Marie Wilson's Life Is Like a Country Song

A Knoxville native is back home, after years as one of Nashville's top songwriters. And you should see her photo albums.

Marie Wilson lives alone in a small apartment in a quiet cul-de-sac in Powell. Some days are better than others, but she gets around pretty well for a lady going on 86. She spends some mornings out sunning herself on her concrete stoop. If you sit down and talk with her for a while, she's likely to stand up more often than you do. You might gather she still has a restless streak.

She doesn't think of herself as presentable these days. She wears clashing colors just because she can. She'll pour you a cup of coffee and make you a sandwich, but she prefers not to be photographed because she's lost most of her hair. Still, some women half a century younger might envy her luminescent blue eyes. They might also envy her memories of certain old pals like Elvis Presley and Hank Williams. Her photo albums are like none others in the world.

Her home decor features a few artifacts that might bewilder a curious burglar. A private detective's badge, for example. She was once a shamus. On her wall is a plaque that says, "To Miss Wilson, World's Greatest Bus Driver."

There's her security clearance to work for the Atomic Energy Commission. "I worked on the atom bomb," she says in the same tone you might expect a lady to say she'd strung a mess of beans. That was after she did some welding for Navy battleships.

There's a twinkle in her eye, and you might think she's an old lady pulling your leg. Nobody's done all the things she says she has. "I wouldn't believe it, myself," she says. But her apartment is a museum of evidence. The most startling bit of it, hanging on her wall near her efficiency kitchen, not far from the Greatest Bus Driver plaque, is a gold record.

It's for a song called "Anymore." Marie's collaborator Roy Drusky released it, but pop singer Teresa Brewer made it a top 40 hit in 1960, selling more than one million copies. "There must be someone else you're longing for," it went. "And I don't believe you love me anymore."

For about 30 years, Marie Wilson was a successful country-music songwriter in Nashville, one of the first female songwriters ever to make a go of it in Music City. She had several songs on the charts, recorded by Brenda Lee and Willie Nelson and especially her close friend Skeeter Davis, who had successes with several of Marie's songs, including "Set Him Free."

Until 1988, Wilson lived in a big house on the Cumberland River, where she had a guitar-shaped desk, and entertained close friends like Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton. But she came home to Knoxville in 1988 on what she believed would be a brief family errand, and after that, nothing was ever the same.

"It all sounds like a horse tale to me," she says. "I'll swan, if I didn't have the clippings to prove it—"

***

Marie Wilson grew up on the west side of downtown, in working-class neighborhoods on the fringes of Mechanicsville and Fort Sanders. Her father, a painter, died suddenly in his sleep at age 30. She was raised by her mother and grandmother. "Mother worked in Appalachian Mills from the time she was 11 years old," she recalls. "Eleven years old! And then she come home at night and done washing and ironing and raised three kids."

Marie, the eldest—her two sisters were much younger—sounds like a handful. When they lived on Grand Avenue, Marie would sometimes get to school at Tyson Junior High by freight train. "It rolled by real slow when I caught it, but by the time it got to Tyson, honey, it was flying." When the leap off messed up her clothes, teachers suspected she'd been in a fight.

"You had to entertain yourself, growing up," she says. "You had to use barrel staves, you know, to make hula hoops. We put skates on boards to make a scooter." She and her friends would ride bikes around the neighborhood, and explored the caves, since closed up, near Maplehurst. They would climb down into them with ropes. "We're lucky we didn't get killed."

Before she ever wrote music, she wrote poems—around 1938, a verse she wrote about her postman on 11th Street got into the newspaper. She always loved to sing, and learned guitar from a neighbor named Gurney Tullock. "He showed me the G, C, and D chords. That's all I was ever showed. But use those three chords, and you can sing anything."

A fan of Knoxville's live-music shows like WNOX's "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round," she was only 14 or so when she began broadcasting, herself, early in the morning at WROL's Gay Street studio, right after a show featuring Kitty Wells. In Nashville, many years later, Wells would record songs that Marie had written. For a time, Wilson performed in a duo with local performer Raymond West as the "Carolina Pals."

"He was a good guitar picker and singer," Wilson says. "I don't even know what happened to him. But it was just me and him, and we was called the Carolina Pals, because I love Carolina."

