Steve “Bulldog” Bivins is known for many things in Nashville, including for leading possibly the first songwriter’s night with a full band, for leading the band at the legendary Cowboy Church, and, with his wife Lori, for being the pastor of his own church, River of Faith in White House. But perhaps more than anything, he’s known for being a friend of many, a man who has helped countless songwriters and artists learn the ropes in Nashville through his writer’s nights and by sharing his own experiences.
Bivins came to Nashville after spending years as a touring musician in the western states, opening for such acts as Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. He went on to cuts four sides with the members of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, and eventually led his own band in Montana which charted with two singles. But in the early ‘80s Nashville beckoned.
“Lori and I along with our son, Jeremiah, drove into Nashville, with our van and everything we owned,” Bivins recalled. “I remember pulling up in front of the Ryman, where there was just a field before the convention center was built, and a cop came down and said we better move because it was not a good area.”
Writer’s nights back then were occasions where a guy or gal got onstage at a bar somewhere and strummed and sang alone. But within a few years of making friends and performing around town, Bivins changed the way writer’s nights operated in Nashville, with what is thought to be the first writer’s night with a live band that followed charts the writers brought in at a now-defunct club on Nolensville Road. And while the years have passed and rumor has become legend, some of today’s stars are said to have come up through the ranks playing one or more of those writer’s nights backed by Steve Bivins and his Pick of the Litter Band at the Hall of Fame Lounge and other locations.
Artists and writers such as Leann Rimes, Craig Wiseman, Richard Fagan, Tim McGraw, Tammy Cochran, Otis Blackwell and others are all said to have graced the stage at one of Bivins’ writer’s nights at one time or another. And Bivins knew a little about songwriting himself; along with Charlie Williams and Diane Dickerson, Bivins wrote the humanitarian anthem “Pass It On,” which Willie Nelson cut for his 1986 Promiseland album.
In 1991 Bivins made the acquaintance of Pastors Harry and Joanne Cash Yates, who had begun holding services in the Holiday Inn on Elm Hill Pike on Sunday mornings at what they called the “Cowboy Church.”
“Steve was doing a writers night in the Holiday Inn on Sunday nights, and we had started Cowboy Church there on Sunday mornings,” Pastor Harry Yates said. “I’d see him setting up for Sunday night, and one day he played at our service and people just loved it, so that was the start of our having full bands at Cowboy Church.” Through that connection Bivins and his band backed Johnny Cash, as Pastor Joanne Cash Yates was Johnny’s sister. And when Cash’s mother, Carrie, died during that same period, Bivins performed “Family Bible” at her funeral.
“A few years later we moved over to the Texas Troubadour Theatre and the band went along,” Yates continued. “Steve eventually became my associate pastor and also the song leader and praise and worship leader at our services out in Goodlettsville before he left to start his own church.”
Bivins played at the Cowboy Church for nearly a decade, worshipping God with numerous stars, nobodies, and people who went on to enjoy fruitful careers. Bivins’ son, Jeremiah, is now the drummer for EMI Records Nashville flagship act Troy Olsen. Jeremiah said that his father is definitely the inspiration behind his own musical career.
“I started hanging out with him at writer’s nights when I was about eight, I guess,” Jeremiah said. “And I started playing with him at the Cowboy Church when I was 17, and of course I’ve played at my mom and dad’s church. Anywhere my dad has needed me to play, I’ve done.”
“My dad’s a great guy,” Jeremiah said, “and he was real well known for helping a lot of people get started when they first came to Nashville. He still is, I guess.”
Today Steve Bivins is battling cancer, and is in the thoughts and prayers of his many friends and colleagues in Nashville. No matter the outcome of his illness, there are a lot of folks in Nashville whose lives wouldn’t be the same without him.
“Steve is very loved and respected, and he’s helped a lot of people over the years,” Pastor Harry Yates said. “We’re all praying for him very diligently.”