By Ron Harman
Country recordings by Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely now span six decades with the release of her new CD titled Vintage Country: Old But Treasured. “I love that title,” remarked Eddie Stubbs during a recent interview with Jeannie on WSM radio. “Was that your idea?”
“Yes, it was,” replied Jeannie, who added with a chuckle, “and like I always joke onstage, I’m speaking about the music when I say old but treasured.”
Jeannie Seely is widely considered a treasured artist due to her status as an Opry legend; however, her activities over the past year would leave one thinking she’s anything but old.
During the course of a 12-month period between May 2010 and April 2011, Jeannie got engaged, planned her wedding and got married; created, recorded and produced her new CD project; entertained as a featured artist on the week-long Opry Country Classics Cruise, performed with the “Country’s Family Reunion Roadshow” in cities like Branson; participated in new tapings for the “Family Reunion” RFD-TV and DVD series; performed her own series of road dates in states from Washington to Rhode Island; and headlined over 25 shows at the Nashville Nightlife Dinner Theater and sang on 73 Grand Ole Opry shows, many of which she hosted.
Somewhere in between, she also rebuilt and refurnished her home, as well as replaced her wardrobe, car, computer and other belongings which were all lost in last May’s Nashville flood. “It’s all new, but I still can’t run half the stuff I got,” laughs Jeannie, “but my new home is beautiful…and all is good. While that was a very, very serious time, it also taught me some great lessons.”
The day after learning of her own losses to the flood—as well as those of her second home, the Grand Ole Opry—Jeannie wore borrowed clothes and performed as scheduled on the Tuesday Night Opry lineup. “I tried to make the best of it,” she explains. “Like I joked that night on stage when somebody said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here.’ I said, ‘Well it’s not like I could stay at home, kick back on the couch and watch TV.’ I didn’t have home, couch or TV.”
The future looks much brighter these days, and Jeannie is preparing to make several appearances during June’s CMA Music Festival, an event she’s been part of since it began in the early 70s as Fan Fair. On Wednesday evening, June 8th, she’s scheduled to perform on Billy Yates’ annual benefit show at the Texas Troubadour Theatre, then head over to the Nashville Nightlife Dinner Theater to headline a show, and finally end up at R.O.P.E’s “Summer Spectacular Show” where she’ll also perform. The following day she’ll be part of the CMA Festival’s “Country Classic Show” in downtown Nashville, and the day after that she’ll be flying to a weekend show in Wisconsin.
This year marks the 50-year anniversary of Jeannie’s move to Hollywood, California, from the rural farm in northwestern Pennsylvania where she was raised. Leaving the bank where she’d worked for three years, Jeannie packed her belongings in her little MGA Roadster and headed west on Route 66. “That was before Interstate 40,” she laughs. “It was the first time I’d ever been away from home more than 90 miles.”
“I didn’t go out there pursuing a career,” she explains. “I went there because I’d seen southern California on television, and I was dealing with one of the roughest winters that year.”
Once in Hollywood, Jeannie went to work for another bank at the corner of Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard. “I was uptown, plush office and everything,” she chuckles. “But I soon realized there were people who were actually making a living by singing and writing songs. So to get a foot in the door of the music business, I quit my job at the bank and became a secretary at Liberty Records for half the salary.”
R&B artist Irma Thomas recorded a song that Jeannie wrote and scored a national pop hit with it. Dottie West later also recorded one of Jeannie’s compositions, and encouraged her to move to Nashville. “I said, ‘Dottie, I don’t know enough to move to Nashville yet,’” Jeannie recalls. “She said, ‘Jeannie, that is where you learn,’ and she was so right. Dottie was so supportive to me, and I will always treasure her friendship and appreciate the encouragement she gave me.”
Jeannie arrived in Nashville in the fall of ’65 with only $50 and a Ford Falcon to her name, but within a month Porter Wagoner hired her as the female singer for his road show. Despite being initially turned down by every record label in town, within six months Jeannie was in the studio recording the first of many hit records.
