Billy Edd Wheeler

Billy Edd WheelerFrom: Whitesville, WV, USA

Billy Edd Wheeler is best known for writing several country hits with folk-pop influences. Wheeler was also a versatile performer and recorded a number of innovative albums in the 1960s. He further developed his artistic and creative abilities by venturing into poetry, painting, nonfiction writing, and acting. Wheeler is likely the only Yale Drama School student that went on to have a career in country music.

Born in Boone County, West Virginia, Wheeler moved to North Carolina to attend Warren Wilson College. He then went to Berea College in Kentucky and got his B.A. in 1955. Upon graduating school, Wheeler worked as a magazine editor followed by two years serving as a Navy pilot. Wheeler would return to Berea College as a teacher, and performed folk music on the side. Shortly, Wheeler landed a slot at a pops concert with the Lexington Symphony Orchestra (the Lexington Philharmonic). His performance garnered attention, and Wheeler then had the opportunity to record country and bluegrass songs on the Monitor label, starting in 1959. As his career started to take off, Wheeler made a few appearances on the Today Show, as well as other network television programs. He also performed on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, WV.

Wheeler would then relocate to the east, study playwriting at the Yale Drama School for one year, and try to make it as a playwright in New York. At this time, Wheeler was beginning to write songs. He wrote “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Desert Pete,” both of which would become pop hits for the Kingston Trio. Wheeler’s material was starting to be covered by several country and folk musicians. His material would be covered by the likes of Bill Anderson, Hank Snow, Rex Allen, Judy Collins, and Richie Havens.

Recording as a folk artist for Kapp Records in 1963, Wheeler continued his development as a musician. When Kapp made the move to more of a country label, Wheeler had no problem transitioning, as country music was what he started out writing. In 1964, he made his chart debut with “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.” The song was a satirical piece, and reached #3 on the country charts. Wheeler did not have any more hits for quite some time, but the albums he released on the Kapp label were quite a distance away from mainstream country. 1967’s album Paper Birds shows the influence of psychedelia on Wheeler’s music, not a common element in mainstream country. The music that Wheeler wrote continued to be picked up by other artists like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. In 1968, Wheeler made the charts again. “I Ain’t the Worryin’ Kind” only got to #63 and was covered by pop singer O.C. Smith. In ’69, Wheeler switched to United Artists finding minor success with “West Virginia Woman” and “Fried Chicken and a Country Tune.”

The 1970s saw Wheeler record for RCA Victor and Capital, only charting on occasion. Still, Wheeler continued to have a career as a songwriter for other artists, writing Elvis Presley’s Top Five hit “It’s Midnight.” In the 1980s, Wheeler and Roger Bowling wrote the smash hit “Coward of the County,” performed by Kenny Rogers. Although he did not chart as much as he would have liked as a solo artist, the material he wrote for other artists sold 57 million units by the early 2000s.

Wheeler, along with his wife and kids, moved back to Swannanoa, NC. He went back to college and continued to write poetry. His first volume, Song of a Woods Colt, was published in 1969. Wheeler has also written a compilation of Appalachian humor, and painted several pieces in a folk-art style. He continued to write songs and perform at festivals, and finally returned to folk music in 1979. He recorded the album Wild Mountain Flowers, released on the Flying Fish label.

Artist information sources include: an article by James Manheim at Allmusic.com

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Tracks played on Psychedelicized…

From the 1967 album Paper Birds
Paper Birds

  • High Flying Bird