Billy Edd Wheeler: 'I Can't Rock Anymore, But I Can Still Roll'

Aug 5, 2012
Originally published on August 5, 2012 7:34 am

Even if you've never heard of Billy Edd Wheeler, you might recognize "Jackson," a song he wrote with the help of songwriting heavyweights Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller back in 1963. It was a Top 20 pop hit for Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra in 1967, and got to No. 2 on the country charts that same year in a version by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

" 'Jackson' is a fun song," Wheeler says. "It's been my most famous and most lucrative song. It helped build our house."

Wheeler lives down a long, curvy road in Swannanoa, N.C. He says he's still a night owl, and it's in a workshop behind his house that he comes to write songs.

"As you walk in on the right, you see my gold records by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, even Pat Boone — Pat Boone was really big in the 1950s," Wheeler says. "On the left is a library. Straight ahead is a huge workbench."

Wheeler is also a playwright — he's written a dozen plays, including four outdoor dramas — as well as a painter. He points out a painting in progress, which shows Johnny Cash holding up a huge American flag.

An American Success Story

Wheeler's own story is about as American as they come. He grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. He didn't get along with his stepfather, and he left home at 16. His early experiences inspired him to write the famous "Coal Tattoo," which was recorded by everyone from Judy Collins to The Kingston Trio and Hazel Dickens.

West Virginia was also the basis for his first hit by The Kingston Trio, "The Reverend Mr. Black," a song about a fierce mountain preacher. Roger Deitz, a writer for Sing Out! magazine, says Wheeler brings something to songwriting others can't fake.

"If you write a song about a coal miner or a coal-mining town or whatever, and you come from the suburbs of New Jersey, it probably isn't going to come out right," Deitz says. "Because he's lived and experienced what he's experienced, he becomes a true professional at being able to tell the stories that he tells."

Wheeler left West Virginia and wound up at graduate school at Yale, studying to become a playwright. Then he made his way to New York and teamed up with the hit-making duo of Leiber and Stoller. It was with them that he learned to hone his craft, and it wasn't long before Cab Calloway, Elvis Presley and Hank Snow picked up his songs.

In 1968, Wheeler took his experience and education and moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he continued to write hit after hit — all those gold records that line the walls of his workshop. He was at the heart of the country music industry. But today, Wheeler says he's been shut out completely.

The New Nashville

"It's natural that not many of those young writers in their late teens, early 20s, even in their 30s — they don't want to write songs with a 79-year-old man," Wheeler says. "They don't even want to hear an idea. So it's tough."

But even if Wheeler weren't in his late 70s, and even if he still lived in Nashville, he says he couldn't be a part of country music today.

"A good story and a well-sung song is not enough anymore," he says. "You've got to really honk it up. I mean, it's rock 'n' roll. If you can't rock, just stay in bed and roll around. I can't rock anymore, but I can still roll."

There's another reason Wheeler's songs aren't on Nashville's playlist anymore. Randy Poe, president of Leiber and Stoller Music Publishing and former executive director of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, says the industry there operates on a formula.

"I'm a fan of a lot of the music that comes out of Nashville, but Nashville has the same studio musicians playing on every record, [and] basically the same songwriters writing all the songs," Poe says. "It's a factory, but it's a factory that generates a lot of income. So why would anyone want to change that?"

A 'Coming Of The Roads'

In spite of those difficulties, Billy Edd Wheeler is still writing hits. One of his most recent songs hit the top of the bluegrass charts last year. Wheeler co-wrote "No Lawyers in Heaven" with Paul Craft; it's sung by lawyer and guitar player Charlie Sizemore.

From bluegrass to country to folk, Wheeler's songs have appealed — and still do appeal — to a broad range of musicians. One in particular has been covered by countless bands.

"I can't sing it very well," Wheeler says, "but one of my favorite songs is called 'The Coming of the Roads.'"

Wheeler is experiencing his own "Coming of the Roads." New artists have moved in, country music has moved on — and Wheeler says he's fine with that. He keeps writing and painting, and unlike the lyrics of this song, his treasure has yet to turn to rust.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The entertainment industry is merciless. One day you're a star and the next you're yesterday's news. A songwriter is considered lucky to have a few hits. Billy Edd Wheeler has had many hits over his 79 years. But now he finds himself outside the velvet ropes of Nashville. But he is still writing and Laurin Penland has his story.

