Billy Edd Wheeler has had a wonderful career that has taken him from the hardscrabble hills of the West Virginia of his birth in 1932 to the rarefied academic air of the Ivy League to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Along the way, Wheeler has written songs that have topped a number of different music industry charts, twelve plays that are still performed across the country today, and several well-regarded books of poetry and humor. In his latter years ("the back nine of life," as he refers to it), Wheeler has turned to painting, with perhaps surprising success given his late start in the field. As his River of Earth (above) shows, his style is reminiscent of what you'd get if Vincent Van Gogh and Thomas Hart Benton were cloned into a single artist, and if you peruse the collection of images of his work on his own website HERE, you'll see a variety of other influences as well. Wheeler is a man of many parts. He has written great songs like "Coal Tattoo" out of the difficulties of his own upbringing and at other times collaborated to create hits with some of the great pop songwriters of the last century - and those songs have earned him gold records through the performances of the likes of Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Kathy Mattea, and many more, with more than 57 million recordings sold worldwide of tunes that he composed.
By his own account, Wheeler was in graduate school at Yale studying playwriting when the idea came to him for what is undoubtedly his highest profile tune, "Jackson":
" 'Jackson' came to me when I read the script for Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (I was too broke to see the play on Broadway)...The way that couple dig at each other becomes mean spirited and nasty, even tragic, in Albee’s play. But it’s natural for couples, married or not, to spar good-naturedly. Otherwise, life would be boring. In “Jackson,” the couple fusses back and forth, but there are subtle touches that let you know they are still in love."
I wonder if anyone else sees a bit of an anomaly here - that one of the biggest country-styled hits of the 1960s, a number still widely performed today, had its genesis in an Ivy League grad student's apartment in Connecticut and drew its theme from one of the great, dark classics of American literary theater. That fact is, I think, a testament of sorts to an unusual kind of genius, perhaps not surprising from an artist like Wheeler who could pen everything from goofball novelty tunes like "Humperdink, the Coon-Hunting Monkey" to achingly romantic torch songs like "The Coming of the Roads." That's some kind of genius indeed.
Wheeler's original concept for "Jackson" was to tell the story as a sequential narrative, but that idea was squelched by Wheeler's friend, associate, and sometime writing partner Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller fame (who also helped Wheeler with "The Rev. Mr. Black," among other songs). As Wheeler relates:
"When I played it for Jerry , he said 'Your first verses suck,' or words to that effect. 'Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout."' When I protested to Jerry that I couldn't start the song with the climax, he said, 'Oh, yes you can.' So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry's editing and help, it worked."
Wheeler recorded the tune for his third LP, 1963's A New Bag of Songs. However, before the record was released, Wheeler sent the song west to the Kingston Trio, who had just scored a huge hit early in the year with "Mr. Black," and that group became the first to release the number in July of that year:
From the first, Wheeler had intended "Jackson" to be a male/female duet, and that quite naturally created a problem for the Trio. The group had bent genders a couple of times before, notably by turning the girl narrating her own story in Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" into the young man of the lyric, but "Jackson" presented a different problem entirely. The solution was to create an antiphony between the young man's part (sung by John Stewart) and an adult authority figure, possibly the father, sung in the harmony responses by Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. It works OK until the end of the last verse - you have to wonder what dad is doing behind a "japan fan."
"Jackson" remained in the vaults for about four years following the KT version, until Johnny Cash came upon Wheeler's Bag of Songs in 1966 and decided to record the tune with his soon-to-be wife June Carter:
The song, of course, became one of the biggest hits of Cash's long career and one of the three or four most identifiable duets performed by the Carter-Cash act. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood were working on their own rendition when the Johnny and June collaboration came out, and Sinatra/Hazelwood were beaten to the punch by a matter of months:
Sinatra and Hazelwood are rather more laid back in their presentation than Carter and Cash, and that brings up an interesting point. One of the reasons that I prefer to look at traditional songs in these posts as opposed to songwriter tunes like this one is that trad tunes tend to have more variations in arrangements and performances. However, even a copyrighted number like "Jackson" can engender a pretty fair number of different approaches to it, as these first three videos demonstrate. Wheeler addressed that when discussing a lyric change from his original in the Carter-Cash version: "Songs often get changed as different artists do them, often for the better. I don’t mind minor changes. I like it when artists make the song their own."
Cases in point now follow. Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis give "Jackson" that old time rock 'n' roll feeling in their 1969 release, complete with Jerry Lee's boogie-tinged piano accompaniment:
In the late 70s, an aging Carl Perkins teamed with Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne at the beginning of her career for their duet on the song. Perkins, of course, was one of the pioneers of the rockabilly style that helped propel both Cash senior and Elvis Presley to fame and fortune, so it's rockabilly we get in this rendition:
Finally, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are one of the best contemporary folk and roots groups, rather more accomplished instrumentally and vocally than many of their higher-profile competitors. The clawhammer banjo and mountain fiddle in their version here makes an interesting match-up with the blues-inflected vocals - a stunning performance, in my judgment:
Billy Edd Wheeler seems to be enjoying the slower pace of his ninth decade with his painting and poetry, but this highly successful and widely honored star of the Nashville songwriting firmament has had some choice words of late for the current state of country music. Wheeler has said that he always liked story songs, songs that often took a while to unfold. But in an interview a year ago with NPR's Laurin Penland, Wheeler said that he's been shut out completely of today's country music world. "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. They don't even want to hear an idea. So it's tough. A good story and a well-sung song is not enough anymore. You've got to really honk it up. I mean, it's rock 'n' roll. If you can't rock, just stay in bed..." Given the third-rate drivel that is most of what Nashville is releasing today, we can all be thankful that Billy Edd Wheeler showed up there a half a century ago to write the kinds of songs like "Jackson" that once upon a time made country music - well, country music.