Billy Edd Wheeler: Warren Wilson’s Favorite Son

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Red Herring/Echo Contributor

Billy Edd Wheeler speaks at his memoir release at Kittredge Theatre.

Billy Edd Wheeler, 88-years-old, walked out of his house wearing a flannel shirt, a baseball cap, and a face mask with the West Virginia University logo on it. He walked into his office, lined with gold records, platinum records, pictures and paintings, but settled at the bar of his kitchen in his quiet North Carolina home. 

Often viewed as one of the most famous and successful Warren Wilson College alumni, Wheeler is a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter now living just a few miles down road from his alma mater in Swannanoa, NC. He has written songs for over a hundred artists,  including the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers. Wheeler was also successful recording his own songs, including his top-3 country hit, “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” in 1964. In addition to being a prolific songwriter, he has written several plays, a memoir, and is now working on a novel.

While students may not be familiar with Wheeler’s name, most have heard his songs, even if they haven’t realized it. The most famous songs he worked on and wrote are “Jackson” and “The Reverend Mister Black,” both performed by Johnny Cash, along with “It’s Midnight,” performed by Elvis Presley.

Wheeler, born in a small West Virginia coal mining town in 1932, came to Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College and High School in 1948, attending the school for five years. He found a mentor and inspiration in Dr. Henry Jensen, a teacher, member of the executive committee and academic dean at Warren Wilson during his long tenure at the school. 

One of Wheeler’s favorite memories of Warren Wilson is sharing and exchanging poetry he wrote with Jensen at Jensen’s house. Wheeler first became inspired to write a song when he heard Jensen, who famously picked guitar left handed and upside down, play an original tune about Gunnertown, near Knoxville, Tennessee. He recalls being drawn to the fact that Jensen sang about real world experiences. 

“Man, I hope I can do that someday,” Wheeler says he thought to himself when hearing the song. “Really, I was inspired by him.”

In honor of Jensen, Wheeler donated the guitar that students and faculty see today on the third floor of the Jensen building. On a plaque in the display, Wheeler remarks that Jensen had a large impact on his songwriting.

“He was the greatest influence of my own songwriting career,” the plaque reads.

Friends make it clear that Wheeler is a humble and gracious person, embodying the same traits he saw in Jensen.

“Billy Edd is still a little unknown to a lot of students because he’s not a braggart,” said Rodney Lytle, who is a long time friend of Wheeler and a Warren Wilson alumnus.

“But in the real world of music, and in the Country (Music) Hall of Fame… his name is there,” continued Lytle, who has worked at Warren Wilson for more than 50 years and currently serves as the alumni ambassador.

Wheeler credits a lot of his success to random happenings. 

“Everything I achieved was by luck and by accidental meetings,” he said.  

John Miller, music instructor and teacher of the songwriting class at Warren Wilson, said Wheeler is such a good songwriter because he is a consonant artist.

“He’s a poet, he’s a playwright, he’s a painter and a visual artist, and a songwriter,” Miller said. “He has a really unique way of looking at the world. (He) sees things in the world that may not be that obvious and he just has a knack for writing a story.”

Lytle talks about what it is like to hear stories from Wheeler.

“He doesn’t forget,” Lytle said. “I felt like I was in the mezzanine section of a symphony and looking at an opera or a play.”

Wheeler, who lives with his wife of 60 years, Mary Wheeler, daughter of former Warren Wilson President Arthur Bannerman, had a direct impact on Warren Wilson’s community. He helped found one of Warren Wilson’s most famous traditions, The Swannanoa Gathering, an educational program of folk art and music workshops that is hosted at Warren Wilson each summer. Wheeler worked with Doug Orr, the college president at the time, to create the Swannanoa Gathering, and was responsible for bringing many talented singers and musicians to the program.

Perhaps Wheeler’s greatest impact on Warren Wilson would be the stance and actions he took in accepting the college’s first African American student, Alma Shippy, in 1952. When Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College was first considering integrating, Wheeler voted to integrate and asked Shippy to room with him.

Wheeler reminisces about the time he spent with Shippy on campus.

“I swear I think I sensed something in the whole community,” Wheeler said. “(Alma’s) presence was making us better people (and was) bringing out the best in us.”

Lytle said the way Wheeler views everyone equally makes him different.

“He doesn’t see anybody any different from himself,” said Lytle, who once supervised the heavy duty and multicultural crews on campus. “Not only does he love his wife and his family, he loves Warren Wilson the same.”

 

To learn more about Billy Edd Wheeler, check out a few of his songs below, visit his website, look for his artwork around campus and read his memoir: “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout,” which can be found in the WWC Campus Store or at Malaprops in downtown Asheville.