LAURIN PENLAND, BYLINE: If you've never heard of Billy Edd Wheeler, you might recognize this song he wrote with the help of songwriting heavyweights Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller back in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACKSON")

THE CASHES: (Singing) We got married in a fever, on a bed of pepper sprouts. We been talking about Jackson ever since the fire went out. I'm going to Jackson.

BILLY EDD WHEELER: "Jackson" is a fun song, it's been my most famous and most lucrative song. It helped build our house.

PENLAND: Billy Edd Wheeler lives down a long curvy road in Swannanoa, North Carolina. He shows me around his workshop behind his house. It's here that he comes to write songs.

WHEELER: And as you walk in, on the right you see my gold records by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers. And on the left is a library. Straight ahead is a huge work bench.

PENLAND: He's also a playwright and a painter.

WHEELER: And then on the easel to the right under the Tiffany lamp is a painting in progress of Johnny Cash holding up a huge American flag behind him.

PENLAND: Wheeler's own story is about as American as they come. He grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. He didn't get along with his stepfather and so he left home at 16. His early experiences inspired him to write the famous "Coal Tattoo," which was recorded by everyone from Judy Collins to The Kingston Trio and Hazel Dickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAL TATTOO")

HAZEL DICKENS: (Singing) I've been a coal miner all my life, laying down track in the hole. Got a back like an ironwood bent by the wind, blood veins as blue as the coal. Blood veins as blue as the coal...

PENLAND: West Virginia was also the basis for his first hit by The Kingston Trio, "The Reverend Mr. Black," a song about a fierce mountain preacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE REVEREND MR. BLACK")

THE KINGSTON TRIO: (Singing) He was a mountain of a man and I want you to know he can preach hot hell or freezing snow. He carried a bible in a canvas sack. The books just called him the Reverend Mr. Black.

PENLAND: Roger Deitz, who's a writer for Sing Out! magazine, says Wheeler brings something to songwriting others can't fake.

ROGER DEITZ: If you write a song about a coal miner or a coal mining town and you come from the suburbs of New Jersey, it probably isn't going to come out right. But because he's experienced what he's experienced, he becomes a true professional at being able to tell the stories that he tells.

PENLAND: Billy Edd Wheeler left West Virginia and wound up at graduate school at Yale studying playwriting. Then he made his way to New York and teamed up with the hit-making duo Leiber and Stoller. It was with them that he learned to hone his craft, and it was there that Cab Calloway, Elvis Presley and Hank Snow picked up his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WHO ROBBED THE BANK AT SANTA FE")

HANK SNOW: (Singing) She cried when she learned what he'd done that day. The girl who loved the man who robbed the bank at Santa Fe and got away...

PENLAND: In 1968, Wheeler took his experience and education and moved to Nashville where he continued to write hit after hit - all those gold records that line the walls of his workshop. He was at the heart of the country music industry. But today, Wheeler says he's been completely shut out.

WHEELER: It's natural that not many of those young writers in their late teens, early twenties, they don't want to write songs with a 78-year-old man.

PENLAND: But even if Wheeler weren't in his late 70s, and even if he still lived in Nashville, he says he couldn't be a part of country music today.

WHEELER: I mean, it's rock and roll. If you can't rock, just stay in bed and roll around. I can't rock anymore, but I can still roll.

(LAUGHTER)

PENLAND: But Billy Edd Wheeler is still writing hits. One of his most recent songs hit the top of the bluegrass charts last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO LAWYERS IN HEAVEN")

CHARLIE SIZEMORE: (Singing) May there be no lawyers in heaven, no legal eagles up there in the sky. May there be no lawyers in heaven, oh Lord, let them go somewhere else when they die.

PENLAND: From bluegrass to country to folk, Billy Edd Wheeler's songs have appealed to a broad range of musicians. One in particular has been covered by countless bands.

WHEELER: I can't sing it very well, but one of my favorite songs is called "The Coming of the Roads."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COMING OF THE ROADS")

JUDY COLLINS: (Singing) Now that our mountain is growing, with people hungry for wealth, how come it's you that's a'going and I'm left all by myself...

PENLAND: Billy Edd Wheeler is experiencing his own coming of the roads - new artists have moved in, country music has moved on, and Wheeler's fine with that. He keeps writing and painting, and unlike the lyrics of this song, his treasure has yet to turn to rust.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COMING OF THE ROADS")

COLLINS: (Singing) Once I thanked God for my treasure, now like rust, it corrodes...

PENLAND: For NPR News, I'm Laurin Penland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COMING OF THE ROADS")

COLLINS: (Singing) And I can't help but blaming your going, on the coming, the coming of the roads.

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.