On the night of September 16, 1967, Jeannie Seely marked an important milestone in her music career by joining the world-famous Grand Ole Opry. The distinctive-voiced lady referred to as “Miss Country Soul” became the first - and to date, the only - Pennsylvania native to become an Opry member.
Today Jeannie makes clear that it’s still a thrill and an honor each time she performs on the Opry stage. “I feel very fortunate to be part of the Opry tradition,” the Grammy-winning singer says, “and I truly am indebted to all the wonderful fans who have supported me over the years.”
Jeannie Seely is among a select group of country artists who have scored Number One hits as a solo artist, as a duet partner, and as a songwriter.
Born on July 6, 1940, in Titusville, Pennsylvania – the town where the world’s very first oil well was drilled in 1859 – Jeannie grew up as the youngest of Leo and Irene Seely’s four children. The family’s two-story farmhouse still stands along a dirt road outside of nearby Townville, a community of about 300 folks located in the northwestern corner of the state.
Jeannie’s interest in music was influenced strongly by her parents. Leo Seely worked hard on the family’s farm and at a Titusville steel mill, but found time on weekends to play the banjo and call local square dances. Irene Seely would sing with her daughter every Saturday morning while the two baked bread together.
“I grew up in a time when all the neighbors gathered together to help each other get the hay in and that kind of thing,” recalls Jeannie. “It seemed like everybody back in the country played guitars and fiddles, and when we got together there was always pickin’ and singin’.”
When she was barely tall enough to reach the dial on her family’s big Philco console radio, Jeannie was tuning in the Grand Ole Opry on station WSM 650. At age eleven, she began singing for a Saturday morning radio show on Meadville station WMGW. “I can still remember standing on a stack of wooden soda cases because I wasn’t tall enough to reach the fixed microphones,” she laughs. By age 16, Jeannie was performing on television station WICU in Erie.
Jeannie recalls many Saturday nights as a teenager when she would sit in her family’s car, eat popcorn, and listen to the Grand Ole Opry while her parents played cards at the homes of friends.
“I also remember looking forward to attending country music shows at a place near Franklin called Hillbilly Park,” says Jeannie. “They would do an afternoon and an evening show. Mother would bake a chicken and fix up a picnic basket, and we’d just go there and spend the whole day and the evening. I was always on the ground right in front of the front row, looking up at the stage.”
At Hillbilly Park Jeannie had the opportunity to see performers like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, as well as Josh Graves who played on her Life’s Highway CD. “I still have the 8 by 10 photos I bought and had autographed there by stars like Jean Shepard, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper,” she proudly notes. “I’ve been very blessed to later become friends with many of these Opry legends.”
A cheerleader, majorette, and honor student while attending Townville High School, Jeannie sang at local amateur contests and began performing at weekend dances throughout northwestern Pennsylvania.
“Back then a lot of people made fun of me because I sang country,” she admits today. “In those days calling somebody ‘country’ was actually a put-down.” Jeannie remembers how the residents of tiny Townville didn’t believe that anyone, especially a female, could make a living by singing or writing songs. “Some people didn’t even think it was right for a girl to be singing with a band at dances,” she remembers.
Following high school graduation in 1958, Jeannie worked for three years at a Titusville bank. Initially hired as a stenographer, she was later promoted to a secretarial position for the bank’s auditor.
During this period Jeannie continued her education by completing night classes that were conducted by the American Institute of Banking in Oil City. “Those courses in subjects like business finance and law were beneficial even later in my music career,” Jeannie says. Both the local and national American Institute of Banking organizations have since made Jeannie an honorary lifetime member for her efforts in promoting the name and spirit of the organization.
According to Jeannie, it was the weather conditions one Sunday morning on a country back road that finalized her decision to move to California. “It was Easter, and I got my car stuck in a snow bank,” she chuckles. “I had to walk the whole way home in my new dress to get my Dad’s help. I decided right then and there that I was ready to make a change.”
At age 21, Jeannie packed everything she could into her car, shipped the rest to “General Delivery, Los Angeles”, and headed west. She initially took a job at a Beverly Hills bank, but left it after a year to take a secretarial position for half the money at Liberty and Imperial Records in Hollywood.
With a foot in the door of the music business, she began writing songs for Four Star Music and became a regular act, along with an unknown Glen Campbell, on the “Hollywood Jamboree” television series. Rhythm and blues artist Irma Thomas recorded a composition by Jeannie titled “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” and scored a national pop hit with it.
Jeannie’s songwriting led to her own recording contract on Challenge Records. A couple regional hits and a West Coast tour resulted, but unfortunately she received no national attention. A young songwriter visiting California named Hank Cochran was impressed with Jeannie’s talent and suggested she move to Nashville. Jeannie, however, didn’t think she was ready.
Upon the encouragement of singer Dottie West who recorded one of her songs, Jeannie finally took Hank Cochran’s advice and moved to Nashville in the fall of 1965. “When I arrived in town, I only had $50 and a Ford Falcon to my name,” she recalls. “Within a month though, Porter Wagoner hired me to replace Norma Jean as the female singer for his road show and syndicated television series.”
