Yes. My co-writer Jerry Chesnut was close friends with Lamar Fike, one of Elvis’ go-fers, and it was he who took my demos of that and Never Again to Elvis. I remember Jerry calling me one day and asking if I wanted to play a round of golf with him and Lamar. I said, “No thanks, Jerry. I’ve seen Lamar hit the ball and it seldom goes much farther than eighty yards, sometimes barely getting out of his considerable shadow.” “Well, you know he’s taking our songs to Elvis, don’t you?” Jerry informed me. “Like I said, Jerry,” I quickly replied, “I don’t want to play unless our pal Lamar is going.” We all went out to the golf course. On one hole, I asked Lamar what he shot so I could write his score down. He said, “13.” “Wait a minute, Lamar,” I said. “I counted at least 15 strokes. Remember, you whiffed the ball twice.” “Well, God almighty!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know we were playing PRO rules.”
But he got the songs to Elvis.
When Elvis first heard them, he looked at Lamar and said gruffly, “Are these about me and Priscilla?” Supposedly, Lamar replied, “Elvis, not every song I bring you is about you and Priscilla.” On Elvis’ initial take of It’s Midnight, he stopped after the first verse and said to Lamar, “I can’t sing this thing like the demo.” Lamar said, “Well, cut it the way you feel it.” He then did the song in one take and did it exactly like my demo! I’ve also got a live concert recording of It’s Midnight. Elvis is pretty high, criticizes the décor and sings only a verse and chorus of some songs.
Did you see Elvis yourself?
In 1975 Elvis came to Asheville, NC, which is about 10 miles from here, to play a concert at the Civic Auditorium, but the tickets sold out so fast they booked him for two more days. Elvis stopped one of the shows bring J. D. Sumner downstage. He made a short but touching speech to J. D. about how long they’d been doing shows together and presented him with a large diamond ring. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the diamond as being worth $35,000. Elvis also tossed a guitar into the audience, so they did a big story on the guy who caught it.
Lamar Fike invited me to hang out in Elvis’ dressing room. We could step from the room and walk up under the stage on either side–a great vantage point to observe women of all ages handing things up to Elvis as he handed out scarves…dolls they’d made, flowers, candy, all sorts of items. When Elvis introduced It’s Midnight, he said, “Here’s a song written by a local boy, a good friend of mine, uh – (He reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of paper and read from it) – Billy Edd Wheeler.” I said to Lamar, “What’s that all about? He knows my name.” Lamar said that he could not remember names and he’d even do that if it was Liza Minnelli.
The next day, I was in Lamar Fike’s motel room with Felton Jarvis and a couple of his bodyguards. The phone rang and since Lamar was out, I picked it up and effected the tone of a stuffy butler, saying, “Lamar Fike’s residence. May I be of assistance?” A voice said, “This is Elvis. Where’s Lamar?” I told him that Lamar had stepped out and continued, “Elvis, this is Billy Edd. I want to thank you for recording my songs.” His voice changed from the clipped, business-like voice to one of warmth and sincerity. He said, “Thank you for writing them. Just tell Lamar to call me when he gets back.”
David Briggs played keyboards for Elvis but he got burned out living on the road and playing the same stuff over and over. He opened a studio called House Of David and he arranged most of the songs on my Asheville album, using some horns from Memphis and playing piano himself. He is a fantastic player, who can always come up with some sort of signature lick.
I’m part of a trio of Elvis imitators who have fun now and then imitating Elvis impersonators. We call ourselves The Elvi. Our leader is Doug Orr Jr., president of nearby Warren Wilson College and the other guy, Richard Bellando, owns with his wife an upscale hand-weaving loom house in Berea.
You wrote Coward Of The County with Roger Bowling.
Yes, Roger wrote Lucille and Blanket On The Ground and he was a wonderful songwriter. He didn’t have a lot of formal education, I don’t even think he finished high school, but he was a natural and he was a professional editor. He wouldn’t settle for a line unless it contributed to the song. Sometimes I would throw in an arty line and he would say, “Old Folksinger, that sounds pretty good, but what does it mean?” I’d say, “Well, if you don’t know what it means, I think we should throw it away.”
Like me, he was disillusioned with Nashville because it was so crowded. It took me 20 minutes to drive to work but that would be nothing today – it is much much larger today. I’d got out of town and he came over to North Georgia which is not too far from where I live. He called me as he wanted to meet someone who was in the business and we started writing together. I had an outdoor drama ready to open up near the Cumberland Gap in Pine Mountain, Kentucky, so we rented a little cabin at the State Park there.
How did you get the idea for Coward Of The County?
Roger said that my forte was writing story songs and he said, “I think mine is too, so let’s write a story song. I have a title ‘The Promise’.” He hadn’t an idea to go with the title but he said, “I’ll start working on the song, go and mix us a drink.” I went into the kitchen and poured him half a glass of Jack Daniel’s: well, there was no mixing to it, he drank it straight. I came back and he said, “Hey, old folksinger, listen to this, ‘Everyone considered him the coward of the county.’” I said, “Hey, I like that.” He said, “Okay, what’s the next line?” I said, “Give me a minute, I need to mix myself a drink.” And then whenever we got stuck for a line, he would say, “Go mix us up a line finder.” (Laughs) We’d have a drink and come up with a few more lines.
And what about that story?
