Billy Edd Wheeler says a good song just grabs you from the start. He would know.
The 86-year-old Swannanoa resident is one of North Carolina’s most successful songwriters. Most famous for writing “Jackson,” the iconic duet popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Billy Edd’s songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers and more. Over 150 artists have recorded his lyrics including the famous “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Coward of the County.” He is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, Billy Edd Wheeler is also playwright, novelist, poet, painter, singer, and sculptor.
His story is an American story. Born in West Virginia, Billy Edd grew up in a coal-mining community named Highcoal. His childhood, poetically documented in his new memoir Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, was difficult, and he left town and an abusive step-father at 16 to attend college at Warren Wilson. He says his life began there.
Billy Edd reflected on his journey from Highcoal to his first break which includes a special North Carolina connection in an interview for Come Hear NC.
What about living in North Carolina influenced you musically?
My whole life started here after I got out of the coal camps of West Virgina. Thankfully a Presbyterian missionary came to Highcoal to teach vacation Bible school, but she told us about this school – Warren Wilson – in Swannanoa. She said, “You can go there early, like a month or two before school starts, and if you work on their dairy or farm or the wood working it cuts your tuition in half.” I had a step-father, and I knew he didn’t want to pay for my college tuition, but he could pay half. Tuition back then was $325 a year. So I thought, “I want to go there.” I was in a bad [situation]. My mother didn’t get married until I was 5, and I had a step-father and he and I didn’t get along, and I ran off from home twice, so when that chance to come down here to Swannanoa, I wrote a letter in longhand, and the dean of the college, Dr. Jensen wrote me back and said come on down. So I went.
It changed my life. One of the most important things I learned at Warren Wilson is that work is noble. It’s a necessary part of living. In West Virginia I was working with some of the boys on a job and they’d say, “Hey Billy! When the boss is not looking, lean on your shovel. Let the dummies do the work.” Warren Wilson flip-flopped that for me. They said don’t try to get out of work, get into work. When you do, it will make you a better person because labor is a necessary part of living. That was a mindbender. But it was good. It was good information.
Warren Wilson is responsible for my painting and my songwriting development, and it’s just really where I was reborn creatively and partly spiritually because of labor concepts. I owe everything to Warren Wilson.
Were you a musician when you got to college at Warren Wilson?
I wouldn’t call myself a musician. When I was 13 I got a guitar. It was $14 from Sears & Roebuck. It was not a good guitar. Boy it was hard on your fingers. The frets were high. But it was a start, and there was a couple of coal miners that I got to know pretty well. One of them could sing like Eddy Arnold, and he showed me a couple of chords, so basically every song I wrote for a long time was three chords. Later on, when I met some pickers in Kentucky and North Carolina, I learned a couple more chords.
[Years later] I got to know Judy Collins pretty well. When she did an album, she researched. She came to my place in Brooklyn and wanted to hear every song I’d ever written. Then the next meeting was in her place up on the East Side in New York. [When] we finished our interview there, she showed me a nice chord that a lot of folk singers used. I can’t remember it because I don’t know music. I don’t know how to write it down. But anyways that chord…I put it into action and used it a lot.
It was just trial and error. I never considered myself gifted at all. I just barely knew enough to write songs with. For a long time, it was no minor chords, just three chords. There’s been a lot of songs written with just three chords and a capo.
I got my big start in New York. I’d been trying to write a whole bunch of songs up there, and luckily I’d met a man who got me a record. His name was Harold Newman. He published music, but he didn’t produce records. He interviewed me and, “He said have you ever had a record?” I said, “No.” And he helped me get one.
I studied playwriting at Yale, and I came down to the city a couple of times. I met a man there just by pure accident whose name was Norman Gimble. He wrote the lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema.” He got an Oscar for a song called “It Goes Like It Goes” from the movie Norma Rae. He used to call me and just chat. [I remember] he was working on a song with the phrase “killing me softly” and I said, “Norman that’s a hell of a phrase. I love it.” Well it was his phrase, and I said, “That’s beautiful. I never heard anything like it.
When I first met Norman my little record was out on the folk label Monitor Records, and he was at that manager’s office, and he came out and instead of going straight to the elevator he saw me over to the side with my guitar, and said “Hi I’m Norman Gimbel.” And I said, “I’m Billy Edd Wheeler.” And he said, “No kidding! My wife saw your album in the Monitor Records window on her way to work. Billy you’re a natural. You write songs like people breathe. But you’ll never make any money.”
So here I am elevated and then he brought me back down to earth. So I said, “Well what can I do to improve?” And he says, “I cannot tell you the creative process. It’s intricate. But I have a couple of friends who make more money in music than anybody on Broadway. Their names are Leiber and Stoller. I’m going to take you and you’re going to meet them and sing for them.”
They were producing Elvis, The Coasters, The Drifters, Peggy Lee, I mean tons of people. They wrote “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me.” He got me hooked up to play for them in person, which was very unusual because big-time producers and publishers don’t want to have to deal with you personally. They want to hear a tape [that] they can throw in the wastebasket.
So I got [through] the first verse of a song and they said, “That’s enough next.” Second one they said, “That’s enough.” The third one they said, “That’s enough. Billy we don’t want to hear anymore. We can’t use any of this stuff.”
I asked them the same question – [What can I do to improve]? And Jerry [Leiber] says, “All I can say is to start listening to songs more critically. [Listen to] what’s it about. That’s the main thing – what’s it about? When you decide what it’s about, you write an opening verse, you get to the chorus as quickly as you can, and then you write another verse if you have to, and then end it with the chorus.”
