This feature appeared in two parts in Country Music People, July and August 2005.
Jackson, Coward Of The County and Reverend Mr Black are three of the hundreds of songs written by Billy Edd Wheeler. In this exclusive interview for Country Music People, Billy Edd Wheeler talks about his songwriting (and passes on many to would-be songwriters along the way). However, this feature could just as easily be about his plays, his novels or his paintings.
In 2004 his latest novel, Star Of Appalachia, was published and his new play, Johnny Appleseed, received its premiere in Mansfield, Ohio. Billy Edd specialises in outdoor dramas and his most intriguing work is the folk opera, A Song Of The Cumberland Gap. He is working on his memoirs so perhaps I caught him at a good time as his memory is razor-sharp. This interview certainly augers well for those memoirs.
Billy Edward Wheeler was born in Whitesville, West Virginia on 9 December 1932. “I call myself Billy Edd with two d’s. I started that when I was young, but I’ve no idea why.” Billy Edd grew up in West Virginia and moved to North Carolina when he was 16. He studied at the Warren Wilson College, near Swannanoa, and he was to marry the president’s daughter, Mary, in 1963.
After the Warren Wilson College, Billy Edd studied at Berea College in Kentucky and graduated in English in 1955. He learned to fly while he was in the navy and returned to Berea College as an assistant alumni director. In 1961 he wanted to study further and went to Yale University describing himself as “their token hillbilly”. He began performing in New York City and in 1963, he married Mary Bannerman, who was also working in New York City. They have two adult children, Lucy and Travis, and, although Billy Edd and Mary did live for a couple of years in Nashville, they have been based in Swannanoa, North Carolina for most of their married life.
Although primarily a songwriter, Billy Edd Wheeler has released an impressive number of albums over the years. His albums are USA (1961), Billy Edd And Bluegrass Too (1962), A New Bag Of Songs (1964), Memories Of America / Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back (1965), The Wheeler Man (1965), Goin’ Town And Country (1966), Paper Birds (1967), I Ain’t The Worrying Kind (1968), Nashville Zodiac (1969), Love (1971), The Music Of Billy Edd Wheeler (1973), My Mountains, My Music (1975), Wild Mountain Flowers (1979), A Song of the Cumberland Gap – A Folk Opera (1979), Asheville (1982), Gee-Haw Whimmy Diddle (1987), Laughter In Appalachia (spoken word, 1987), Songs I Wrote With Chet (1995), Songs And Legends Of The Outer Banks (1996) and Milestones (2001).
How did you come to be interested in music?
I was born in coal mining country in Boone County, West Virginia, and my first exposure to music was singing at church. We sang ‘Do re mi, re me fa, me fa so’, they call it shape note singing. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of country music growing up except by way of the Grand Ole Opry and I didn’t listen to the radio very much, and for a long time we didn’t even have a radio. One of my first influences was Eddy Arnold singing Cattle Call. (Sings) As you can hear, I can’t imitate that too well but there were guys in the coal mining community who played the guitar and sang and you wouldn’t know if was them or Eddy Arnold as they were so good.
Do any of your songs contain yodelling?
I’ve never had any yodelling songs. The first song I ever wrote – I was about 14 – was about delivering newspapers. I had to get up at 4.30 in the morning and it got pretty cold in West Virginia. I had to deliver the papers through the black section of town and all the way on up to the head of the holler through rain and sleet and snow. It’s like being a postman – neither rain nor sleet nor snow will keep us from our appointed round. I wrote a song about that called Paper Boy Blues.
You were conscripted and I presume that the navy helped your career as you would experience a wide view of life.
I was also an alumni director of one of the colleges I went to which meant I got to circle round the country meeting people by the thousands. Once people know that you are interested in folk music for instance, they will bring songs to you and they help you with your collecting.
And when did you know that you wanted to be a professional songwriter?
The songwriting came so naturally that I don’t know whether I have ever considered myself a professional songwriter. I just do it because I love it. It comes naturally and I have made a fairly good living writing songs, thanks to Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers. I would have done it whether I made any money at it or not because I loved it.
Were you more concerned with being a songwriter than a performer?
Oh yes. When I had my first hit in 1964 with Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back, I was called upon to sing in different places but I never regarded myself as a recording artist. I do like to entertain and I do like to sing for people but I was never out on the professional tours. It’s a pity that I never got an invite to come to the UK: I’d like to have done the Wembley festival.
What was the first song you had recorded?
It was by Pat Boone when he was really hot back in the 50s. When I got out of the navy and went back to Berea College as assistant alumni director, I was into folk music and I used to play The Boll Weevil Song. I thought it might lend itself into a rock’n’roll song and so I picked up my guitar and it went like this
(Sings) “The boll weevil am a little black bug,
Comes from Mexico then what,
Come all the way from Texas,
Looking for a place to rock.
