Known for writing several major country hits that showed the influence of the folk-pop music with which he began his career, Billy Edd Wheeler was also a versatile performer who notched hits of his own, recorded a series of innovative albums in the 1960s, and extended his creative activities into poetry, painting, nonfiction writing, and acting. Perhaps he was the only Yale Drama School student to go on to a career in country music.
Wheeler was born in Boone Country, WV. He attended Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and Berea College in Kentucky, where he earned a B.A. in 1955. After college, he worked as a magazine editor and then served two years as a Navy pilot. He taught at Berea for several years, performing folk music on the side and at one point landing a pops concert slot with the Lexington Symphony Orchestra (now the Lexington Philharmonic). Spurred by the attention, he recorded country and bluegrass songs (later collected on two LP albums) on the Monitor label, beginning in 1959. He made some appearances on The Today Show and other network television programs and performed on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, WV. Wheeler then moved east, studying playwriting at the Yale Drama School for one year and trying his luck as a playwright in New York. (By 2003 he had written 16 plays.) He also began writing songs, two of which, "The Reverend Mr. Black" and "Desert Pete," became pop hits for the Kingston Trio. "The Reverend Mr. Black," a vivid portrait of a country preacher, was later covered by Bill Anderson and other country artists. Hank Snow ("Blue Roses") and Rex Allen were among the country singers who recorded early Wheeler songs, but he also placed songs with folk artists such as Judy Collins and Richie Havens.
In 1963, Wheeler began recording more or less as a folk artist for Kapp Records, but as that New York-based label soon made a move into country music, Wheeler found the transition a natural one. The following year, he made his debut on the charts with "Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back," a satirical lament for the vanishing outhouses of the rural south that hit number three on the country charts. No more hits were forthcoming, but Wheeler's albums on Kapp fell well outside the '60s country mainstream; 1967's Paper Birds showed the influence of psychedelia. Wheeler continued to circulate songs in Nashville, and several of them were recorded; Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash reached number two in 1967 with Wheeler's Bickersons-like dialogue song "Jackson." Cash also recorded Wheeler's torrid love song "Blistered." Wheeler found his own way back to the charts one year later, though "I Ain't the Worryin' Kind" stalled at number 63 (it was covered by pop singer O.C. Smith). He signed with United Artists in 1969 and had minor success with "West Virginia Woman" and "Fried Chicken and a Country Tune."
During the '70s, he recorded for RCA Victor and Capitol but charted only occasionally. Nevertheless, his songwriting provided a consistent income. Elvis Presley had a Top Five hit with Wheeler's "It's Midnight," and in 1980 he hit it big when he and Roger Bowling penned Kenny Rogers' smash hit "Coward of the County." It spent three weeks at number one on the country charts. By the early 2000s, Wheeler estimated the total sales of recordings containing his songs at 57 million units, with various Rogers compilations constituting a sizable portion of that total.
With his wife and two children, Wheeler moved back to Swannanoa, NC, where he had attended college. He continued to write poetry, having published his first volume, Song of a Woods Colt, in 1969, and accelerated his playwriting activities. Wheeler has also authored a compilation of Appalachian humor and has created paintings in a folk-art style. He continued to write songs and to perform at festivals, played the banjo on several bluegrass albums, held songwriting workshops in his home, and recorded occasionally. Wheeler returned to folk music with the 1979 album Wild Mountain Flowers, released on the Flying Fish label. ~ James Manheim