He said, “We can’t use your stuff, but Norman tells us [that] you’re going to keep writing. If you get an idea that’s commercial give us a call, and if we like it you can bring it in.”
Well, that was the carrot that they held up for me.
I was trying to write a shoot ‘em up ballad, and I wrote a verse: “He rode easy in the saddle/ He was tall and lean/ First you’d a-thought nothing but a streak of mean could make a man look so down right strong/ but one look in his eyes you knew you was wrong.”
Well I got that far, and I said, “I don’t know a dagon thing about western lore. I don’t know a sorrel from a roan,” so I just threw it aside. But as luck would have it, I got a letter from a lady at Warren Wilson, and she sent me a picture of John C. Campbell who founded the folk school in Brasstown on horseback. Boy what a great picture. It was a beautiful horse. He had high-top boots. He had a nice hat. And the way he sat…I thought “Boy that song I was starting that could be him.” Then I found out that he was not only an educator, he was a preacher. He used to go to these places out from Brasstown and preach, bury people, and marry people. That really intrigued me. Then I remembered a verse in a song called “Mule Train” [that went] “There’s a Bible in the sack for the Reverend Mr. Black.”
That was it.
I said, “Dang my hero is a preacher! He’s not a gun fighter.” So I wrote eight verses, and when I got down [to New York City] a few months later I called Jerry [Leiber]. I finally got him on the phone he said, “Alright what you got?” I started reciting the verses. I could tell he was almost ready to give up, and I sang a verse that he liked. He started snapping his fingers he said, “Yeah baby. Yeah baby.” New York talk. He got to the chorus, and he said bring that one in. So I took it in.
Now he and Mike [Stoller] sat down [with me]. I’ve never heard of producers and songwriters who are extremely busy to take time to rewrite a song with you, but they sat down they trimmed my eight versus down to two-and-a-half and the chorus, and we demoed it. He told his song plugger to get out to L.A. [where] the Kingston trio were recording. Within three months I had 50% of a hit song. Whoa. That’s luck. Coincidence. My life is built on accidental meetings with people. And that John C. Campbell… I mean he was quite a man, and he gave me a song.
That’s my best North Carolina connection.
What makes a good song?
One that just grabs you…you know? [You hear] the first verse, and you want to hear the rest of it. Some of them don’t. It partly depends on how it’s performed, but if you’re a songwriter, you’re listening to it for something you might use as a picker yourself.
I know you’ve probably answered this a million times, but what was the source of “Jackson?’
Well it’s really convoluted. When I was at Yale we were studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We got a copy of it at Yale before it really was opened on Broadway. So we analyzed it, and if you saw the movie – I mean [remember] how the man and woman fightand go at each other like crazy? He’s working for the college and his wife is the daughter of the president of the college, and she gives him the dickens. I mean it’s mean. Mean spirited. It is natural for a couple to spar in good faith, good spirit, but this was not [that]. This was mean. For some reason when I was trying to write a song I remembered that, and it really inspired me. Now that’s a stretch isn’t it! Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfends up being “Jackson!”
I needed a town, and I tried Nashville and some others and that was too soft. I wanted something that really got you, so I finally got Jackson. Of course that was my most successful song and still is.
That’s a great song and it’s a great performance. Was hotter than a pepper sprout was just a phrase you’d grown up hearing?
Well that’s a convoluted idea. Lily May Pennington was in a folk group, and she got bit by a baby rattlesnake. It was only about a foot long. Her foot swelled up as big as a cantaloupe, and she said that the young snakes have not learned to regulate the venom. For some reason that helped me write “hotter than a pepper sprout” because I had heard that the sprout is hotter than the mature (pepper). I don’t know how they relate, but they do! From a snake bite to the sting of a hot pepper. That’s the way songs work! You put the pieces together. I never got the pieces put together until I heard “there’s a Bible in the sack,” and boy then all those pieces came right together.
One of your other popular songs is “Ode to the Shack in the Back.” Will you talk about that one?
The easiest thing is to write about something you know, and I was about 12 before I experienced indoor plumbing. That little brown shack out back was a part of my life, and I hated it on those cold days like today, but I thought it’s a good subject and I’ll make a funny song out of it. I’m not going to tell the truth about how I hated it.
Will you talk about how Judy Collins came to record some of your music?
Well Judy Collins was coming up. She wasn’t established totally, but she was on her way up and she did research like nobody else in the world. When she heard one of my songs – I think it was “The Coming of the Rose,” which I wrote here in North Carolina on my honeymoon with Mary – she called the publishers and found my phone number and she came over to Brooklyn Heights and made me play as many songs of my own as I could. Then we had a second session up on the East Side where she was, and I went there and spent two or three more hours [with her]. Boy she would go through hundreds of songs to get two or three.
She did “Winter Sky,” which also comes back to North Carolina. When I was on the dairy at Warren Wilson my boss would wake me up at 4:30 in the morning and take me to the dairy barn, and as I went out to get the cows it was not morning, but not night. It was that magic period [under] a winter sky. I still get shivers thinking about the inspiration, and I wrote “Out under the winter sky stars come trembling on my eye,” and then another verse, “I feel like something’s going to die,” and in another verse, “I feel like something’s being born.” It’s really a disguised Christmas song. I thought to myself, “Ain’t nobody going to record this song. It’s too esoteric. It’s too out there.” But when she heard it, she cut it right off. I don’t who else would have sung that song. I loved it. I used to sing it myself with the dulcimer.