989 CMA Song of the Year. Any controversy from the Gary S. Paxton incident seemed to be completely in the rear view.
But despite a big CMA Song of the Year Award, multiple Grammy nominations, multiple Top 10 singles and four #1’s, the legacy of Vern Gosdin always seems to be continuously overlooked in country music, and again, The Country Music Hall of Fame has yet to induct him. It could be that Vern was just not much for promoting himself. It also might have to do with the rumors that swirled about the incident with Gary S. Paxton that remained all the way up until Gosdin’s death due to a stroke on April 28, 2009 at the age of 74.
Then again, Vern Gosdin would not be the first country star with something shady in his past, and he certainly won’t be the last. What he did bring that was unique was a voice that contained enough soul to stir emotions like nobody else, and one that has withstood the test of time. And this is what country fans remember about Vern Gosdin the most.
Cross Rhythms UK: “Tony Cummings recounts the life and times of one of American music’s most multi-faceted figures, GARY S PAXTON” (September 2nd, 2011)
UPI: “Gary Paxton, a songwriter and producer who was beaten…” (January 1st, 1981)
Billboard: “Inside Track” (January 16th, 1982)
Ill Folks: “Gary Paxton Dead: Monster Mash, Alley Oop“
Dr. Gerald Murray, author of True Life Stories About “The Voice” Vern Gosdin (January 1st, 2007)