CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Fans of country and folk music may not recognize Billy Edd Wheeler’s voice, but they do know his work.
Songs like “The Reverend Mr. Black,” “Coal Tattoo” and “Jackson” became recognizable after being recorded by such artists as The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley and Johnny and June Carter Cash; the Cashes won a Grammy for their 1967 version of “Jackson.”
Wheeler has plenty of stories about those songs and his career in his upcoming memoir, “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash and More,” set to come out April 3.
For Wheeler, who now lives outside of Asheville, North Carolina in the community of Swannanoa, his story begins in West Virginia growing up in High Coal, a community in Boone County.
“I loved West Virginia. The hills, the people. I still do,” he said.
It is High Coal where Wheeler first got an interest in music, starting with learning guitar chords and writing his first songs; an early tune, “Paperboy Blues,” describes what it was like to wake up at 4:30 every morning to deliver newspapers.
“I’m just a paperboy, rise up so early in the morning. I got that lonesome feeling. Feeling comes on me without no warning,” Wheeler sang. “They say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Paperboy!’ Well man, it ain’t no good morning for me.”
Wheeler left home when he was 16 years old because of disagreements with his stepfather. He soon enrolled at Warren Wilson Junior College, now Warren Wilson College, in Swannanoa. Wheeler said while he loved West Virginia, he could not afford to go back home.
“I had to stay over and work during the Christmas vacation,” he said.
But staying at Warren Wilson Junior College gave Wheeler more time to learn; he used this time to write poetry, eventually gaining enough courage to go to the home of Henry Jensen, the institution’s dean, for additional advice.
“He sat down, read my poem and didn’t say anything. He walked upstairs and came back with several poems on sheets of paper and read those to me, and I could tell what a great poet he was,” Wheeler said. “The greatest thing: He went back and got another book and read poems to me by Robert Frost.”
Wheeler said since that day, Frost has served as an inspiration for him.
“Here’s a man that writes about everyday things using everyday language, but somehow it escalates when he puts it down into art,” Wheeler said. “That was a tremendous experience for me.”
Wheeler graduated from Warren Wilson Junior College in 1953, and continued his education at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. After serving as a pilot in the United States Navy, he attended the Yale School of Drama to study playwriting.
It was shortly after graduating from Yale in 1962 when he crossed paths with Norman Gimbel, who would later win an Oscar for the song “It Goes Like It Goes” from “Norma Rae.”
According to Wheeler, Gimbel’s wife had bought an early Wheeler record prior to the two’s first encounter.
“He said, ‘Billy, you’re a natural songwriter, but you’ll never make any money,'” Wheeler remembered Gimbel saying.
Gimbel told Wheeler some of his songs were too long and complicated, but he was willing to help him out; Gimbel referred Wheeler to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — who wrote hits like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” — for additional advice.
Leiber and Stoller rejected Wheeler’s songs for being what Wheeler described as “too folksy,” but Leiber told Wheeler to call them when he had songs that could get radio airplay.
Wheeler went back and began working on a gunfighter ballad to hand to the duo, but the idea was quickly dropped.
“After a verse or two, I realize I didn’t know anything about the West. I didn’t know a roan from a gelding,” he recalled.
During his search for his first song, Wheeler came across a picture John C. Campbell, a preacher who established a folk school in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. Wheeler remembers the image: Campbell sitting on a horse wearing high top boots and a gray hat.
“I thought here’s a man of God who is going out into communities that don’t have a regular preacher and preaching for them,” he said. “All of a sudden, it dawned on me: That’s my hero.”
Wheeler’s found inspiration led to the song “The Reverend Mr. Black,” the tale of a wandering preacher who stands up to a hotheaded lumberjack. He gave Leiber and Stoller a nine-minute long version, which the two cut down to three minutes for the Kingston Trio to record in 1963.
“They took all the publishing and half the writing because they deserved it. They made it a song that was worth something,” he said. “Leiber and Stoller helped me write songs that were more commercial. Songs like ‘Jackson.'”
Wheeler learned from this experience to write other radio-friendly songs, creating hit after hit for country and folk artists. He also authored 14 plays and musicals during this time, including the “Hatfields & McCoys” performance put on in Beckley.
He has been honored with inductions into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wheeler, now 85, remains busy writing songs at his studio in Swannanoa, painting and, until recently, working on a memoir.
When reflecting on his success, Wheeler said nothing would have been possible without the guidance from role models like Jensen, Leiber and Stoller. He added the one piece of advice he gives people is to be persistent yet also open to change.
“Don’t be lazy; pay your dues; rewrite if you have to; seek advice when you can,” he said. “If you respect the person giving you advice, follow that advice.”