Some major country stars lived in Knoxville for months or years at a time during that fertile era, when Knoxville radio stations were a magnet for acts like Flatt & Scruggs and Tennessee Ernie Ford. She did know Chet Atkins here—a yellowed clipping shows her and Chet and a few other musicians at a charity event—and later the Everly Brothers. But if there was a community of musicians, she didn't hear about it. At the WROL studio, she encountered a few rising stars, like bluegrass band the Bailey Brothers and gospel-country singer Martha Carson. "We'd go do our thing and leave. The only one I got to know was Cowboy Copas." That talented guitarist was, many years later, one of the musicians who died in the same plane crash that killed Patsy Cline.

"We didn't meet too many people here," Wilson says. "See, we would go do our show, that early, and leave. We might go pick at a church or something, for nothing, but we didn't hang around the station."

As a teenager, helping pack tomatoes on Market Square, she learned to drive a truck. Driving large, multi-gear vehicles was something she never got out of her system. During World War II, she wanted to be an ambulance driver on the front. "It was the only thing my mother ever told me not to do."

At 16, during the war, she found work welding battleships for the Navy, at the port of Savannah. "When I went to the shipyards to weld, you know what we done on the train? We'd pick and sing on the train all the way through Georgia. ‘In the Pines' was a favorite song in them days, but not to dance by. That's some pretty scenery down through there. But can you picture kids today on the train a-singing?"

She got work in Oak Ridge with the Atomic Energy Commission when she was only 17. Officially she was too young, but by the time she was 18 and legal, she had Q clearance. She worked mainly in transportation, driving buses of nuclear workers.

After the war, on a vacation to North Carolina, she liked the scenery so much she applied for a job there, as a bus driver. She believes she's one of the first female bus drivers in the history of North Carolina. She also hooked up with a small radio station in Gastonia, where she performed live. In Knoxville she was a "Carolina Pal," but in Gastonia, she was "Sweet Marie from Tennessee." She lived there three years before she got to thinking she might like to come home. She called her supervisor at Oak Ridge with some trepidation, after her three-year vacation, but he responded, "Don't you think it's about time?"

She went back to work.

Along the way, she linked up with a Knoxville friend, Helen Moyers, who went by the name Penny Jay. Years later, she'd be known for writing a major country hit, "Don't Let Me Cross Over." But when she played with Marie, they were Jenny and Jill. They sang traditional country tunes in tight harmonies.

On a lark, the duo went to Nashville. Some of Wilson's memories are foggy—she was never one to dwell on the past—but it sounds like it was around 1951. In what sounds like a country version of a Debbie Reynolds movie, she browsed around town meeting famous people. She heard that Roy Acuff, the former Knoxvillian who was then the most powerful man in Nashville's young recording industry, lived on a road called Winding Way. She'd never met him before, but found the road and started knocking on doors, asking around, and there he was. He offered her some advice, mainly that playing for a living wasn't very much like playing for fun.

Still in its infancy, the Nashville music industry included only two major publishing companies. "They didn't have but one recording studio, and it was at the old Tulane Hotel," she recalls. And there certainly wasn't much of a tradition of female songwriters. In a week, she made contact with Roy Acuff, Ray Price, and Hank Williams—whom she says she especially liked. (She recently ran across some unpublished photographs of Hank Williams, opening his Nashville store known as the Corral. They're the only ones she won't let out of her house.) She was especially impressed with Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the prolific songwriting team. They then lived in a trailer. "They were the greatest songwriters who ever gone to Nashville," she says. "They told me not to sing my songs out. I had been singing them on the air. Somebody told me to mail a copy of them to myself and register it and not open it, and that that was as good as a copyright. But see I had no idea."

"People asked, ‘Who in the hell was that?' It was me, and I didn't know no better."

In that amazing first week, Jenny and Jill met stars, cut several songs, and made some ripples. One major publisher passed over another unknown Knoxville act, the Everly Brothers, whom Marie had known in Knoxville, and whom Marie was trying to boost, herself—to sign Jenny and Jill.

