Gary James' Interview With "Miss Country Soul"
She's often referred to as "Miss Country Soul" because she became the first, and to date, the only Pennsylvania native to become a member of The Grand Ole Opry. She's among a select group of Country artists who have scored number one hits as a solo artist, as a duet partner, and as a songwriter. In June of 1966 she made her first appearance on The Grand Ole Opry. She holds the honor of being the first woman to wear a mini skirt on the Opry stage. In 1966, she received "Most Promising New Artist" awards from all the national trade publications, including Billboard, Cashbox, Record World, as well as from polls of Country music fans and radio DJs across the country. On March 2nd, 1967, the National Academy Of Recording Arts And Sciences honored her with the 1966 Grammy Award for the "Best Country Vocal Performance By A Female", edging out friends and fellow nominees Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Connie Smith and Jan Howard. She became only the third female Country artist to receive a Grammy. She accepted her award from Chet Atkins. In 2000 she was inducted into the North American Country Music Hall Of Fame. In 2003 she was inducted into the George D. Hay Music Hall Of Fame located in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. In that same year she received the 2003 Legend Award from Bluebird Country News. In 2006 she received the Songwriter Of The Year Award from the R.O.P.E. (Reunion Of Professional Entertainers) organization. In 2007 she received R.O.P.E.'s Entertainer Of The Year Award. But it was President Richard Nixon who said it best back on March 16th, 1974: "Some girls have looks, but can't sing. Others can sing but don't have looks. Jeannie Seely's got them both." We are so proud to present an interview with "Miss Country Soul" herself, Jeannie Seely.
Q - You've said, "Country music has made so many of my dreams come come true. I just wish someone would have warned me about the nightmares."
A - (laughs)
Q - Nightmares? What are you talking about there? I thought being a famous Country singer was a great life!
A - (laughs) It is an absolutely wonderful life and by that I meant not all those roads were paved as they say. Nothing in life is easy. You know that. It doesn't always come easy and it wasn't handed to me. There were a lot of rough times on the build and even now traveling is just not easy anymore. Flying just gets to be a real headache. Some of those missed and canceled flights will cause you some nightmares.
Q - I always thought that most performers today have their own tour bus.
A - I sold my tour bus a long time ago. I just fly to all my dates now. I just always have in the contract that they have to provide ground transportation. So, they just pick me up wherever I'm going to now. I didn't want that responsibility anymore. As I tell everybody, you got to remember I'm not buildling a career here. I'm just trying to enjoy what's left of this one. And I'm am enjoying it.
Q - When you show up for a performance, you're not traveling with your own band, are you? Is the venue providing the band?
A - On some of the things. It depends what it is. I think there were three dates last year (2015) where we flew the whole group, but most of the time I'm working with someone else's group. I book a lot of times with Gene Watson. I work with his band. T.G. Shepherd. Moe Bandy. I've got a date coming up next weekend in Wisconsin with Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee. We'll all be using the same band on that show. We do that on a lot of 'em now.
Q - When you arrived in Nashville in 1965, you only had $50 in your pocket, driving a Ford Falcon.
A - (laughs) Right.
Q - Could a person arrive in Nashville today under those same circumstances?
A - There's a lot of kids showing up in town and doing exactly that. Most of everybody gets a job working somewhere to support themselves like I did. I think a lot of the younger people have it a little easier than my era did. I think a lot of 'em I hear talking about their parents kind of bankroll them for so long 'cause a lot of the kids come here and go to college at Belmont and then come in to the music industry from there. But, I do know some of the kids, the duo Dan And Shay, I got to know them when they first came to the Opry and they were telling me they met each other and became friends. They rented this big old rambling house here and they said they didn't have enough money to heat the whole place. So they put up a tent in one room. They were kind of both staying in there. So, some of these stories are still the same. Some of these kids come here with nothing more than a dream. It is possible, but you have to work really hard. They got jobs as waiters or just odd jobs. You know, like Dierks Bentley and Alan Jackson, both of them were at TNN Studios in the mail room. I remember Alan was.
