With a career 50 years strong and still counting, Jeannie Seely has seen country music grow, and change, significantly. She’s proud, she says, of how far it’s come, and pleased to have been, in her words, “one of them on the ground floor, so to speak, that helped build the industry. And it changes,” she observes.
“There’s new technology, new ways of doing it, and heaven knows with social media and everything we have today, it has to be done different. But,” she adds with a slight grin, “I don’t have to do it―I still do mine the old way.”
Case in point: Her new album, “Written in Song,” was lovingly cut in old-school fashion― that is, in a studio, accompanied by a full band. She acknowledges that many younger artists prefer the convenience of adding their vocals to pre-prepared musical tracks, but the veteran artist prefers a more personal experience.
“I still like the atmosphere, I like the incentive, I like the excitement and the emotion of all of us doing it together. I am a team player, always have been,” she says. “And I like the fact that we’re all throwing our ideas out there, and we’re creating something together.”
The team concept is particularly fitting in this case, as it was longtime WSM air personality and Opry host Eddie Stubbs and fiddler-about-town Kenny Sears who gave her the idea and the encouragement to do her first-ever album of original songs. ” I had made the comment that I might record again if I could find some good songs, and Kenny said, ‘You don’t need to look anywhere. You need to record your own.’ And Eddie Stubbs was just persistent that I should do a whole album singing the songs I had written myself.”
Seely confesses that she struggled with some doubts about the strength of her song catalog but came to the conclusion that “it is my art, good or bad, it needs to be recorded and passed on to whoever. And if nothing more,” she adds, “it would be something for my family.”
“Written in Song,” her first album in nearly six years, will no doubt be warmly welcomed into music collections well beyond those of Seely’s immediate kin. This overview of Jeannie Seely the songwriter is one that’s surprisingly late in coming, given that her original compositions have been appearing on other artists’ records since 1964.
That was the year New Orleans R&B belter Irma Thomas released Seely’s poignant “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is,” a song with a deeply feminine sensibility unlikely to have been captured by even the best male writers. As an R&B-styled number, its appearance on the new album also lends contemporary credence to Seely’s longtime professional nickname, “Miss Country Soul.”
Chosen as the flip side for Thomas’ modest but influential hit single “Time Is on My Side” (the A-side being famously covered by The Rolling Stones), Seely’s first cut as a writer appeared roughly two years before her own chart debut, the No. 2 country hit “Don’t Touch Me.”
A torchy affair that echoes the passion and self-possession of Patsy Cline, the now-classic “Don’t Touch Me” was written by Hank Cochran, who wrote some of Cline’s most memorable songs. Seely would later wed Cochran, an early advocate for her talents who had encouraged her to leave her secretary gig at Imperial Records’ Beverly Hills office and move to Nashville, which she did in 1965.
It would be easy enough to imagine that Seely’s unusually rapid advancement―a near-No. 1 within a year or so of arriving in Music City, and Grand Ole Opry induction the following year, in 1967―was largely the product of Cochran’s clout (and his material, which comprised the bulk of her early recorded output).
No doubt, his influence in the industry would have aided her, though Seely had in fact already begun to establish legitimacy as a songwriter at a time when female pros were a rarity on the Row. She would quickly make more strides, penning songs included on chart-topping albums cut by Ray Price and Connie Smith in the mid-’60s, when Seely’s own star was still on the rise.
Price’s “Enough to Lie,” written singlehandedly by Seely, and Smith’s “Senses,” which she notably wrote with Glen Campbell, are among the tracks on “Written in Song.” Her “Life of a Rodeo Cowboy,” originally cut by Merle Haggard, is also included, as is the jaunty “Sometimes I Do,” a late-career release from Ernest Tubb.
Tubb was an early champion of the young singer, booking her on his TV show as well as on concert dates, even breaking a longstanding rule by allowing her to travel on his exclusively male-occupied bus when dates were too remote for her to reach by airplane. “[Tubb] said, ‘It was great, you’d never know there was a girl on the bus.’ A lot of people might not understand that,” says Seely, “but to me that was a great compliment. It just simply means you fit in.”
The songs she ultimately chose for the project, Seely says, were intended “to pay tribute to my peers who had truly honored me by doing my songs.” Equally personal and meaningful to the singer/songwriter are the special memories woven through the album, such as her close bond with the late Dottie West.
“Dottie was the one I could call and talk to at two or three o’ clock in the morning, when you’re alone in a hotel room. When she was in Vegas opening up for Mel Tillis,” recalls Seely, “she called and told me the shows were going great but [that she] needed some girlfriend time. She said, ‘Why don’t you just fly out and spend some time with me? Maybe we’ll write a song or two. So I did, and ended up spending almost a month out there. Every time I would start packing to go home she’d say, ‘There’s no sense in doing that, I called and cancelled your reservation.’ So I’d stay another week,” says Seely with a laugh. “But we did write this song that’s on here, ‘He’s All I Need.’ It goes back to that night in Vegas when we wrote it, and how much fun we were having.”
West, who died in 1991 from injuries sustained in an accident while being driven to a scheduled Grand Ole Opry performance, was a major force in helping get Seely back on her stage legs after a serious 1977 crash that, ironically, also occurred en route to the Opry, very nearly taking Seely’s life. Though Seely doesn’t mention this during the interview, the importance of her history of close relationships with her fellow stars, especially those who have passed on, is clearly on her mind.
“I just hope the album does well,” says Seely of her goals for the new project. “But I mostly care that it gets played . . . [and] gets the point across to whoever might be a friend, a family member, to know one more time how much I appreciate these people―and that I miss them dearly, the ones that are gone. I went into Bill Anderson’s dressing room not long ago at the Opry, and he said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. I just came in here to hug you simply because I still can.'”