Music legends were part of her daily life. She remembers recording at the same time the Carter Family was recording. "There was a window there in the old hotel, and he [A.P. Carter] would sing for a while and wander away from the mic. A.P. would sing a few notes, and then he'd walk away and look out the window and come back. It was really weird."

***

Jenny and Jill recorded tunes like "Treating Her Wrong," "Have You Always Felt This Way," and "In the Dark." They had an audition to be on the Grand Ole Opry. Marie emphasizes her good fortunes: "I've been so lucky, you just don't have this kind of luck." But it didn't always work out that way. They had been performing in Ohio when a car wreck left Penny seriously injured. She needed a year in the hospital to recuperate. Marie went back to Oak Ridge to drive buses.

Her employer, the Atomic Energy Commission, was involved in constructing a nuclear plant near Cincinnati, and transferred Marie up there, to supervise a squad of 125 bus drivers. It was good work, but she carried a flame for the music business. She met a younger singer from northern Kentucky named Mary Frances Penick. Because of her association with a popular act called the Davis Sisters that had enjoyed chart success in 1953, she was better known as Skeeter Davis. But at the height of the Davis Sisters' fame, Skeeter was seriously injured in a car wreck that killed her singing partner, Betty Jack Davis. Hardly 25, Skeeter Davis retired from the music business, and got married. Her retirement didn't last long after she met Marie.

Skeeter and Marie, both separated from their musical partners by Ohio car wrecks, formed a dynamic duo. As a performer, Marie stepped back, and concentrated more on writing. "I used to think I could sing," she says today. "I found out later I couldn't." She recognized Davis's talent, though, and sometimes backed her up on guitar and background vocals, and especially through songwriting. They toured with Ernest Tubb. Wilson remembers, on a visit home, Tubb's tour bus stopping in front of her mother's house on quiet Springdale Avenue in North Knoxville—and she and Skeeter emerging from the bus with gang of men. "What'll the neighbors think?" her mother fretted. "Poor thing," Marie says. "I must have given her a heart attack at the time." Later on, her mother worried about some of her songs, like one with the line, "I was raised in a barroom and I can't live it down."

"My mother said, ‘Marie, they'll think I raised you in a barroom!'" She laughs. "I'd never even been in a bar."

She was touring with Skeeter in Alabama when they shared the stage with young Elvis Presley. He'd misplaced his guitar, and asked Marie if he could borrow hers. "If you give me your jacket," replied Marie, playfully. Elvis didn't hesitate. For years, Marie treasured her black leather jacket studded with the initials E.P. But she's never been one to keep stuff around. When a friend saw it and cried, she sold it.

She ran into Elvis several times over the years, and liked him. "He loved his mother more than anything. He took good care of her and his grandmother."

In 1959, she wrote an unusual song, addressed from one woman to another, called "Set Him Free." It included a talking bit, a sort of faux ad-lib that had become a trend in pop songs in the late ‘50s. Trying to sell the song, she and Skeeter approached Chet Atkins with Kitty Wells in mind. Atkins responded to Skeeter, "Why don't you do it?"

Marie remembers the conversation. "Skeeter said, ‘I can't talk!' And he said, ‘That's all you do.' And she did, she talked a lot. But anyway, we cut that song and it was a smash!"

Encouraged by the tide, Marie Wilson quit the atomic-energy racket. "We moved into Nashville—and walked in with a number-one song, so didn't have no trouble."

More hits followed. Skeeter Davis released eight of Marie Wilson's songs, like "Heartbroken," "Someone I'd Like to Forget," "Have You Seen This Man," and "Give Me Death."

Then there was "Anymore," picked up by pop singer Teresa Brewer in 1960. It slipped into the national Top 40 and became a million-seller. Wilson says at least six performers released versions of it; she doesn't even remember all of them.

On several songs, she shares songwriting credits with performers. Often, in those days, credits just paid homage to names more famous than the songwriters. "You put somebody famous's name in the credits, and go to the charts. It's sometimes the difference between a record that sells and a bucket lid."

Wilson turned out hundreds of songs. Kitty Wells recorded "Before This Day Ends." Ray Price recorded "The Price for Loving You." Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton recorded "Anything's Better than Nothing." Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn recorded, "We've Made It Legal (But We Can't Make It Right)."

