The year was 1967, smack dab in the middle of Country music’s Golden Age, when a certain miss Jeannie Seely stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage as a newly inducted artist. Fifty-one years later, Seely still takes her place inside the circle nearly every weekend as host, champion, and beloved family member. The Opry has been a major landmark in Seely’s long and storied career alongside her impeccable songwriting skills and unique, rich voice. Her story, however, didn’t begin with Seely thinking music–or the Opry–were part of her professional destiny. Raised in a musical but practical household, Seely was taught that music was a hobby, not a career choice.
The youngest of four children, Seely was raised in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a small town where music resonated off the Victorian-built front porches and into the streets more often than not. “We had so much music at home, and everybody in the area played the guitar or the fiddle. When there was a family or community gathering someone was always playing and singing something,” Seely remarked of her early childhood and how she came to love music. “I gravitated towards the music–always. The first time I ever sang in a school program I was in the third grade, and that performance was when I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world that you could make people laugh and applaud and bring them happiness in that way. That’s where the seed was planted, but growing up where I did, there weren’t any professional outlets to speak of when it came to singing and entertaining.” Though Seely felt music in her soul, her mind won over her heart and she made no plans to become an artist as she finished school and prepared to leave her family’s home in Titusville for the sunny skies of Southern California. “Everybody used to tell me music was a great hobby, but I couldn’t make a living doing it. After I finished school I worked for a couple of years and then moved to Southern California–not to get into the music business, but to get out of the Northeast winters.”
Luckily for generations of Country music lovers, Seely gravitated back toward music after she’d relocated, quickly forming relationships with some of the industry’s best and brightest at the time. It was a budding friendship with Dottie West and the attention of Hank Cochran that pushed Seely back east, straight to the heart of Music City. “I was a fan of Dottie’s before I was her friend. My first remembrance of Dottie was when she was on the Landmark Jamboree out of Cleveland, Ohio. I loved everything about Dottie’s presence; her command of the English language was remarkable to me, as was her singing voice. After I moved to Los Angeles I was thrilled to be front row-center when she came out to play the Palomino and I stuck around to meet her afterward. We ended up back out at my house that evening picking and singing and talking about music and the industry. I was doing a television show there in Los Angeles and a lot of people were coming out of Nashville to be on the show, so I had some credibility. Hank Cochran came on the show and he told me he believed in my voice and my becoming a serious artist, but he said if I was really serious about it I had to move to Nashville. He told me he’d work with me, but he couldn’t do it from three-thousand miles away. I called up Dottie and told her I didn’t feel like I knew enough to move to Nashville. Dottie’s response to me was ‘Oh, Jeannie. Nashville is where you learn.’ I listened to Dottie, and she was so right about that.”
It didn’t take Seely long at all to find her stride in Nashville among a community of singers and songwriters. Less than a year after she’d been in town, Seely was signed to Monument Records and cut her then husband, Mr. Hank Cochran’s, composition of “Don’t Touch Me”. Seely’s recording of the song became her first chart success, peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Country Singles charts and holding position for three weeks while reaching number 1 on several other charts (Cashbox, World Record) and staying there for over five months. Because of Seely’s success with “Don’t Touch Me”, she was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in June of 1966 and gained the nickname Miss Country Soul. Seely clearly recalled the first time she’d heard the nickname for herself, “Ed Hamilton was the national promotions man from Monument Records when I was first signed. He was on a promotion tour, somewhere in Louisiana, and the disc jockey on the radio there played the record again after he left the meeting. That jockey announced it as “That’s the blue-eyed Miss Country Soul, Jeannie Seely”. It hit Ed; he just loved it. He called me up and said it was descriptive and exactly the way I sing; it is country soul. He asked if it would be ok if they used it to brand me and I said I don’t care what you call me, just call me.” As far as her first performance on the Opry went, it was a dream come true for Seely. “I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and if I was going to make it in Nashville I was going to get on the show. It was always a part of the plan; I wanted hit records, but I wanted to be a part of that Grand Ole Opry family more.”
During the recording process of her first record with Monument, Seely had also joined The Porter Wagoner Show as a replacement for Norma Jean Beasley and predecessor to Dolly Parton. With a television show, a hit song, and an Opry invitation falling within a year of one another, Seely was on her way to the top. When asked if she realized the history she was making, Seely laughed and clicked her tongue against her teeth, “Well, people are telling me now that I’ve made history. At that point, I didn’t understand the impact it would all have. I was trying to follow my heart and my dreams, and just when that brass ring comes around and you grab it then your life changes and you’re on a whirlwind, going everywhere holding on for dear life. One day, nobody is interested in speaking to you and the next day, everybody wants to speak to you. I was working the road with Porter and getting called away to do other things, so it became clear pretty quickly that I’d have to leave Porter. It was exciting to grow but sad to leave him, and of course it took over a year before I had time to join the Opry. I had wanted that so badly that I’d call and ask if Mr. Devine had asked me to join the Opry family yet pretty often! When he finally did, we couldn’t even find a time. But I finally did join, and I’m so glad I joined when I did, because I got to create a lot of change in the Opry.”
