After leading one of Kentucky’s most popular quartets, Steve Bridgmon has become one of Inspirational Country’s top solo artists
By John Herndon, Kentucky Sings
SONORA, Ky. — Steve Bridgmon is anything but your ordinary Christian music artist. That was apparent as we finalized the details of getting together to talk about his meteoric rise in Inspirational Country Music.
We’d settled on a meeting place at Brooks Cafe, an out of the way country-cooking place where the decor from days gone by belies its proximity to Interstate 65 in Hardin County. “This place is very cool,” he’d say time and again as we chatted over lunch.
And the Owensboro native had warned us about what some might consider a different look than what one might expect from a guy who’d spent a weekend singing at Indiana churches. “I didn’t dress up because I’ve been going nonstop,” he texted earlier that morning. “If we do any pictures, I’ll put my blazer on over my Johnny Cash t-shirt. So please don’t judge me. I have a few tattoos.”
While we don’t have any ink in our skin, little did Steve know his interviewer would be wearing a shirt honoring The Man in Black as well.
As Steve, my wife and I talked over some delicious pork bar-b-q, it was obvious the entire setting was more than appropriate. While traffic zipped along the interstate less than a mile away, we had stopped at a place down a road less traveled, talking about a career path not often traveled.
It was almost like a followup to one of Bridgmon’s first songs as a Christian country soloist.
Following the footprints of Peter, James and John
Tracing all the steps that my great granddaddy walked
I thought I saw flakes of gold there in that dusty gravel
When I started home on the road less traveled.
— Authors: Brenda Lee Smith, Ben Storie, Lee Black
Copyright: 2011 House of Black (admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.); Universal Music-Brentwood Benson Publishing
The path Steve Bridgmon takes today might not be one that traditional gospel music fans would expect. In his mid-40s, he gave up his career as a public school teacher, taking early retirement at the first opportunity. He left the comfort zone of his native Owensboro for the bright lights of Nashville, two hours away and more than 10 times larger, in 2016. By 2018, Steve had already charted a couple of No. 1 Christian country hits and had been recognized as the Inspirational Country Music Association New Artist of the Year in 2018.
But the beginnings were as traditional as an all-day singing and dinner on the ground. He’d been in a musical as a student at Daviess County High School. He’d begun singing in his home church and gravitated toward singing in a Southern Gospel, auditioning for The Journeymen.
While things didn’t work out with the quartet, they remained friends. “We made some friendships and when they would come to the Owensboro area, they would have me sing a song or two with them,” Bridgmon remembers.
And The Journeymen gave Steve some advice that might have been the small spark to where he stands today: Form your own group.
Bridgmon put together Firm Foundation, a quartet that quickly became popular in Owensboro and the surrounding area. Early in the group’s tenure, a fan who worked at the local Kentucky Farm Bureau office asked Bridgmon if Firm Foundation would represent Daviess County at the insurance company’s annual gospel quartet contest at the Kentucky State Fair in August.
“I had forgotten all about it and I just happened to run into her at the grocery store on Tuesday. She said something about the contest at the state fair. It was on Thursday,” Bridgmon laughs.
But Bridgmon got the group together and hit the road for Louisville. When he got there, he saw many veteran groups waiting to sing and thought Firm Foundation might have been out of its league. And there was the misconception that a group of guys in their 20s and early 30s couldn’t possibly know how to sing good old fashioned Southern Gospel.
“We got up and sang that Gold City song, ‘I’m Gonna Take It and Leave It.’ Our bass singer, Will Van Wyngarden opened singing that bass solo and when I looked out and saw the looks on some of the faces,” Bridgmon says with his eyes widening, “I knew we were all right.”
Well, more than all right.
When the judges’ decision was announced, the new guys took home the big trophy. “I took it to school with me the next day,” laughs Bridgmon, who was teaching computer and business courses as well as coaching football at Owensboro Middle School at the time.
The group widened its fan base, traveling nearly every weekend through the South and Midwest. As with any group, there was personnel turnover with perhaps the most notable Firm Foundation alum being Anthony Davis, who would spend six years with Firm Foundation before becoming one of Southern Gospel’s most popular bass singers in his time with Tribute Quartet.
Eventually, though, reality hit. Despite Firm Foundation’s enormous popularity, Bridgmon needed a change of scenery.
“I remember going into a Friday just hoping we make payroll,” Bridgmon says. “You can’t tell me there isn’t any group owner out there who doesn’t feel that way. It was just one of those things when Anthony decided he was going to take some time off too and go back to Tennessee, I kind of lost interest in having a group because we were kind of like bookends.
“I was just in need of a break. I was just tired of being on the road all the time. We had a bus and it was broken into. I was just ready to do something else. I have always been the kind of guy who has been level-headed and when you are spending more money than you are making, it might be time to re-evaluate the way you are doing things.”
Yet down deep, Bridgmon kept his lifelong dream alive. “When I was young, I always wanted to be a country music singer,” he says. “You hear the stories about people that danced around their rooms with a hairbrush in their hand, like a mic. I had a broom and would make like Elvis Presley. Elvis died when I was very young, but I would get on the back porch with that broom and make believe I had an audience.”
He continued to teach and coach. There was some solo musical work but little success.