Q - You were turned down by every record company in Nashville. I take it you would walk through the door with a demo tape in hand and an A&R guy would say "No." what didn't they like? Did they ever say?
A - Well, I don't know. I really didn't do it like that. I had met Hank Cochran in California as I had Dottie West and Justin Tubb. They kind of opened some doors. Hank took one of my demo tapes to several of the places. Then later, eventually, including Fred Foster at Monumet, Hank was so frustrated by it. I remember he took me into Monument, into Fred's office about 5:30 one evening when everybody else was leaving the office. He handed me a guitar and said, "Now sit there and sing until Fred signs you." I always laughed later. I said I don't know whatever Fred finally heard something in that little session or whether he was just hungry and wanted to go to dinner and said, "Okay, okay." Whatever. But thank goodness he did. He just said, "Okay. I hear what you're hearing. Let's find some songs and we'll go ahead and record."
Q - You took courses in business finance and law. You said they were beneficial to you later in your music career. So, you didn't get ripped off by a record company or manager then? You understood contracts.
A - Well, I wouldn't say that I didn't get ripped off, but not by a manager. I signed some contracts that I shouldn't have signed. But, you know you get carried away in the excitement of the moment and they always paint such a brilliant picture. In some cases I didn't even put to use what I had learned. And also, on another side of that, those contracts read different than the ones I had learned on. But you get so excited and you want it so bad, Gary, that you're willing to say, well, this isn't probably exactly right, but at least it will open the door. You do a lot of things opening those doors.
Q - When you were in Los Angeles you had a pretty good job at a Beverly Hills bank, but you left that job to take a secretarial position at Liberty / Imperial Records.
A - Right.
Q - Did you meet any famous recording artists while you were working as a secretary?
A - Well yes, and I helped create some. When I worked at Imperial Records, when Liberty acquired Imperial, my boss was Kenny Rivicomb. I was at national sales at Liberty. When they took over Imperial they sent Kenny and me over to Imperial to run that little office. We were just a two person operation. The first record we had to promote was Johnny Rivers' record of "Memphis".
Q - That's a great record!
A - Yes. We put in some long hours. I remember one time Kenny called me into his office and said, "Can you be here at six o'clock in the morning?" I said, "Well, I guess so, but why?" He said, "Because I want ours to be the first call those East Coast distributors get when they walk in the office at nine o'clock." So, we did that several mornings. Whenever Kenny was out somewhere I made some decisions that I had no authority to make, but I knew what Kenny would do if he was there. There was one time when the distributorship out of Shreveport, Louisiana had all these orders and the distributor was out of records on Johnny Rivers. Well, you can't sell records if you don't have them in stores. They can't get 'em without the distributorship. So, I went ahead and authorized a huge shipment and had it air shipped, all the time holding my breath, thinking I could be fired for this. I'll either be fired or I'll be a hero for taking care of it.
Q - Since you weren't fired, you were a hero, right?
A - That's right. We got the records in there. That was one of the major markets that pushed that record on through. I had the opportunity to see Johnny Rivers on several occasions here in the last few years and it's kind of fun for us to laugh about it now.
Q - Working in that secretarial position also afforded you the opportunity to advance your own career, didn't it? Kris Kristofferson working as a janitor at Columbia Records introduced himself to Johnny Cash as a songwriter and got a demo tape in his hand. Did you do that?
A - Well, inadvertently I did. It wasn't something I planned. At the Imperial office I had this idea for a song, so I stayed after work to use the piano and was working on it. At the same time Eddie Ray, who was a producer there, had stayed late working on something. He heard me writing this song and he liked what he heard. The next morning at the A&R meeting they were looking for material for Irma Thomas, who was an R&B legend from New Orleans. He called me to come into the meeting and sing it for him. Irma liked the song, so they recorded it. It's called "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is", and so I did. It was the first song I ever had recorded, which is kind of funny because here I am a little Country singer/songwriter and my first recording is done by an R&B legend. It was like a top R&B hit, a Top 15, what they called Top 40 back then. That was 1963. Since then it's been played in three different episodes of a TV series in London called Black Mirror. It was recently recorded this past April (2016) by Samantha Whates, whose a big Pop artist over there and released on her most recent album. So, yeah, inadvertently I did use that for my own career.