Jeannie’s lifelong dream came true on September 16, 1967, when she became the first (and to date, only) Pennsylvania native to join the Grand Ole Opry. She subsequently became the first female to regularly host Opry segments, and she’s credited for wearing the first mini-skirt on the Opry stage.
Known not only as a singer but also as a songwriter, Jeannie’s songs have been recorded by Hall of Fame members Faron Young, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb and Little Jimmy Dickens, as well as many other artists, including Opry members Connie Smith, Lorrie Morgan and Jack Greene, Jeannie’s duet and touring partner for over a decade.
Early in her career, Jeannie’s deeply moving vocals earned her the nickname of “Miss Country Soul,” a title that is still frequently used. Jeannie’s recording of “Don’t Touch Me” earned her a Grammy Award for the “Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female”, and a live Opry performance of that classic song is included as a bonus track on her new Vintage Country CD.
With one exception, the remaining tracks are all traditional country songs that were previously recorded by others. “As I wrote in the liner notes, it wasn’t my intention to ‘cover’ any of those great performances by some of the most talented artists of our time,” explains Jeannie, “but rather to record these wonderful old songs in the way I hear and feel them.”
“In talking with my fans,” Jeannie continues, “they told me they like to hear a new song every now and then, but they also like to hear things they already know. So that was kind of the basis of how this idea came to be, and that’s how many of the songs were chosen. I hope they bring back wonderful memories for others like they have for me.”
The classic songs include Jimmy Dickens’ 1963 hit “Another Bridge To Burn” (written by Harlan Howard), Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 Grammy-winning crossover hit “Ode To Billie Joe,” Billie Jo Spears’ 1975 No. 1 “Blanket On The Ground,” and The Kendalls’ Grammy-honored 1977 chart-topping hit “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away”.
With Tim Atwood and Danny Davis, Jeannie recorded duet versions of “Let It Be Me” and “What’s Going On In Your World” for the CD project. Both talented vocalists are also accomplished musicians who perform as part of Jeannie’s band on the Opry.
Jeannie explains that “Funny How Time Slips Away” came about when she was asked to perform a tribute to Billy Walker on the Tuesday Night Opry following his death. She dedicates the song on her CD to Billy and his wife Bettie, as well as to Charlie Lily and Danny Patton who also died in the fatal accident that occurred five years ago this May. For Jeannie this year also marks the anniversary of the loss of several other close friends, as it was 10 years ago that Johnny Russell died, 15 years for Faron Young, and 20 years for Dottie West.
In the 80’s, Jeannie appeared in Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose movie and sang on the platinum soundtrack album, and through the years she’s toured with Willie and recorded duets with him. In addition to Willie’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, her new CD also includes his song “What A Way To Live,” a 1968 hit for Johnny Bush that Jeannie frequent performs on the Opry. “I can never sing enough Willie Nelson songs,” she’s quick to add.
Jeannie says her husband Gene Ward’s favorite cut on the new CD is Mickey Newbury’s “Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye,” a 1976 hit for Johnny Rodriguez. “Mickey is one of the most incredible songwriters of our time,” notes Jeannie. I got to know him very well, and I can still picture him writing those haunting, poignant songs on the back of his houseboat at Anchor High Marina in Hendersonville.”
“Darktown Strutters’ Ball” is known as a pop, jazz, big band and Dixieland tune, but Jeannie elected to record her own interpretation, and the resulting western-swing version became the CD’s opening track. “I don’t know of anyone else in country music who’s ever tackled that song,” notes Eddie Stubbs.
“I’ve known the song as long as I can remember because my Mother used to sing it when I was growing up in Pennsylvania,” recalls Jeannie. “And I remember having all my high school girlfriends over one time and my Mother was singing this song and teaching us to dance the Charleston…so it has wonderful memories, and it just feels good.”
On an Opry Country Classics show this April, Larry Gatlin introduced Jeannie Seely to the audience by saying, “When I first moved to this town—Dottie West brought me here in 1971—the first person I met here was this beautiful, wonderful, incredibly talented woman. We’ve been dear friends forever. You can’t sing a country song better, you can’t write one better than Miss Jeannie Seely.” Jeannie thanked Larry as she took the stage and proceeded to perform a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”.