Fifty years ago, if Jeannie Seely had been a force of nature, she’d have been a hurricane; because in 1966 she took the country music world by storm. That was the year this young entertainer from Titusville, Pennsylvania blew away the competition—winning awards from Billboard, Cashbox and Record World magazines for “Most Promising New Artist.” Fifty years later, those titles still ring true.
Many of her fans would say Jeannie left the term “new” in the dust decades ago and now the term “legend” more accurately describes this stage of her career as a Grammy Award winner and a 48-year member of the Grand Ole Opry. While I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Jeannie has EARNED the title “legend,” I stand behind the title “Most Promising New Artist.” After all, you don’t get to BE a 50-year success in the music business without reinventing yourself, keeping up with the times and making yourself fresh by constantly refreshing what you do and how you do it. Jeannie still gets my vote as “Promising New Artist,” because she’s never been satisfied to rest on her laurels. Every day in the career of Jeannie Seely is a new day. She makes it that way.
I first met Jeannie when I was a reporter for The Nashville Network in the mid 80s doing a story on the women of the Grand Ole Opry. I was 23 years old and, truthfully, scared to death. Instead of making Jeannie feel comfortable during the interview, she sensed my nervousness, and put ME at ease. The televised feature got rave reviews, and Jeannie made me look good in the process. In the years that followed, I came to understand that Jeannie has a knack for that too: making the people who work beside her look good. You don’t even know she’s doing it. Jeannie is secure enough in her abilities to entertain to allow the light from her own spotlight to shine on others. In Nashville, that’s a rarity.
Also rare is a 50-year career that continues to spiral upward – a career whose early days included a stint singing on “The Ernest Tubb Show” and working as “the girl singer” with Porter Wagoner. (Jeannie, in her trademark glib manner, often jokes the only reason Dolly replaced her on “The Porter Wagoner Show” was Dolly’s hits were bigger than hers!)
As the years passed, Jeannie became an actor and an author, had No. 1 recordings as both a solo artist and as a duo with Jack Greene, introduced hot pants and go-go boots on the Grand Ole Opry stage, became the first female singer to host half-hour segments on the Opry and won herself a BMI Award as a songwriter. Jeannie’s composition “Leaving and Saying Goodbye” took Faron Young to the top of the charts, along with memorable recordings by Little Jimmy Dickens (“She Always Got What She Wanted”) Irma Thomas, Connie Smith, Lorrie Morgan, Jack Greene, Dottie West and many other music icons.
And it’s that songwriting element that once again has Jeannie’s interest. Jeannie returned to the studio last week to begin a new, as of yet untitled, album due out later this spring. It’s a compilation of songs written by Jeannie. I had the good fortune to attend the project’s first session, and I can say without a doubt that this album is destined to be a treasure for any music collector. Without spilling any beans, it was fun to watch the incredulous faces of the musicians on the session that day. They’d listen down to a song before recording it, and invariably two or three of the guys would stand there with their mouths wide open, shaking their heads from side to side, exclaiming things like: “I had no idea you wrote THAT! WOW! That song is a favorite of mine. I’ve known you for 30 years and I never knew you wrote THAT song!”
When I asked Jeannie why she waited this long to do a songwriter’s CD, Jeannie smiled and said, “I wanted to wait until everybody forgot who I was writing about…and now I have.” The timing for this new project is monumental. Almost 50 years to the day that Jeannie first stepped in front of a microphone to record her Grammy winning song “Don’t Touch Me,” a song that permanently placed Jeannie on the map of stardom, Jeannie was in the studio laying down the vocals for this new album. Her voice is a little deeper these days, her sound a little warmer, more sultry – seasoned to perfection. And while Jeannie herself is a perfectionist, she’s learned to relax a little over the past many years and have fun while she works. “I’m not trying to start a new career,” Jeannie quips. “I’m just trying to finish the one I have!”
Still active on the road, you can catch Jeannie in concert this year at a variety of venues throughout the country. Check out her website for upcoming tour dates with Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, Moe Bandy and TG Sheppard – and hopefully we’ll see some writers’ nights added to her list of performances soon.
Jeannie’s even put together an intimate evening series with piano great Tim Atwood — a 38 year veteran of the Opry stage. Together they share stories, laughs and songs with only the piano for accompaniment. The show has received tremendous reviews and as simple as the concept is, it works, because the audience becomes part of the “friendship” these two entertainers embrace on stage.
Jeannie will tell you in a blink of the eye that making music these days is all about surrounding herself with the people she loves. One of her favorite sayings is, “We don’t get to choose our family; however, we do get to choose our friends!” and Jeannie has chosen wisely.
No doubt Jeannie will be surrounded by those old friends this summer when she celebrates the 50th anniversary of her Grand Ole Opry debut. For five decades Jeannie has brought to the Opry stage a wonderful combination of sass and class as the consummate entertainer, and on any given standing room only night, at the end of each Opry performance, Jeannie can add another 4,400 people to her list of new friends. She continues to be a fan favorite.
The legend in Jeannie gives the fans what they want to hear, but it’s that “Promising New Artist” who continues to approach every show with a girlish love and enthusiasm. “It’s all in the attitude,” reflects Jeannie. “I don’t HAVE to do what I do. I GET to do what I do. There are horizons I haven’t seen yet, and I want to see it all.”