He had to Rock boll weevil, Rock boll weevil, Rock boll weevil, had to rock.
Lost my cotton crop, Lost that cotton crop, Cause that weevil had to rock.”
Pat Boone put a lot of saxophones in there and really jived it up. Roll Boll Weevil was my first recorded song.
How did Pat Boone get the song?
Pat Boone married Red Foley’s daughter, Shirley. Red Foley was a wonderful country music singer and he lived in Berea, Kentucky. Another of Red’s daughters, Betty was married to an acquaintance of mine called Bentley Cummings. I gave the song to Betty and Bentley who passed it to Shirley. That’s when I got my first taste of the greedy part of the music publishing business.
Bentley wanted me to say that Betty had helped me co-write the song so that I could give her half of it, and then Pat Boone would record it. I said, “But that would be lying, Bentley. I wrote the song and I can’t do that.” I added, “Look, I’ll give you a finder’s fee. I will give you 15% and that’s my deal.” Then Pat Boone’s manager called me and wanted to publish the song. I had met a folk publisher in New York called Harold Newman and I had already told him that he could publish the song.
I had to say, “I’m sorry, I’ve already promised it to somebody else.” Pat Boone’s manager let me have it, calling me a dumb hillbilly and all that stuff. I said, “I gave my word and my word is my bond. I cannot give you the song, sorry about that.” It was hard for me to say that as I wasn’t making very much money and a recording by Pat Boone would be big stuff but I had to stick by my guns. It turned out that they had already recorded it and they were just trying to tie up all the loose publishing ends.
What happened to the Pat Boone record?
It was a two sided hit. He had just written a book called Twixt Twelve And Twenty which was giving advice to teenagers, and he had a song based on that. Because of the popularity of the book, it got a lot of airplay, but my song on the other side got just as much play. It was a moderate hit, not one of his earthshaking great big hits. He had a great voice and he was about the hottest thing in show business for a while. I suppose my song might have inspired Brook Benton’s version, but it was fair game for anybody to base something based on that folk song.
This was in 1959 so what happened next?
I did a folk album for Harold Newman. It had only cost $200 to record 16 songs and it was released on Monitor Records. Their offices were in New York and they were a folk label. It was a stroke of good luck that Norman Gimbel, who is a world class lyricist, was married to a model and on her way to work she passed by Monitor Records and saw my album in the window. I’m not a good looking guy but out of curiosity, she picked it up and took it home.
I was in Harold Leventhal’s office trying to find work as a folk singer when Norman came up and introduced himself to me. He said, “My god, man, my wife’s in love with you. She brought your album home and really likes it. I like it too but Billy, don’t take this wrong: you’re a natural songwriter but you’ll never make money at it.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because I can tell you take songs as they come, the first draft and that’s it. You don’t shape your songs or edit them.” I said, “I’d like to learn to be better.” He said, “Let me take you to see Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as they write for Elvis Presley, the Drifters and the Coasters.”
Norman Gimbel took me to the Brill Building on Broadway, the House of Dreams, and I sang my songs for Leiber and Stoller and saw where Bobby Darin had a cubbyhole office. They told me I would have to become more commercial. I needed to listen to songs more critically. Jerry Leiber said, “You should always ask, ‘What is the song about?’ You should only have one theme in a song and some of your songs have two or three themes in them. Concentrate on what the song is about and then how are you going to introduce that idea. What are your first two or three lines going to be? Then you develop it and complete the song.” They told me that I should call them if I had a good idea and that was a gigantic leap for any wannabe songwriter.
I know Norman Gimbel wrote Killing Me Softly With His Song and The Girl From Ipanema. Did you write with him yourself?
Sort of. Every time that Norman had a song idea, he would put it alphabetically in his Rolodex, and he wanted me to be organised and do things like that. One night he was looking in the B’s and he said to me, Blue Roses. I said, “Have you not written that one?” When he said no, I asked him for the title. I wrote Blue Roses and Hank Snow recorded it so Norman was instrumental in me becoming a professional songwriter.
I think your first big hit was with Reverend Mr Black for the Kingston Trio in 1963.
I had been trying to write a song about a western gunfighter and it started, “He rode easy in the saddle, he was tall and lean.” About a third of the way into the song, I realised that I didn’t know a roan from a gelding from a stallion and I knew nothing about western culture. I almost threw the song away but then I saw a picture of an Appalachian preacher, John C Campbell, who had founded a school not far from here called the Brasstown Folk School. He was a minister who went to communities which didn’t have a regular preacher. He was on horseback with big leather boots which reached up to his knees and I thought, “Wait a minute and I soon had the first lines.” They were: