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Billy Edd Wheeler


Songwriter, musician, playwright, humorist, and poet Billy Edd Wheeler was born in Whitesville, Boone County, on December 9, 1932. After high school, he studied at Warren Wilson College for two years and received his B.A. in English from Berea College in 1955. After service in the navy he went on to the Yale School of Drama, where he studied playwriting in graduate school.

Wheeler has given hundreds of concerts ranging from churches and civic clubs to Carnegie Hall, where he has appeared twice. He has written more than 500 songs, including the top hits ‘‘Jackson,’’ ‘‘The Reverend Mister Black,’’ ‘‘Coward of the County,’’ and the humorous classic ‘‘Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.’’ His 1963 ‘‘Coal Tattoo,’’ recorded by Wheeler and others, is a powerful evocation of life in the coalfields during the time of mine mechanization and a failing union. Wheeler’s songs have been recorded by Chet Atkins, Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Merle Haggard, Richie Havens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., and others.

Wheeler wrote the play Hatfields & McCoys, performed annually by Theatre West Virginia, and 15 other plays. He authored several books of poetry, including the hauntingly beautiful Song of a Woods Colt, and he co-authored with Loyal Jones of Berea College a popular series of folk humor books.

He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000 and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In March 2010, Governor Joe Manchin named him a Distinguished West Virginian.

Wheeler lives in Swannanoa, North Carolina. His memoir, Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More, was released in April 2018.

Written by Norman L. Fagan