Then a little country girl from Crawford County, Pa., Jeannie Seely remembers all-so-well walking into Nashville’s country music landmark, the Grand Ole Opry, to sing there for the first time more than four decades ago.
“The Ryman (Auditorium, where the Opry used to be located) looked so big. Now it looks so small. But the thrill was an unforgettable thing. It was an answer to a lifelong dream,” she said in a phone interview with The Meadville Tribune this week.
Seely, who was born in Titusville, raised in Townville and forged her remarkable singing career in Meadville, will celebrate her 45th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry this weekend.
From her first show until today, the Opry has been a home for so much of her life and has produced so many memories: It’s where she broke “the dress code” by being the first performer to wear a miniskirt while singing on stage; it’s where she caught the eye of President Richard Nixon; and it’s where she shared the spotlight with countless country music superstars.
As her 45-year Opry career continues, this weekend many events are in store for Seely. Today she’ll appear as a guest on Bill Cody’s “Coffee, Country & Cody” morning show on radio station WSM 650. Saturday night she’s set to host the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree which will be broadcast on wsmonline.com. And on Monday night Seely will be Eddie Stubbs’ special guest for his monthly WSM “Intimate Evening” program broadcast from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater.
This weekend Seely will also, of course, appear on the Grand Ole Opry stage, as she does every weekend she’s not performing out of town. During the course of her 45-year membership, Seely has performed in more than 5,000 Opry shows.
Seely joined the Grand Ole Opry cast at the Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 16, 1967, following the success of her first major hit, “Don’t Touch Me.” To date she remains the only Pennsylvania native to be invited to join the world-famous Opry.
Seely’s recording of “Don’t Touch Me” not only topped the charts, but also earned her a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female. It is ranked at No. 97 in the book “Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles” published by the Country Music Foundation, and it’s also included in “The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs.”
Along with many accolades, including awards from Billboard, Cashbox and Record World, Seely achieved No. 1 songs as a songwriter, as a duet partner with Jack Greene, and as a solo artist. She scored records on the Billboard country singles chart for 13 consecutive years, and released more than two dozen albums on the Monument, Decca and MCA labels.
With Opry member Greene, Seely recorded “Wish I Didn’t Have To Miss You,” which began a series of successful duet recordings and launched one of the most popular road shows in country music history. For more than a decade the Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely Show performed at venues from New York’s Madison Square Garden to London’s Wembley Arena.
As a BMI-awarded songwriter, Seely’s songs have been recorded by seven Country Music Hall of Fame members — Faron Young, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens and Connie Smith — as well as by many other artists including Lorrie Morgan, Chris LeDeux, Irma Thomas, Dottie West and Hank Williams Jr.
Born Marilyn Jeanne Seely on July 6, 1940, her stardom began in the 1950s. At age 11 Seely was singing on radio station WMGW in Meadville, and at 16 she was performing on TV station WICU in Erie.
“Meadville will always be special,” Seely told the Tribune. “It’s where, thanks to WMGW, my dreams started coming true. It’s where I first did radio.”
And she remains proud to represent Crawford County on the Opry. “I love it when I get notes from people from (Crawford County),” she said, adding that sometimes on the show she will acknowledge the notes, but other times she doesn’t get them until after the show. She wants people to know that she’s not ignoring them. “I have wonderful memories (from growing up in Crawford County) and thank everyone for still supporting me all these years.”
Recently Randy Alan (Shaffer), local country singer from Saegertown, visited Nashville to receive a $10,000 award for a song he sang to win a nationwide contest. She got to spend time with him, was very impressed with his personality, loved his song and said she hopes to see more of him over the years.
When she moved to Nashville upon the encouragement of friend Dottie West, Seely only had $50 and a Ford Falcon to her name. Within a month Porter Wagoner hired her as the female singer for his road and television series.
Earning the nickname of “Miss Country Soul” for her deeply moving vocals, Seely became the first female to regularly host segments of the weekly Grand Ole Opry shows.
Skirting ‘the rules’
Seely’s credited with wearing the first miniskirt on the Opry stage, as well as for changing the image of female country performers.
“Country music always keeps changing, evolving. I find that now those who love something — as true country music fans — resent change.” But, she recalls, when she started her Opry run, that’s when the bands at the Opry began to add strings and drums.
“I was not considered ‘country’ (by most listeners at that time),” she recalls. She refused to wear the ruffled dresses the female country singers did. And she was not only the first to wear a miniskirt on the Opry stage but, later, also was the first to wear an outfit with a bare midriff.
The young star’s appearance was eye-catching. President Richard Nixon visited the Opry one year, which Seely describes as an “exciting time for all of us.” She was especially thrilled because he commented on her outfit — and his quotes about her made the front page of the paper the next day.
Seely becomes only the fifth female in country music history to reach the 45-year milestone as an Opry member. The others are Minnie Pearl, Jean Shepard, Wilma Lee Cooper and Loretta Lynn.
Seely’s career has included a radio disc jockey stint on her own Armed Forces Network show, military tours throughout Europe and Asia, and numerous appearances on national TV shows.
A book of witticisms by Seely titled “Pieces of a Puzzled Mind” was republished earlier this year. Seely has starred in several major stage productions including “Always, Patsy Cline” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” She also appeared in Willie Nelson’s “Honeysuckle Rose” movie and sang on the platinum soundtrack album.
Seely has been known throughout her career as an individualist, as well as for her infectious humor. Despite personal and career setbacks that range from a 1977 near-fatal auto accident to a devastating flood in 2010 in which she lost her home, car and personal belongings, Seely has remained a survivor with her sense of humor intact.
Jeannie lives along the Cumberland River in Nashville. Despite the heavy losses of the flooding two years ago, she came to realize that she didn’t need some things — and it made her aware of those in need, she told the Tribune.
Seely continues to perform at venues across the country, and she’s tapped as a performer on the Country’s Family Reunion and Larry’s Country Diner Caribbean Cruise in January of next year.
From her 1966 Top 10 Billboard album “The Seely Style” to her 2011 self-produced CD titled “Vintage Country,” Seely’s recordings have spanned six decades and provided enjoyment to country music fans around the world.
Retired Tribune writer and editor Jean Shanley contributed to this story after interviewing Jeannie Seely by telephone this week. Shanley has followed Seely’s career for decades.
on the web
Read more about Seely and check out her upcoming schedule at JeannieSeely.com.