Many stories, but one theme – relationships are everything
LENOIR, N.C. – Recently, as I wrote, I had the opportunity to hear Billy Edd Wheeler of Swannanoa, N.C. tell one story after another, many which are straight out of his book, “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A hillbilly’s poet’s journey from Appalachia to Yale to Writing hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & more.”
The title’s a mouthful, but it’s appropriate, because so is every page; one sometimes wants to take a breath for Mr. Wheeler as he – with the wide-eyed excitement of a child – takes you on his journeys. An excellent story-teller – whether through songs, poetry, plays, books or simply sitting on a stage – Wheeler’s tales and songs have universal appeal. Some for their humor, some for their somber reality, and some because of Wheeler’s genuinely positive outlook on life. It seems he has been determined – whether consciously or not – to learn from every traumatic life event how to survive, even persevere.
From his simple beginnings in the deep hollows of Highcoal, W.Va., to his journeys through Nashville, New York and other places near and far and then settling in Swannanoa, Mr. Wheeler teaches an important lesson – a successful life is relationship-based. Every story Wheeler tells of his next step of success, is also the story of the person(s) that helped make that step possible.
Though clearly a motivated, talented and determined individual, Mr. Wheeler’s story is not one of self-reliance; rather, it is an account of the importance of learning from elders and working to establish and maintain lifelong relationships. There are dozens of stories of his friendships with famous people, perhaps most notably Chet Atkins and Janis Ian. There are far too many too name, but Mr. Wheeler’s view of the Nashville music scene – whether from a golf course or recording studio – provides fascinating insight into how the artist’s work must always be balanced with marketability anxieties. Because of raw talent and a congenial personality, Mr. Wheeler has aptly negotiated both worlds. Hence, his book reads like a textbook for the musician aspiring to write or perform at the highest levels.
It is also simply a narrative of a remarkable life. Mr. Wheeler’s artistic endeavors have often been interspersed with leadership positions with numerous organizations. His endless curiosity has ensured that he had multiple vocational experiences and opportunities. Those, in turn, informed the next steps in his life. In short, he has been a determined steward of his time and talents. He certainly values leisure, especially at 85, but throughout his life has never turned down a challenge.
Those interested in nearly century-old recollections of life in the coalfields of southern West Virginia will value Mr. Wheeler’s tales from his childhood, even the unpleasant ones. The challenge of bouncing from place to place during unstable periods in his childhood, and how he was determined to pave his own path through it all, is inspirational for readers of any age.
At the end, he thanks several people, including his wife Mary, “… for adding humor to the project by telling people I’m writing a book of fiction and calling it a memoir.” I suspect there is truth in both; that’s what makes for a great story-teller. Besides, one of the sweetest – and sometimes orneriest – thread through the book is the story of the lifelong love-affair between Billy Edd and Mary. They wouldn’t still be married after 55 years if either lacked a good sense of humor.
It’s worth a read to decide for yourself whether it’s fiction, a memoir, or something in between. You can get a copy at Black Mountain Books & Cases at 103 Cherry Street in Black Mountain, N.C.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.