Billy Edd Wheeler to sign books during Holly Jolly

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

On the years when his busy schedule allows, it's not uncommon for Billy Edd Wheeler to head to downtown Black Mountain for the annual Holly Jolly celebration.

"I always try to if I'm in town," said a grinning Wheeler from Black Mountain Books, where he'll be signing copies of his book from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7. "It's a great time to occasionally get a free drink somewhere."

Billy Edd Wheeler will sign copies of his book, "Hotter Than A Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet's Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More," in Black Mountain Books from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, during Holly Jolly.

The famed singer, songwriter, playwright, author and longtime Swannanoa resident released "Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet's Journey from Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More" in April. 

"Seriously, Holly Jolly is a really good time because it gives you a chance to see people you haven't seen in a while," he said. "People always seem to enjoy it."

While revelers fill Cherry Street and Sutton Avenue taking in the sights and sounds of the occasion, many use Holly Jolly as an opportunity to look for holiday gifts with local ties. Wheeler will personally sign copies of his book, which can be purchased in the store. Each book sold will come with a free copy of his CD, "Appalachian Tapestry," which includes many of the hit songs written by the West Virginia native. 

The book was the first written by Wheeler, who is best known for writing the song "Jackson," made popular by Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1967. The title of the song, which earned Cash and Carter a Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance Duet, Trio or Group in 1968, is the subject of the question Wheeler is asked most often. 

"People always want to know if the song is based on a Jackson in their state," Wheeler said. "I used to fib a little, and there are around 13 of them in this country, but I would say 'yeah, it's your Jackson.' But my conscience started bothering me, so I started telling people the truth, which is that I didn't have any particular town in mind."

Wheeler, who first came to the Swannanoa Valley as a teenager in 1948 to attend Warren Wilson College, is also responsible for writing hits like "Coward of the County," The Rev. Mr. Black," and "The Coming of the Roads." Songs written by Wheeler have sold over 56 million copies and been recorded by over 150 artists. 

After appearing on a podcast, Wheeler was approached by Scott Bomar, an award-winning author and director of licensing for BMG Books. 

"During the podcast I happened to mention I was thinking about writing a memoir," Wheeler said. "I had tried it twice and it didn't work. When the podcast was over he told me they were starting a book division and wanted to see if I'd be interested in writing a book."

With no shortage of personal anecdotes, Wheeler wrote 131,000 words for the first manuscript. He was told to self-edit and cut by about 20,000 words. 

"The editors cut it down to 87,000 words," Wheeler said. "I hated to give up all those stories, but I was really happy with how the book turned out."

The foreword for the book was written by two-time Grammy Award winner Janis Ian and the introduction was penned by Warren Wilson College president emeritus Doug Orr. 

Carl and Jean Franklin, who have owned Black Mountain Books on Cherry Street for 18 years, ordered copies for a release party at the White Horse over the summer. 

"At the end of the evening I invited Billy Edd to come to our store for Holly Jolly," Jean said. "He knew exactly what it was and quickly said yes."

The Franklins normally hold signings during Holly Jolly, but they are particularly excited about hosting Wheeler. 

"He's a Swannanoa Valley treasure," Carl said. "He enriches the Valley with the contacts he has and just his willingness to be so giving of himself.

Jean describes hosting Wheeler as "an honor."

"He's touched so many people with his music," she said. "I would sing 'The Coming of the Roads' and my brother would play it on the guitar back when we were in our 20s."

Wheeler always welcomes the chance to see fans of his work face-to-face.

"It really makes you feel good when people tell you they liked the book, or were touched in some way by your music," he said. "Knowing that your work may have influenced somebody is a great feeling."