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.
When most people think of electronic-pop music, they probably don’t associate it with folk music.
That is not the case for Amelia Meath. The singer-songwriter behind the internationally acclaimed synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Meath cut her musical teeth writing and performing sparse, tightly harmonized ballads in the band Mountain Man. In 2011 she offered musician and producer Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak the opportunity to remix the Mountain Man song “Play it Right” with an electronic flair. Three years later, that song, along with nine others penned and recorded as a duo in Sanborn’s Durham apartment, made up Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut.
Meath writes her songs “in the air,” while on walks around her neighborhood. She chooses not to limit her melody building with accompaniment or an existing beat, instead writing hooks and choruses with her voice and building in the instrumentation with Sanborn as the final step – a technique that harkens back to Western North Carolina’s ballad singing tradition. The appetite for the band’s sound is big, and Sylvan Esso has risen to fame with hit songs like “Hey Mami”, “Coffee”, and “Radio.”
“Radio” is perhaps the greatest example of Meath's skill as a melody writer and thoughtful lyricist. The melody sounds conventional, but a closer listen reveals intricate melodic intervals accompanied by a driving and repetitive synth backdrop. The song’s lyrics serve up a harsh criticism of the music industry – attacking consumerism and mocking dated song-length guidelines for pop success in the chorus’ lyrics, “Slave to the radio, three point three oh (3:30).” Her roots in folk music – long recognized as a powerful tool for marginalized voices – are made most apparent when she criticizes the very genre she’s found success in. One can only imagine what Durham’s Amelia Meath has in store for us next.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and for an early matriarch of American folk music, that sentiment rings true.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893–1987) was left-handed. Raised in a musical household near current day Carrboro, she gravitated to her brother’s banjo and guitar, which were set-up to be played right-handed.
For most aspiring musicians, that obstacle would have been enough to extinguish the creative flame, but Libba played on, developing an unconventional style now known to the world as “Cotten Picking.” Playing the lower strings with her index finger and the higher strings with her thumb established a unique sound, placing more emphasis on the bass lines and effectively serving as her own accompanist when playing.
By working odd jobs around town – picking vegetables, sweeping porches, and setting fires in wood stoves – Cotten eventually saved up the $3.75 needed to buy her first guitar, a Stella from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was on that guitar that she wrote “Freight Train,” her most famous song. “Freight Train” was popularized in the 1950s thanks to recordings done by the Seeger family, who Elizabeth Cotten worked for as a maid, launching the 60-something songwriter to newfound fame in the folk revival movement.
“Freight Train” has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Cotten’s debut album Folksongs & Instrumentals with Guitar (1958) is credited as one of the most influential folk albums of all time. Often imitated, but never replicated, Libba Cotten and her “Cotten Picking” changed the sound forever.
-Story by Samuel Gerweck
Some of the most esteemed and respected women in old-time music will lead workshops in fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, flat foot dance/square dance calling, and harmony singing during the Women! Mount Air Old-Time Workshops scheduled Thursday, Feb. 28 to Saturday, March 2.
Hosted by the Surry Arts Council with support from the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources the workshops are being held in conjunction with the Tommy Jarrell Festival, which also kicks off on Thurs., Feb. 28 with old-time dance lessons.
Registration is still open, and students and adults of all ages are invited to participate. Register online through the Surry Arts Council's secure Eventbrite site. Tuition is $300 and includes classes, meals (lunch and dinner), event tickets, and a t-shirt.
Classes will be held at the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Historic Earle Theatre in Mount Airy, N.C.
The following musicians are leading the workshops:
Caroline Beverley teaches mandolin, singing, guitar and string band classes at Alleghany JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) at Surry Community College in Dobson and plays mandolin for the Virginia based old-time band, the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, as well as other N.C. bands.
Trish Kilby Ford started playing old-time music as a young teenager under the instruction of Emily Spencer and many other old-time and bluegrass musicians around her hometown of Lansing in Ashe County, N.C. In the 26 years of playing old-time music, Trish has been influenced by legends in traditional music, including Thornton and Emily Spencer, Dean Sturgill, the Birchfield Family, Ola Belle Reed, just to name a few. She has played with many groups and traveled internationally.
Erynn Marshall is an old-time fiddler who lives in Galax, Virginia and is known nationally and beyond for her traditional music she learned Appalachian old-time fiddling from rare recording and visiting 80-95-year-old southern fiddlers for decades. Erynn performs at festivals and music camps around the globe and often tours with her husband – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones.
Terri McMurray has great chops on 5-string banjo, banjo uke, and guitar. She studied with many masters including the late Tommy Jarrell and has played with great banjoists including Dix Freeman, Fields West, Benton Fllippen and Kyle Creed. Terri co-founded the Old Hollow String Band and has also performed with the Toast String Stretchers, the Mostly Mountain Boys and the Mountain Birch Duo with Paul Brown. She has taught at numerous banjo camps, including in England.
