More than 60 years ago when Billy Edd Wheeler wasn't milking cows and doing other farm chores to earn his keep at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., he would retreat to write poetry and songs and dabble in oil painting.
Born in 1932, Wheeler spent his early boyhood in the mountain shadows of southern West Virginia's coal country where there was little to stimulate creativity. But it was in that barren Boone County environment that the seeds were sown and later nourished at WWC for a storied career that has brought him success and numerous awards and honors.
On May 12, before a Warren Wilson commencement crowd, Wheeler was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. The occasion was significant: it marked the only two honorary degrees ever awarded in the history of WWC.
Photo by Travis Wheeler
Billy Edd Wheeler hams it up as he juggles guitars on the bank near his studio with his dog, Gracie Pearl, in the background.
Wheeler shared the stage with co-recipient, philanthropist Irwin "Call me Ike" Belk, whose father founded Belk Department Stores.
The presentation recognized Wheeler's contributions to Appalachian culture through a "prolific and award-winning career as a songwriter, playwright, poet, visual artist and performer of the arts." Of his numerous honors, this from WWC, his beloved first alma mater, is one of his most coveted, and a clear indication of the esteem he evokes as one of the college's most successful alumni and ardent supporters.
His reaction was typical of the man who is known to downplay his celebrity status.
"At first I was surprised, stunned really," Wheeler said. "But finally, I am deeply touched to be honored by the place that changed my life forever and inspired me to pursue a career path I never dreamed could materialize. Life has been good."
Said Joel Adams, Chairman of WWC's board of trustees, who participated in the ceremonies: "Billy Edd, when I think of alumni who are good examples of what Warren Wilson College is all about, I think of you."
In 2005, he was awarded a similar honorary degree from his second alma mater, Berea College in Berea, Ky.
Last October, Wheeler was tapped for induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis, N.C. Of his 2011 co-inductees, George Hamilton IV, John D. Loudermilk, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Ben Folds, and those previously honored, including James Taylor, the late Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson, Wheeler said, "I was deeply honored to be in their company, and because I wasn't born in the Tar Heel state, this was quite a surprise." Accepting the award, he paid tribute to the "enablers" in his life: his alma maters and his late, great friend Chet Atkins with whom he performed, played golf and co-wrote songs.
Wheeler is currently enjoying yet another up-surge in his career. Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young's new album, "Americana," scheduled for release in June, features Wheeler's "High Flyin' Bird," previously recorded by some 22 other artists. Another of his crowd-pleasers, "I Still Write Your Name in the Snow," co-written with Atkins, is part of Ray Stevens' "The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music," updated in March, 2012.
His early compositions continue to be recorded by younger artists, who are producing a new generation of Wheeler fans.
Recently, his song, "No Lawyers in Heaven," reached No. 1 on two bluegrass charts, Power Source and Bluegrass Unlimited. Soon, he will head for Nashville to cut demos of three more new gems.
"Not bad for an old geezer," he says.
Wheeler songs pop up in some unusual and surprising places. Sitting in a movie theatre, he was thrilled to hear strains of his mega hit, "Jackson" blaring from a car radio in the 2011 movie, "The Help." Merle Haggard chose to include the old favorite on his new album, "Working in Tennessee," a set that features Haggard and his wife, Theresa, "quarreling" through their version of the duet. The song was inspired by Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?"
The BBC recently declared "Jackson" to be "one of the greatest songs in the history of recorded music." With the classic opening line: "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout," it has become universally recognized since it won a Grammy Award for Johnny Cash and June Carter in the 1960s. It was recently performed live on MTV by Florence and the Machine, with Josh Homme, frontman for Queens of the Stone Age, and will be included on the new album, "Ceremonials."
Wheeler's studies at Yale's School of Drama still inspire him to write plays, of which he has a dozen to his credit. Last year, he put the finishing touches on a Broadway-styled children's musical, "The Cat on the Roof," and is currently in consultation with several producers to stage the production, with an eye toward its eventual staging on Broadway.
This summer will mark the 41st season that his outdoor drama, "The Hatfields and McCoys" (his-longest running play) has been staged at Grandview State Park's Cliffside Amphitheater, near Beckley. Thousands have enjoyed his vintage version of the notorious feud every year since it premiered in 1970. Wheeler refers to it as his mountain "West Side Story."
Other prestigious awards have kept pace with Wheeler's ever-growing body of work. In 2001, he was recognized by his peers in the music industry by induction into the Nashville Songwriters Association's International Hall of Fame.
In 2007, he was among the inaugural class of inductees whose names were enshrined in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. The star-studded event featured another famous Mountaineer, Kathy Mattea, who introduced Wheeler and moved him to tears as she sang his "Red Winged Black Bird," the lament of a woman who has lost her man in the coal mines. Mattea's latest CD, "Coal," includes that song and features two other vintage Wheeler compositions, "Coal Tattoo" and "The Coming of the Roads." Both express the misery and hopelessness of the coal mining life.
He will return to West Virginia at the end of May when his song, "Coal Tattoo" will be performed in Charleston by the Appalachian Children's Choir under the direction of founder Selina Midkiff. "Coal Tattoo" also has been performed by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra with Mountain Stage bandleader Ron Sowell. It has been recorded by 66 artists, including Jim Croce, The Kingston Trio, Steve Goodman and West Virginia's Mattea, Johnny Staats, Michael and Carrie Cline, and the late Hazel Dickens.
If it is true that age is only a number, then Wheeler, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this year, is a reflection of that adage. He has no plans to retire, and doesn't view his creative activities as work. "I write songs and paint pictures because it's fun and I love doing it," he says.
He often finds fodder for new songs through his perception of ordinary things around him. One of his latest, "My Baby is Made from Scratch," soon to be recorded, was influenced by something he read on a ketchup bottle over breakfast with his wife, Mary. It led him to thinking of packaged biscuits labeled "Made from Scratch." And with that, the lyrics began to germinate in that creative right hemisphere of his brain. He said, "I thought to myself, hey, maybe that's a song! So I wrote it later that night in one sitting."
He receives letters and emails from fans in many parts of the world, expressing their thanks for his old songs still dear to their hearts. One man wrote: "I like to listen to 'Winter Sky' on a Judy Collins album, and it keeps me going during these dark Decembers in Maine."
At times when an idea for a new song isn't floating in his head, Wheeler retreats to his studio to paint. Currently, he is splashing the canvasses in earnest as he prepares to fulfill a second invitation to exhibit his work. It will begin in January, 2013, at Asheville, N.C.'s Blue Spiril 1, considered the most prestigious gallery in western North Carolina. He has exhibited his colorful impressionist and representational paintings at several other galleries in North Carolina.
Wheeler's idea of celebrating most any special occasion, even his birthday, would be sitting down to enjoy his favorite meal: pinto beans, with cornbread, onions, and chow-chow, a diet enjoyed during his youth in Highcoal.
"You can't get above your raising, you know? And why would I want to? West Virginia people and the mountains I love have inspired most of my best songs, poems and plays," he said. "Everywhere I've been, they've gone with me."
For more information about Billy Edd Wheeler, his music, writings and art, visit www.billyeddwheeler.com.
(Mary McMahon is a former newspaper reporter and director of public relations at Davis & Elkins College. Currently, she teaches piano and is a freelance journalist living in Elkins. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)