Then one day, his sister, who had been given some devastating news, gave Bridgmon the advice that jump started him to being one of the hot names in Christian country music. “After she was diagnosed with brain cancer, I didn’t get to talk with her for a couple of days because there were a lot of people who were like bombarding her. When she called me, she said, ‘Don’t say a word. Don’t talk. There are three things I need from you. I need you to get out of Owensboro. I need you to get on with your music career and I need to stop being so fat.’”
Bridgmon bursts into a laugh. “I weighed about 300 pounds then. The three things I need from you, her journey catapulted me into what I am doing now. It has given me a place. It’s given me an audience, a national audience and it changed me from ‘I have to get charted. I have to get on radio’ to now having a real audience and a real voice to be an influence to people who need it.”
Bridgmon’s sister, Shannon, died in 2020. His father also passed away last year. He’s currently working on a book, appropriately titled, “Three Things I Need From You.”
With Nashville calling, he had his struggles. He’d released “Down the Road Less Traveled” but it failed to chart. Steve pressed on, recording a song, “Angels By Another Name” against the advice of producer Donna King.
“Donna said, ‘Steve, radio just won’t play songs about angels.’
“But I thought Alabama had a massive hit, ‘Angels Among Us.’”
Steve performed “Angels By Another Name” at a Christian Country Showcase in Gatlinburg, taking the top prize on a Saturday afternoon. “I didn’t even know it was a contest. It was a package deal where I got different interviews and some press coverage,” he says. “When I got back to the hotel that night, I got a Facebook message, this is literally hours after I won the showcase, from a man in Louisiana who had a Christian Country radio station. He said, ‘Do you have that song recorded? If I can get a copy of that, I would like to play that Monday on my morning show.”
Bridgmon and King got the song to the station and in just two weeks, Bridgmon had his first Top 10 hit on the Christian country charts. It eventually went to No. 1 on 27 different charts.
Since then he’s had enormous success, charting seven songs from his “Push Back” album in the Top 5 with three going to No. 1.
And at the urging of his label executives, he lost 110 pounds. “I put some of it back on in the last year,” Bridgmon says with a smile. “It’s been a tough year.”
But it’s been a pretty good ride for a guy who went to Nashville in his mid-40s, an age that some artists start slowing down. Now 49, Bridgmon laughs when people note his age. “People say, ‘Well, you are almost 50,’” he grins. “I know there is a time when I will have to slow down a bit but I am hoping it isn’t close!”
What hasn’t changed is the message. It’s delivered differently than those days when he was leading Firm Foundation in churches, but it’s still the message of Christ.
“Someone said to me, ‘Somebody is already singing to the Christians. What is it you want to do?’ I realized I can do anything I want as long as I stay true to the message,” he says.
“I have recorded some songs that are positive country. My latest single, ‘Living in Black and White,’ talks about leaving your screen door unlocked or watching Andy Griffith and going fishing on Saturday. You can go into a church and that song resonates with them.”
Concerts contain Bridgmon’s hits but always point the audience to Christ. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘I love gospel music,’ it’s a win because they still know I am a gospel music singer,” he says. “They identify me with being a gospel singer.”
But Bridgmon’s brand is decidedly country and reflects the influence of Vince Gill, The Oak Ridge Boys and Rascal Flatts on his music. “I am not everybody’s cup of tea when it comes to style. I am a little pop-country meets Jesus,” Bridgmon says.
But there is an advantage to being considered a country artist singing with a Christian message. “The thing about Inspirational Country is that if it goes on YouTube or something like that, it’s country. It’s just how they do it. So when you do a song like ‘Jesus Still Loves Me,’ the very first thing you will get is, ‘My grandmother taught me that when I was little!’
“So there is a place for me and for Chris Golden and for Jenna Faith and all the people doing inspirational country.”
All the while, Bridgmon remains true to ministry. While some question his wisdom, he never charges churches for singing. “I believe when you get to where you say, ‘I have to have this amount of money,’ then you have sort of compromised your ministry,” he says. “It’s just who I am. Thirty-four dollars will fill my gas tank. I have never been left without enough to fill the tank. Two CDs from the table? That will fill my tank and you will walk away with new friends.”
That might seem to be an unconventional approach.
But the gospel is about even more than being unconventional. It’s about transformed lives.
“I’ll be honest,” Bridgmon says. “My audience and fan base expanded greatly when I decided to do what the Lord said.”
And that really is heading down a road less traveled.
FIRM FOUNDATION HAS REUNION
While Steve Bridgmon’s quartet, Firm Foundation, no longer travels, its legacy lives on. “I started the group,” he says. “I ran the music. I registered it in my name. I actually run my business as a Christian country artist under ‘Firm Foundation, LLC.’ I still run my career under Firm Foundation.”
The enormously popular group held a reunion the last weekend in June, singing in Owensboro and Bowling Green. The group that sang at the height of its popularity performed and Bridgmon noted, “It was like riding a bicycle. There is a sound you just can’t create as a Christian country artist.”
And the weekend was emotional.
“Anthony (Davis) was in tears. I was in tears,” Bridgmon said. There is always that section (in the life of a group) where you know it really worked. The personalities and music and the voices sounded good. There was about a two-year span where it just really clicked and sort of rose on what we had been.”
Bridgmon hopes to have periodic Firm Foundation reunions in the future.