Marie's best guess is that a total of 102 of her songs have been recorded and released. She has more than that demoed, in old tapes, and hopes to sell them someday. She thinks Nashville needs better songwriters. She doesn't have much patience for the lyrics she hears. "There's no reason," she says, "no story."

She seemed attracted to songs with stories, especially those with surprise endings. In "Give Me Death," a condemned woman suffering remorse over killing her sweetheart seems to be mourning her own fate, but at the end we find she's protesting her being spared execution. "Have You Seen This Man" sounds like a description of a random alcoholic bum, who turns out to be a much-missed husband and father. They're designed to bring tears.

"Final Step," recorded by Skeeter Davis, is about a suicidal lover. It sounds odd to modern ears because of its perky orchestration. Chet Atkins may have had something to do with that. Upon listening to the demo, Atkins said, "Marie, she can't record that sad tune; it'll cause people to jump off the bridge."

One plaque on her wall commemorates a song she didn't write herself. Her longtime friend Lorene Mann wrote it, but Wilson's own small company published it, and the song was partly inspired by Marie's affect, and by her mother's name. It's called "Don't Go Near the Indians." It wouldn't go over today, but in 1962 it was a hit for singing cowboy star Rex Allen.

The title and chorus turns out to be a warning from a father who's trying to prevent his adoptive son, who doesn't know he's an Indian, to keep from falling in love with his sister.

Among her songwriting pals, Marie had a little reputation as an Indian sort, herself. She wore jeans and moccasins, attire then unusual for women—"You can't drive a bus in a dress," she says—and she'd talk about her "Indian chief" friends who catered to tourists in Gatlinburg. And her mother's name, Nova Lee, was said to have come from the name of an Indian heroine in a novel. It's the name given to the Indian maiden in the Rex Allen hit ("son, Nova Lee is your sister").

The real Nova Lee Wilson, who remarried a popular Wall Avenue barber named Charlie Morgan, learned to enjoy her unusual first daughter's success. She had been a fan of Allen's for years, and was tickled to hear him sing her name in a popular song.

"I didn't care anything about the praise," says Marie. "I was after the money, to buy things for people. And I spent it on them, too. Mother never had to ask for anything, but I remembered all the things she didn't have. She got them after I started making money. I took her uptown to buy a car, and I wanted her to get a Cadillac. She was over 50 by then, and never had a car. And I said, ‘Mother, you can have any car you want in Knoxville,' and so I took her to a Cadillac place, and figured she'd have a fit over a Cadillac. I took her all over Knoxville. You know what she wanted? A Malibu, Chevrolet." The car's still in the family; Marie's nephew, an army veteran in Kansas, has the 1967 Malibu fixed up.

Marie admits now something she didn't often admit at the time: that many of her love songs were about her two Siamese cats. "I'd write a song about a cat, and it's supposed to be about a man," she says. The cats were named Precious and Buttercup. "When he got older, he didn't like Buttercup, so I called him B.C. Several of my songs I wrote on account of the cats. All you've got to do is look at them doing something and think they're sweet, and everything—and then put some guy in there."

She admits that when people are crying over their beer, they don't necessarily want to hear that a song is really about a cat.

She was never married, herself. "I was engaged a couple of times," she says. "Men don't like you to play music with other men, and they don't like for you to travel. They want you to stay home and have kids. But music was my life, and I loved it. It was the way I got what I wanted."

***

In the '60s, Marie Wilson diversified. She got a real-estate license, she says, because she'd gotten so accustomed to getting new music-industry people situated in Nashville. She got a detective's license, working mostly with a well-known female detective in town. "I could light a cigarette, and take a picture of you," she says. It sounds like she got a kick out of chasing errant husbands, the subjects of some of her songs. But all the surveillance gadgets on the market today have spoiled the fun for her. "Now the public can buy anything."

And, just because she missed it, she went back to bus driving. "I was the second woman who ever drove a bus in Nashville," she says. That's when she got that plaque, driving for Hillwood High. "They never knowed I had songs on the charts."