Seely acted as an early champion of representation for women in Country music, often pushing the envelope and opening doors where they had previously been not only closed, but nailed shut. “When I joined the Grand Ole Opry women weren’t allowed to host. That was a door I knocked on constantly. Every new manager that would come in, I’d make an appointment and go discuss it with them. They’d tell me well, change comes slow. I’d ask the managers why is it so slow? Why can’t women host? He’d respond with “It’s tradition, Jeannie”. He’d say that to me and I’d say yea, that’s right. It just smells like discrimination.”
Not satisfied with that tradition, Seely went knocking on Bob Whitaker’s door as soon as he took over as Opry Manager, transferred over from Opryland Park. Coming from a location where everybody had a speaking part and a singing part, Whitaker was appalled. “He asked me why it was the way it was, and what they’d told me. I had one word for Mr. Whitaker: tradition,” Seely explained of when she was finally able to turn the tables and open the doors for women to host at the Opry, “Finally Bob called me one day and he said ‘Okay, Seely, I’m going to run you out there. You better be able to handle the job or you and I are both in trouble, because we’re going to go against tradition here.” So that’s how we made the changes for women to host and be a fuller part of the Opry, and I’m very proud of that. I’m so thrilled that some of the young women who came after me, the girls like Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis and so many more can walk straight onto that stage feeling as much as part of it as any man has ever been.”
As any home and family includes battles, they also include a lot of love. Upon recalling some of her fondest memories of the Opry, Seely was adamant about explaining the family dynamic of this elite group of artists. “The Opry has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. Mother said I was four years old when I found it on the radio dial, and I couldn’t understand why every time I turned that dial to that station that I couldn’t hear the Grand Ole Opry. I still feel that way today. It’s been such a treat to still see that wish coming true after so many years. The main point I want to make is that, when you hear all of us talking about the Opry being a family, it truly is. My friend Johnny Russell said it so well. He closed out the Opry the same night his mother died and he said “Some folks might think that it’s strange that I buried my mother this morning and I’m at the Grand Ole Opry tonight. Let me tell you, there is no place else I could be where I would have more support and understanding, love and compassion, than right here with this family.”
With over fifty years of memories made, Lula 1892 asked Seely what a few of her favorites were. It was then that Seely revealed just how much laughter and joy she had participated in making on the Opry stage. “One of my favorites from way back when is that Dottie West and I used to trade clothes in the dressing room. At the 50th anniversary of the Opry they had all the hostesses wear gold sweatshirts. We changed clothes with a couple of the hostesses and wore those sweatshirts on stage for the celebration. Dottie and I loved to laugh and have fun together. One of my more recent memories was with Darius Rucker during the eclipse this past year. I went to his dressing room and asked him if he wanted to do something fun. He agreed and so I suggested that maybe he could call me back on stage when he’s on and tell the audience we were going to give them a preview of what the eclipse might look like over Nashville. I said I’ll just come out and stand there and Darius you just inch a little bit in front of me at a time until you’re blocking me entirely. He thought that was the funniest thing, and so did I. I think those are two good examples of the fact that we’re a family. We have fun and most things we do, we do together. When the audience caught wind of what we were doing in those moments the laughter just drifted through the Ryman like a wave. It was hilarious, and those are the moments I remember and love.”
In addition to her long and fruitful relationship with her Opry family, Seely has made her name known as a hit songwriter in Nashville and beyond. With songs like “He’s All I Need,” co-written by Seely and Dottie West, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is,” which became a big hit for R&B legend, Irma Thomas, in 1964 and has since been featured on hit television shows, in movies, and on NFL Game Day and our personal favorite here at Lula 1892, “Leaving and Saying Goodbye,” first performed by Faron Young and later the late Dawn Sears of The Time Jumpers, there’s no denying Seely knows how to write a song that sticks around. “That song, [Leaving and Saying Goodbye], really became Dawn’s song after she did it. Once she sang it, the rest of us could just forget it, it was hers. Her husband Kenny plays fiddle with me at the Opry and has for years. We all miss Dawn an awful lot because we were all like family. But when I wrote that song I was trying to leave my husband, Hank [Cochran]. At the last minute I’d convince myself I couldn’t do it and stay. I remember thinking it’s so much easier to say you’re going to leave than to actually leave and really say goodbye, you know? When you get right down to it, you start remembering all the good instead of the bad. I realized that situation wasn’t unique to me and all of the sudden that song just fell together for me. I didn’t even realize Dawn was doing it on her shows until the video the Time Jumpers made for it. I had just walked in the door and there she was singing my song. That’s why, if you look at the video, we’ve all got such surprised looks on our faces, and then of course we started laughing. Timing is everything; I mean I walked in just as she opened her mouth and started it. That’s a wonderful memory for all of us now that Dawn is gone.”
If one had to sum Jeannie Seely’s career up in one sentence, it would be that she is in the business of memory making. Whether she is laughing about her family at the Opry or recalling tales of a loved one long past, her ability to look beyond the business of music to get to the heart of the matter is impeccable. Of course, being a skilled business woman is what has kept Seely’s career going for over fifty years, but the woman can tell a story, and tell it well. Equal parts class, grace, and integrity, Seely is a gem and Nashville is blessed to still have her on stage at the Mother Church nearly every week, making us laugh, crying right along with us, shining her radiant light and sharing her exquisite personality and voice to make our community and this world just a little bit brighter.
For more information on Jeannie Seely’s music and her Opry appearances, follow her on Facebook and Twitter and visit her website. Her latest album, Written in Song, released just last year, is available on iTunes and Spotify.