I had always liked My Fair Lady because here is a little girl that they are trying to make over. She is the underdog and people love it when she slips into her Cockney accent and says, “Move your bloomin’ arse.” Everybody is pulling for that girl to have her comeuppance on those highbrow guys and I said to Roger, “Maybe the guy is like that and you want to root for him.” We didn’t call him a coward because we didn’t want to write a song about a coward. Look at the opening line. He is not a coward: it is just that everyone thinks he is because he won’t fight and won’t defend himself. Why? Remember we were going to call it The Promise. He had promised his dad that he wouldn’t fight because his dad is in jail and getting ready to be executed. We changed the title to Coward Of The County in the end, which is catchier but it isn’t correct as he isn’t a coward.
Did you think Coward Of The County would be just right for Kenny Rogers?
Absolutely because Roger’s best friend Larry Butler was producing Kenny Rogers at the time. Roger could take it straight to him which was very convenient. The big battle in songwriting is getting the song to the producer or the artist without going through all the middle people.
And the three rapists in that song are the Gatlin boys? Is this some sort of in-joke?
Not for me. We tried the Shelton boys and other names, but they sounded too soft. I didn’t realise it, but Roger had crossed swords with Larry Gatlin in Larry Butler’s office. Roger was sitting there and Larry Butler said to Gatlin, “I suppose you know Roger Bowling?” Larry Gatlin replied, “No, but I’m sure he knows me.”
Roger Bowling was quick witted. Instantly he said, “Gatlin, Gatlin? Uh, is your family in guns?” Supposedly, it pissed Gatlin off a bit. After the song was a hit, Larry Gatlin did the Johnny Carson show with Kenny Rogers sitting in as host. Gatlin confronted Kenny: “Why did you use our names in your song?” Kenny said, “Hey Larry, I just sang the song, I didn’t write it.” It turns out that Larry Gatlin had a girlfriend named Becky. Roger might have known that, but I didn’t.
What else did you write for Kenny Rogers?
He did Long Arm Of The Law and Roger’s natural affinity for songwriting came into play here. I had heard that Daniel Boone in his older age ended up in the Ozarks and because of his popularity as a pioneer and a discoverer, the Governor made him a justice of the peace, and he was like the law in a 200 square mile area. The deputies would bring criminals before Daniel Boone and he held court under a big American elm that became to be known as the Justice Tree.
They may have stolen a hog or beaten their wives or whatever. His favourite punishment was eight or nine lashes of the whip, they would strip you down and whip you, and once he was whipped he was okay to go back into society. People would ask, “How did you make out in Daniel’s court?” and the reply would be “Whupped and cleared.” That intrigued me and I thought The Justice Tree would be a good title. I wrote “You can outrun the long arm of the law, But you can’t outrun your conscience.” Roger said, “I can’t get involved in Daniel Boone as it happened so long ago. Why don’t we make him a modern day judge?” That was a great idea and so we started out,
“In Cumberland, Kentucky on a cool autumn evening,
Billy lay in love with Marianne.
She was a rich judge’s daughter, he was the son of a miner,
But that night their love was more than they could stand.”
She’s pregnant and they know that they are in deep trouble because her father is a hanging judge and he is going to track the boy down. It was never released as a single but Kenny did put it on his Greatest Hits.
You have an album out, Songs I Wrote With Chet. He presumably would suggest changes in the melody that you wouldn’t think of.
Oh yeah, I can hardly play any of the songs that he and I wrote together! He held the guitar and he plays chords that I can only dream of: my fingers won’t make them. I could suggest a melody and he would take it and improve it. Sometimes I would sing something and he would feed off that. He put some beautiful chords in there. He had one premise for the lyrics, “Keep it simple”. His changes might make me change the words but the words and music were written at the same time and I let the song go where it wanted to go in the master’s hands.
I love the playfulness of Music City News.
That was Chet’s idea. It’s about a guy on the morning show in Nashville and he is saying, “Nothing’s changed here, I am still doing this and still doing that, and still in love with you.” Incidentally, Chet told me that his favourite song of mine was The Coming Of The Roads, a song about the devastation caused by strip mining which was recorded first by Judy Collins and then by Peter, Paul and Mary. Judy was accompanied by a cello and it’s a lovely arrangement.
I know John D Loudermilk is one of your close friends, so have you written with him?
John D and I sat down to write a song once, but it didn’t happen. He kept making notes and putting them away in one pocket or another for future reference. We finally gave up and started talking about women, politics and the military-industrial complex – one of his favorite themes – and forgot about trying to write a song.
Do you still write songs?
Yes, but it is a young world and unless you know somebody well, it is hard to get them recorded. Mostly I write songs to go with my outdoor dramas or the plays I am writing. My novel Song of Appalachia is about song writing: it’s about a publishing house that is as corrupt and crooked as anything in John Grisham. Billy Ray Cyrus has read it and he would like to star in a movie version. I’m also working a children’s book and CD called The Cat On The Roof and the songs are sounding snappy and exciting. The singers include T Graham Brown, Dania McVickers and Sandy Mason, who wrote When I Dream. Dania also does a great Jackson with me when I go on stage.
And Songs And Legends Of The Outer Banks is a themed album.
Yeah, once I had that theme, I knew we had an album. All these places like Kitty Hawk and South Nags Head have legends. That was a fun album to write with Paul Craft, who had been teaching on a song writing seminar with me in 1994. We rented a house in South Nags Head the next year and wrote the songs. Chet Atkins helped on a song or two and so did Ken Mann, the feller who lived out there and played in a group called the Captain’s Crew.
Billy Edd Wheeler, thank you very much for your time and such great anecdotes.
Thank you Spencer, it’s been fun. Remember to plug the website! There are CDs, books and cassettes for sale and anyone who contacts the website will get a reply.