Originally from Oakland, California, Pursell studied at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and was urged to move to Nashville in 1960 at the urging of Eddy Arnold. During the 1960s and 1970s, he worked as a session pianist for artists like Johnny Cash, Boots Randolph, Chet Atkins, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Johnny Paycheck, Joan Baez, Scotty Moore, J.J. Cale, Dan Fogelberg and more. “Our Winter Love” reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
He earned two Grammy nominations, one for working on the album “Listen” for Ken Medema in 1974 and the second for his arrangement of “We Three Kings” for National Geographic in 1978. He later started a long career as a composition professor at Belmont University, where he taught students like Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood.
His daughter, Laura Pursell, said in a statement that her father became a Catholic while being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which “gives us some measure of peace.”