Q - You were a featured performer, along with Glen Campbell, on Hollywood Jamboree. Was he a star at the time you were doing that?
A - No.
Q - Did you look at him and feel he was going to be a star someday?
A - Oh, absolutely. All of us for several years kept saying when is the rest of the world going to discover Glen Campbell? We all knew he was an incredible talent. He just had it all. But when I was working for the companies I worked for awhile at their music publishing company, which was Metric Music, and one of my jobs there was to set up the demo sessions for the new songs that were written. I hired Glen to be the singer and/or the guitar player. Also the session musicians included Jerry Cole and James Burton as guitar players, Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell, keyboards. None of them were big stars then. Of course, they all went on to be so successful.
Q - I guess so! You were also friendly with Dottie West. Tell me about your friendship.
A - Dottie was absolutely wonderful. She was just the same all the time. Just such a caring, friendly, fun person. If she liked you there was just nothing she wouldn't stop at doing. She helped so many people. Of course growing up in Pennsylvania I first was aware of her out of the old Landmark Jamboree out of Cleveland. She was one of my favorite performers on there. I did not meet her until I moved to L.A. She came out to work the Palomino Club. Of course I was there. It's kind of like the story of Louise and Patsy Cline, that show. We got to know each other there at the club and I invited 'em back to my house when it was over. We sat up the rest of the night talkin', singin' and writing songs. Dottie stayed in touch with me after she came back home and encouraged me to move to Nashville.
Q - Dottie West knew Patsy Cline?
A - Yes. In fact, they were good friends. Sometimes Dottie used to laugh and say, "Seely, you remind me so much of Patsy. I have to turn around and see which one of you is still here." She was always saying, "Now that's something Patsy would say." I just barely missed meeting Patsy and of course my ex-husband, Hank Cochran, knew her so well and wrote so many of her early hits. Later of course I worked with Owen Bradley. Of course later I got to be friends with Patsy's husband Charlie (Dick). I always regretted that I didn't get to meet her.
Q - Do you ever watch any of those TV award shows?
A - Oh, sure I do.
Q - I was watching the C.M.A. Awards. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were the hosts. They were making jokes about the divorce of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. I confess I don't know anything about Blake Shelton and even less about Miranda Lambert, but I do know that the topic of divorce is something that's not funny. Brad and Carrie looked uncomfortable making those jokes.
A - I'll bet they probably were. They have script writers on those and sometimes you can talk them out of some things when you're not comfortable with it, but not always. They're always looking for that sensationalism that raises the ratings. That's just how it works.
Q - And Country music doesn't sound Country these days. It sounds more Rock and Rock 'n' Roll.
A - Well, when you stop and think about it, this last generation has been inundated with everything we have. Between television and the internet it would be hard to say what their influences are because they've been subjected to so much from everywhere. But as I like to remind everybody, every generation brings their own sound and their own lifestyle to it. It's simply not our era anymore. It's their era. (laughs) But we're still fortunate to live in the era we do because you can still hear anything you want to hear, day or night, with the internet. We're very fortunate.
Q - Aren't you glad you came up during the time you did?
A - Oh, I can't even tell you how happy I am. Bill Anderson called it The Golden Era Of Country Music, was our era. I'm very grateful that I grew up with the people I did, but I do see strong friendships in the younger generation. I know Martha McBride and Faith Hill are very close friends. They raised their families during the same time. So, there are good friendships. You mentioned Carrie and Brad and they're good friends. So, it goes on. Country music people are just good people. They write and sing about their lives. Their lives are just a little bit different than ours were.