May 11, 2008
With the voice of a honky tonk angel and the mouth of a sailor, Jeannie Seely has been one of the most forceful personalities on the country music scene since she had her first big hit in 1966.
She started listening to the Grand Ole Opry when she was just a tot, and by her early teens, she was singing on local radio shows in her small town Pennsylvania. At the age of sixteen, she began making television appearances on a station out of Erie. As smart as she was talented, Seely took business classes at night after high school, while also making appearances in local talents shows. When her car got stuck in a snowstorm, she decided to leave the chilly northeast world and move to Los Angeles.
Her business skills helped her land a banking job in Beverly Hills, but she took a pay cut to go work at Liberty and Imperial Records instead. She wrote some songs for Four Star Music and became a regular performer on the Hollywood Jamboree television series. She released some regionally successful singles on Challenge Records, and her songs were cut by Dottie West and R&B act Irma Thomas.
When Hank Cochran visited California, he caught her act and encouraged her to move to Nashville. In 1965, she showed up with $50 in her pocket, and told him she was ready, if he still wanted to work with her. He became her mentor and her husband. He gave her a song he had written called “Don’t Touch Me”, and it was an out-of-the-box smash. It soared to #2, and she won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1967, beginning a string of hits that would last through the early seventies, including duets with Jack Greene that led to four consecutive CMA nominations for Vocal Duo of the Year.
Cochran wrote nearly all of her early hits, and only two years after she arrived in Nashville, she joined the cast of the Opry. It was there that she became known as much for her saucy humor as for her smoky vocals. She became known for one-liners like “I woke up on the right side of the wrong bed this morning” and “Of course I want you for your body. I’ve got a mind of my own.”
And while she insisted she wasn’t a women’s libber, she was a powerful force in changing some of the sexist rules built into the Opry. When the manager told her she couldn’t wear a miniskirt on stage, she retorted that if members of the audience can walk in the front door wearing miniskirts, she can walk in the back door wearing one. She also stopped the demeaning way that female acts were introduced with lines like “Here comes this pretty little girl who’s gonna sing you a little song”, noting how ridiculous it would sound to introduce a male act in the same way.
In the seventies, Seely continued to have an impact on country music as a songwriter, penning Faron Young’s top ten hit “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye.” A near fatal car accident in 1976 almost ended her career, but she bounced back. In the early eighties, she toured with Willie Nelson, making an appearance on the soundtrack of his film Honeysuckle Rose. When the Opry became a television series on TNN, she was the first female member to serve as a host. She starred in several musicals and published a book of her witticisms in 1988 titled Pieces of a Puzzled Mind.
While she was known best as an Opry star and TNN talk show regular throughout the nineties, the new century brought her back to recorded music. After an appearance on Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Sweethearts project in 2001, her love for bluegrass was rekindled. This led to her first studio album since the seventies, Lost Highway, which was released to rave reviews in 2003. Today, Seely is still a powerful presence who regularly appears on the Opry more than forty years after her induction.
- “Don’t Touch Me”, 1966
- “I’ll Love You More (Than You Need)”, 1967
- “Wish I Didn’t Have to Miss You” (with Jack Greene), 1969
- “Can I Sleep in Your Arms”, 1973
- “Lucky Ladies”, 1973
- The Seely Style (1966)
- Thanks! Hank (1967)
- Can I Sleep in Your Arms/Lucky Ladies (1973)
- Life’s Highway (2003)
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Don’t Touch Me”), 1967