The storyteller becomes the story in Billy Edd Wheeler's memoir
Billy Edd Wheeler has been telling stories most of his life. His tales have been spun into award-winning songs, enduring stage performances, scenic oil paintings and countless other creative endeavors.
Now Wheeler, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer, is the story. The longtime Swannanoa resident’s memoir - “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More” - is released Saturday, April 7 at Warren Wilson College.
The college will honor its favorite son with a book release in Kittredge Theater. The April 7 event, which will feature a live interview with Wheeler conducted by the college’s president emeritus Doug Orr and two-time Grammy Award winner Janis Ian, is hosted by the college’s alumni board. Those wishing to attend are asked to RSVP at warren-wilson.edu/wheeler.
The gathering is intended to celebrate Wheeler and his improbable rise from the coal country of Boone County, West Virginia to the Yale School of Drama to his writing hits like “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Jackson.” His songs have been recorded by the likes of Judy Collins, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Kenny Rogers, Bobby Darin and Florence and the Machine.
When Wheeler, now 85, arrived in the Swannanoa Valley in 1948, he was a 16 years old and seeking a better life. He found a welcoming environment at Warren Wilson, where he earned a high school diploma and a two-year college degree while also learning the value of hard work.
“I learned to appreciate labor,” he said. “Warren Wilson taught me that work is a part of life, and as necessary as learning. And that was a revelation. It changed my whole attitude about work.”
He also discovered his calling on the Sears and Roebuck Archtop Kay guitar he brought with him from home.
“It was $14, and it was an awful guitar,” Wheeler said. “The strings were high on the fret board, so to learn to play you had to get your fingers toughened up. Starting out, sometimes they would bleed because it was that tough.”
Knowing “only about three chords,” Wheeler’s prowess on the guitar proved sufficient to tell stories musically. He was inspired by the dean at Warren Wilson College at the time, Dr. Henry Jensen, who introduced him to the poetry of Robert Frost
“Dr. Jensen played guitar, left-handed, upside-down,” Wheeler said. “He wrote original songs, and to hear him tell the stories and then play the songs, I was like, ‘God, almighty, he not only writes the songs, he stands up and performs them and plays them well.’ In my mind - I knew it wouldn’t happen any time soon - but I thought, ‘I wish I could do that.’”
As it turned out, Wheeler could write songs that connected with scores of listeners.
After graduating from Berea College in Kentucky, he spent two years in the U.S. Navy as a student pilot before being accepted into the Yale School of Drama in 1961. It was around this time, through a chance encounter, that Wheeler was introduced to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The duo was responsible for writing and producing a slew of hit records, including Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” in the 1950s.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “I was taken to meet them in person, which was rare, because big-time producers don’t want you standing there singing them a song. They want to hear the tape and after two minutes they can toss it in a waste basket.”
Wheeler was told his songs were “too folksy,” but he walked away with valuable advice.
Leiber and Stoller told him “the idea is the most important thing in songwriting,” he said. “If you get a good idea and you’re a good songwriter, then you can have it done by that night.”
That’s basically what happened when Wheeler came up with the idea for “The Reverend Mr. Black,” which he wrote and presented to Leiber and Stoller. The famous songwriting duo promptly edited it and shipped it to The Kingston Trio in California.
The Palo Alto, California group, which was among the pioneers of the American folk music revival that hit its peak in the 1960s, recorded the song for its Kingston Trio "No. 16" album. The song reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. It was recorded by Johnny Cash in 1981, as well.
More famously, however, Johnny Cash and his future wife June Carter recorded what is Wheeler’s best-known song, “Jackson,” in 1967. The title of his memoir borrows from the song’s lyrics.
While Wheeler’s career soared, he planted roots in the Swannanoa Valley, where he first met his wife Mary, the daughter of Dr. Arthur Bannerman, who was the first president of Warren Wilson College. In 1963 the Wheelers bought land in Swannanoa, where they would raise their two children, Lucy and Travis.
Even as Wheeler authored books and wrote plays like “Hatfields & McCoys,” which has been performed at Grandview’s Cliffside Amphitheatre in West Virginia since 1970, he remained active at Warren Wilson College.
When Orr, who along with his wife Darcy had been a performing musician for years, began his tenure as college president in 1991, he was thrilled to find Wheeler was hosting an annual songwriting camp known as “The Great Smokies Song Chase.”
Orr approached Wheeler about using his camp as a springboard to debut what was later named The Swannanoa Gathering, which celebrated its 26th year last summer. The two became fast friends.
“He’s a North Carolina treasure” Orr said of Wheeler, who he once encouraged to write a memoir. “He’s in the N.C. Music Hall of Fame, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, so it’s important for him to have all these stories written down and in a book.”
Orr, himself the coauthor a New York Times best seller ("Wayfaring Stranger"), wrote the introduction to “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout." Another one of Wheeler’s longtime friends, Janis Ian, wrote the foreword. Orr said he feels "honored" to interview Wheeler on stage during the upcoming book release event.
“It won’t be a concert; it will be more of a conversation,” Orr said.” There will questions with musical performances of BIlly Edd's songs interspersed.”
It’s a great way to honor a legendary writer and cherished alumnus of the Swannanoa college, Orr said.
“It will be a proud day for Billy Edd and for Warren Wilson College,” he said.
For Wheeler, who spends much of his time these days in front of a canvas working on his oil paintings, the release of his memoir will be one more in a lifetime of accomplishments.
Some describe him as an “Appalachian Renaissance Man,” but that description feels too grand, according to him. Wheeler believes the term “jack of all trades, master of none” to be more suitable.
But there’s one description he likes even better.
“Hillbilly poet,” he chuckled. “I don’t mind that name at all.”