Emily Spencer is a certified PK-12 teacher and has taught fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and bass in the schools and at Wilkes Community College and Wytheville Community College. She has played music since childhood and started playing with the Whitetop Mountain Band in the 1970s with Thornton Spencer and continues with the band today.
Martha Spencer is the daughter of Emily and Thornton Spencer, the leaders of the Whitetop Mountain Band. She began dancing and playing at a young age and currently plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and dulcimer. She has won countless competitions for her Appalachian dancing and has taken part in master dance workshop at the National Folk Festival (USA), Woodford Folk Festival (AU) and Lowell Folk Festival (USA). Her music passion includes passing on the traditions and she has been an instructor in the Junior Appalachian Music (JAM) program in Ashe County and plays with numerous bands.
The following post draws from the traditional artist directory of our partners at the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
With an entertaining career that spanned more than 60 years, Carl Story (1916-1995) has been called “The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music.” Story played fiddle with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys starting in 1942, before joining the Navy in 1943. After his discharge, Story helped shape the bluegrass gospel style and led a band that served as a training ground for many musicians.
Born in Lenoir in 1916, Story grew up hearing his father play fiddle. By the time he was a teenager, Story was playing fiddle and guitar and performing on local radio programs. He led a band in his early twenties that included a three-finger banjo player, helping pioneer the bluegrass sound. Story traveled around the region playing on different radio stations. He played in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1930s, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the mid-’30s, where he joined Johnnie Whisnant and formed the Lonesome Mountaineers and Rambling Mountaineers. He played with these groups until joining Bill Monroe’s band in 1942.
After World War II, Story reorganized his band in Asheville, signed with Mercury, and performed at radio stations in Knoxville and Bristol, Tennessee. His group, the Rambling Mountaineers performed both secular and sacred music, but most of their repertoire was gospel.
Story’s band recorded with Mercury for five years, and later recorded on the Columbia and Starday labels. During the peak years of his career, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers hosted radio and television shows in several Southeastern states and had a 10-year affiliation with WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance program in Knoxville. His band was a fixture at bluegrass festivals throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.
Story retired to Greer, South Carolina, where he worked as a disc jockey and continued to perform until his death in 1995. Over the course of his entertainment career, Carl Story recorded more than 2,000 songs and 55 albums. A section of NC Highway 18 that passes through his hometown of Lenoir is named in his honor and he is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
The North Caroilna Arts Council is back with a new music themed season of their podcast Arts Across NC called "Director's Cut." Over the next four episodes, Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with the agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.
"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina."
Up first is the song "Going Back to Weldon," performed by the Menhaden Chanteymen in 1988.
There was a time when a stinky, oily fish ruled eastern North Carolina. From the late 1800s through much of the 20th century, menhaden sat at the economic epicenter of Beaufort, North Carolina. Year in and year out, generations of working class men and women caught, processed, packaged and shipped menhaden, also known in North Carolina's Core Sound region as shad. As the town grew alongside the burgeoning industry, so to did a new style of work song developed by African American men who often handled the back-breaking work of hauling in thousands of pounds of fish. These songs- called chanteys - outlived the industry itself and today we share the story and music of the Menhaden Chanteymen.
The mountains and foothills of North Carolina are known internationally as places rich in traditional old-time music, stringband music, ballad singing and bluegrass, and ways to experience authentic music flourish throughout the region. From hometown opry’s and informal jam sessions to concert stages, festivals and old-time music conventions, visitors can enjoy traditional music and dance in friendly, informal settings, some dating back almost a century. The North Carolina Arts Council developed the Blue Ridge Music Trails to encourage travelers to explore the regions incredible music experiences.
An important focus of Blue Ridge Music traditions is the town of Mt. Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith (and inspiration for his famous Mayberry). Nestled in the foothills of the mountains, the town is home to the second longest currently running live radio program in the nation: WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round. Every Saturday WPAQ presents live, local and regional music on the Merry-Go-Round, a live radio broadcast staged in The Earle, a vintage movie theater in the heart of Mt. Airy. The podcast Down The Road, a production of the Blue Ridge Music Trails by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, explores the history of WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round in this episode.
American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1893 in Carrboro, N.C. Perhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train,” Cotten grew up near the railroad track which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11, two years before she went to work as a domestic worker.
Married at 17, Cotten spent years moving around the country with her husband Frank Cotten only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of folk musician the Seegers held up as an ideal. By then she was more than 60-years-old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Cotten toured the world and won a Grammy in 1984 a year before her death. Her music has been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and her signature fingerpicking style - crafted in part because she played her guitar upside down and backwards, is known as “Cotten picking.”