She remained part of the country-music elite. At her house overlooking the Cumberland River, she entertained friends like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Ray Price. To her, she says, they were just people, "like you and me," with no mystique about them. She knew Willie Nelson, early on, when he was a clean-cut fellow who could walk the streets unrecognized. "He could write, but he couldn't sell it," she says. Atkins continued to have faith in his career, cutting his records for years after his big hit, "Crazy." She treasures a photograph of him autographed to her personally, "To my #1 pal, and a good songwriter, too."

You won't get any dirt from Marie Wilson. That's how, she says, she has maintained her good standing. There were a few people she disliked, but not many. She even has nice things to say about Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, demonized as the Svengali who ruined the man and his career. Marie allows that he's the one who got Elvis to emphasize the shaking.

"I would swear this on a Bible, if I swore," she says. "They didn't drink, didn't cuss, never told a dirty joke. You hear that they drank and drank. Maybe some did, but I didn't run into that bunch." She allows that she does remember a couple of notable alcoholics whose drinking or marital problems have been featured in books and movies. She will not share any unflattering memories of them for the record. Even long after their deaths, she remains a discreet and loyal friend.

At her house, she says, "We just played music."

In 1988 she was still living the life of a Nashville songwriter, when she got word that her mother, back in Knoxville, was ill.

"I just come up to help out with my mother," she says. "I never said where I was going or what I was going for when I left. I thought I'd just be up here a little while. Something would happen to Mother, and I'd be back.

"But after that we lost one right after another." Her stepfather died. Both her brothers in law began suffering degenerative illnesses. "I was going to come here and go back. But one after another died. My young sister, the baby, died during all the dying."

"See, I've been at the hospital for years, day and night. Every day I was paying to park at the hospital, to eat at the hospital." Meanwhile, she was still paying to keep her house up in Nashville. "It cost me so much money, I was going broke."

Then Marie Wilson, who'd never sought medical help for herself until she turned 73, began having health problems, too, beginning with a heart attack. "I looked like a human when I got here. Then I got sick, and no one would want me out there after I got to looking like this.

"You ought to have seen me when I had to walk out on stage. I was glad to be out there. But I ain't even glad to see anybody, now."

She advises people never to see the doctor. She felt fine until she did. "They've drained me dry. It costs me $600 a month to buy pills."

Only after eight or nine years in Knoxville did she realize she was unlikely to return to Nashville. She emptied her house by the river. She threw or gave away everything she owned except for what she brought to her apartment.

"I didn't get back, and nobody didn't know where I was. I didn't want them to. Dolly, Loretta—I ain't got in touch with one of them. My work's been all my people dying."

Meanwhile, several of her old colleagues died, too. Skeeter Davis died in 2004. Penny Jay died in 2006. She knows only a couple of people from the old days who are still in Nashville.

She has heard through the grapevine that some of her famous old friends assumed she had died, herself.

Some Internet sources, when they list Marie Wilson, say, "Last known address: Nashville, Tenn." "I spent all my savings and everything else since—well, I've not drawed a payday in 23 years, but I don't owe anybody anything."

"Everything I did, I'd do again," she says. "I don't regret nothing. Except my foot trouble."

"Country music's coming back," she says. "People's tired of the screaming and yelling, and it ain't nothing. All these naked people hollering now. I don't even watch the awards shows anymore. I haven't had the radio on since I've been up here. I had to walk away from it."

She recently turned up those unpublished photos of Hank Williams opening the Corral, the western-wear store, and some early shots of Elvis she didn't know she had, one, at age 20 or so, smoking a pipe. She doesn't want anybody to see those until she can find out what they're worth. She no longer has savings to pay her medical bills.

She has lots of neighbors, mostly retirees, who live close by. One fellow she calls L.A. drops by to report the postman didn't bring anything. "No mail today—wasn't that what Ernest Tubb said?"

Most of her royalties have dried up now, but a few weeks ago, she got a surprise in the mail: a $500 check representing "overseas royalties." One of her songs is charting again in some other country; she's not sure which one, and doesn't care much, but she appreciates the money. It's her first royalty check in years.

She doesn't have a computer, and has heard only recently about YouTube, which features audio clips of her earliest recordings. "They're going back to 1952, to Jenny and Jill!" she says, laughing. "That's ridiculous."

A visitor remarked, "Nobody knows you were in the music business. You're a hidden treasure."

"Yes," she responded. "I'm hidden so far away I can't even find me."