Forgotten Artists: Billy Edd Wheeler
If anyone in Country Music can truly be said to be a “renaissance man” that person would be Billy Edd Wheeler. Poet, playwright, author, songwriter, singer, artist, lecturer and ecologist would be but a few of the hats that accurately (and comfortably) fit onto his head.
Billy Edd Wheeler fits into the realm between folk music, pop music and country music as his songs have been covered by artists in all three genres. Folk artists such as the Kingston Trio (“The Reverend Mr. Black,” “Desert Pete”), Judy Collins (“The Coming of the Roads,” “Coal Tattoo”), Judy Henske (“High Flying Bird”) and pop artists such as Glen Campbell (“Ann”), Kenny Rogers (“Coward of the County”), Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood (“Jackson” ), and Jim Nabors (“Hot Dog Heart”) have all enjoyed success with his songs.
Meanwhile, on the country side of the ledger, artists such as Hank Snow (“Blue Roses”), Johnny Cash (“Blistered,” “Jackson”), Jerry Reed (“Gimme Back My Blues”) and Johnny Darrell (“I Ain’t Buying,” “Aint That Living”) were among the artists who enjoyed success with his songs. Kathy Mattea’s recent album, Coal, featured several including “Coal Tattoo” and “The Coming of the Roads.” Moreover, he had one major country hit of his own (“Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back”) and several lesser hits including “I Ain’t The Worrying Kind” and “Fried Chicken and a Country Tune.” Wheeler was a long-time friend of Chet Atkins and they wrote a number of songs together including the amusing “I Still Write Your Name in the Snow.”
Born on December 12, 1932, in Whitesville, West Virginia, Billy Edd Wheeler was raised in Boone County, West Virginia and artistic bent showed up early. After high school, he headed to North Carolina where he graduated from Warren Wilson Junior College in 1953, and then to Berea College in Kentucky where he graduated in 1955.
After an interlude in the military in the Navy’s Air Force, he did graduate studies at Yale’s School of Drama under John Gassner, majoring in playwriting. During this time, he became acquainted with the famed team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and collaborated with them on some songs, including “Jackson,” “The Reverend Mr. Black,” and “(The Girl Who Loved) The Man Who Robbed The Bank At Santa Fe (And Got Away),” which was a Top 10 hit for Hank Snow.
Billy Edd Wheeler is a warm and engaging performer whose singing is more folk than country. His career as a singer emerged at the end of the “Hootenanny” era so he has had a relatively low profile as a recording artist. Living in Swannanoa, North Carolina since 1971 has kept him out of the Nashville spotlight but he has remained busy. During his career, he has received 13 awards from ASCAP for songs recorded by the likes of Judy Collins, Bobby Darin, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Kenny Rogers, Elvis, and 90+ other artists. Wheeler estimated a few years ago that his songs sold over 57 million units. By now the total is over 60 million units.
He has written a dozen plays, including 4 outdoor dramas that include the long-running Hatfields & McCoys at Beckley, West Virginia, and Young Abe Lincoln at Lincoln City, Indiana. His most recent play, Johnny Appleseed, premiered at Mansfield, Ohio in 2004. He also has authored or co-authored several books of humor, most recently Real Country Humor–Jokes From Country Music Personalities.
Billy Edd Wheeler was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. He also is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame, and has won awards in various other fields of endeavor.
Billy Edd Wheeler issued a number of albums for Kapp and other labels. All of them contain interesting songs and any that you happen to come across will be worth the purchase.
While he had recorded previously, Memories of America/ Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back (Kapp, 1965) was the album that brought Billy Edd Wheeler to the attention of most people. This album contains most of the songs for which he is remembered including “Jackson” and “The Reverend Mr. Black.” Joan Sommer is the female lead on several songs and the Coasters (yes, those Coasters) provide the harmony on “After Taxes.” This album had previously been issued under the title A New Bag of Songs, but when the title song became a surprise hit, the album was reissued minus two songs and adding the title song and “Sister Sara” which the Kingston Trio had recently turned into a hit.
I Ain’t the Worryin’ Kind (Kapp, 1968) is the other vinyl album to look for, as it contains most of the other songs for which he is known, and some of the best examples of Billy Edd’s wry wit. “Gladys (The Anatomy of A Shotgun Wedding)” is not to be missed, nor is “I Ain’t The Worryin’ Kind.”
CDs are available can be purchased from Billy Edd’s website.
None of his vinyl albums have made it to CD, but Milestones contains some original versions of his songs. I would also recommend Songs I Wrote With Chet, a collection of songs co-authored by the great Chet Atkins. Actually go ahead and buy every CD and book he has for sale on his website. They are all great fun.
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