Born 1932, Whitesville, Boone County
Poet, playwright and painter Billy Edd Wheeler is one of West Virginia’s true Renaissance men. But of his many gifts, his skill as a songwriter has gained him the greatest acclaim. Elvis Presley, the Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Kenny Rogers, Jefferson Airplane, and Johnny and June Carter Cash have all scored hits with Billy Edd Wheeler songs. “Jackson” and “Coward of the County” have become country-folk standards, a testament to Wheeler’s ability to tell a compelling story set to an equally compelling tune.
Born in the coal community of Highcoal and raised in Whitesville, Boone County, Wheeler spent his childhood soaking up the music in church and around his coal mining community. Educated at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and Kentucky’s Berea College, he went on to join the Navy as a pilot. After leaving the service, his musical career began when he placed his first song, “Roll Boll Weevil,” with Pat Boone. In 1959, Wheeler recorded a folk album, which caught the ear of Brill Building heavyweights Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
In the early ’60s, Wheeler attended Yale’s drama school for a year and joked that he was the Ivy League college’s “token hillbilly.” Some years later, Wheeler would put his dramatic abilities to good use writing 16 plays – including the outdoor drama Hatfields & McCoys, which has become a West Virginia institution.
His first hit record was “Reverend Mr. Black,” a character study of an Appalachian preacher that the Kingston Trio recorded in 1963. The following year, Wheeler enjoyed his own chart success with “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” a tribute to that vanishing Southern institution, the outhouse. Some years later, he wrote a book on the same subject, titled Outhouse Humor. Wheeler’s other hit songs included “West Virginia Women”; a long line of artists were ready to record their own versions of his songs.
Johnny and June Carter Cash took “Jackson” – a track inspired by the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – to No. 2 on the country charts in 1967. Cash also recorded Wheeler’s love song “Blistered.” None other than Elvis Presley brought the ballad “It’s Midnight” onto the charts as the flipside of his 1974 hit “Promised Land.” Then, in 1980, Kenny Rogers’s version of Wheeler and Roger Bowling’s “Coward of the County” became a No. 1 single and, subsequently, a movie.
Wheeler has authored a dozen plays, including four outdoor dramas, as well as the long-running Hatfields & McCoys (Beckley, WV), Young Abe Lincoln (Lincoln City, IN), Johnny Appleseed (Mansfield, OH) and the “folk-opera” Song of the Cumberland Gap, commissioned by the National Geographic Society.
Wheeler has issued numerous books of poetry and humor, including Songs of a Wood Colt, Laughter in Appalachia, Real Country Humor – Jokes From Country Music Personalities, and a pair of novels Star of Appalachia (2004) and Kudzu Covers Manhattan (2005).
Billy Edd Wheeler has received 13 ASCAP awards, is a member of The Hall of Fame of the Nashville Songwriters Association International and, in 2004, received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Berea College. He issued his autobiography, Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, in 2018.