Initially turned down by every record label in town, Jeannie finally got the big break she needed when a recording contract was offered by Monument Records. She went in the studio and recorded a Hank Cochran ballad titled “Don’t Touch Me” on March 12, 1966.
Within only a few weeks the song debuted on the country music charts where it stayed for over five months. Although it held at the Number Two position for three weeks on Billboard, the record actually went to Number One on all the other major charts, including Cashbox and Record World. It was also a crossover hit on the national pop charts.
Today “Don’t Touch Me” is considered a standard in country music. Jeannie’s recording of the song is ranked at Number 97 in the book titled Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles written by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren. The book, released in 2003, was published by the Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation Press.
“Don’t Touch Me” is also included in The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs written by Ace Collins and published by Boulevard Books. The author writes, “Cochran’s “Don’t Touch Me” has stood the test of time like few other works. Hauntingly beautiful, poetry set to meter, this composition merits particular praise for the exquisite manner in which it relates its story of love, doubt, and commitment.”
The book describes how Buck Owens desperately wanted the song that Jeannie ultimately recorded and made a hit. Country versions of “Don’t Touch Me” have been recorded by Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Lorrie Morgan, Ray Price, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Barbara Mandrell, Roy Clark, Jack Greene, Dottie West, and many others, but none were charted singles. The popularity of “Don’t Touch Me” has crossed all musical styles - Etta James recorded a rhythm and blues version, Carolyn Hester a folk version, Bettye Swann a soul version, Eleni Mandell a pop version, and even a reggae version was recorded by Nicky Thomas.
In June of 1966 Jeannie was invited to make her first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. She received “Most Promising New Artist” awards in 1966 from all the national trade publications including Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World, as well as from polls of country music fans and radio DJs across the country.
On March 2, 1967, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences honored Jeannie with the 1966 Grammy Award for the “Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female”. Edging out friends and fellow nominees Loretta Lynn (“Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’”), Dottie West (“Would You Hold It Against Me”), Connie Smith (“Ain’t Had No Loving”), and Jan Howard (“Evil On your Mind”), Jeannie Seely became only the third female country artist to receive the coveted Grammy.
With a successful breakthrough hit, Jeannie found herself traveling from coast to coast for concert appearances. The new demands forced her to leave Porter Wagoner’s show – today Jeannie jokes that she was replaced by Dolly Parton because Dolly’s ‘hits’ were bigger.
New opportunities for Jeannie included many concert and television appearances with the legendary Ernest Tubb. On the liner notes for one of Jeannie’s early albums, the legendary Tubb wrote, “She puts heart and soul into every ballad she sings. Whether a new song or an old one, when Jeannie sings it, it becomes ‘Jeannie’s song’.”
In September of 1967, Jeannie fulfilled her lifelong dream by joining the Grand Ole Opry. She remembers her Opry induction, attended by her parents from Pennsylvania, as “a very emotional night.” “I started crying,” she recalls, “and then I encored and that was even worse.”
Often referred to as the “Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville was home to the Opry when Jeannie became a member. Although hot in the summer and drafty in the winter, Jeannie says the Ryman had a magic all its own. She fondly recalls sharing a crowded dressing room, which was actually the ladies restroom, with fellow performers like Barbara Mandrell who today lists Jeannie as one of her major influences.
After 31 years at the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry moved on March 16, 1974, to the new 4,400 seat Opry House on the grounds of the Opryland theme park. At the much-publicized grand opening show which was broadcast on over 1,300 radio stations worldwide, special guest President Richard Nixon told the audience, “Some girls have looks but can’t sing. Others can sing but don’t have looks. Jeannie Seely’s got them both.” The next day that quote appeared in newspapers across the country.
Known throughout her career as an individualist, as well as for her infectious humor, Jeannie Seely is widely recognized for changing the image of female country performers.
Jeannie is in fact credited for breaking the “calico curtain” by being the first woman to wear a mini-skirt on the Grand Ole Opry stage. “I really didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it did cause quite a stir,” she laughs. “The Opry manager even called me into his office.”
In their book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, authors Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann wrote, “Jeannie’s frank talk, striking intelligence, free-spirited life-style, and deeply moving vocals have long set her apart from most female country stars. When she arrived in Nashville in 1965, women were still expected to portray the submissive country sweetheart. Jeannie blazed a nonconformist trail from the moment she hit the Opry in her miniskirt . . . ”
A string of hit records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s solidified Jeannie’s reputation as a country torch singer and earned her the nickname of “Miss Country Soul”, a title still frequently used today. The late Marty Robbins once said, “Jeannie Seely is one of the great stylists of our time.”
When at home, Jeannie made frequent guest appearances on television shows like “Hee Haw” and “That Nashville Music”. On March 22, 1970, Jeannie was a featured guest on “Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour”.
Working with distinguished producers like Fred Foster and Owen Bradley, the blonde, blue-eyed singer recorded more than a dozen albums and over two dozen singles on the Monument, Decca, MCA, and Columbia labels.
Jeannie placed singles on Billboard’s national country music charts for thirteen consecutive years from 1966 through 1978. Among her over two dozen hits were “It’s Only Love”, “A Wanderin’ Man”, “I’ll Love You More”, “He Can Be Mine”, “Welcome Home To Nothing”, “Little Things”, “Farm in Pennsyltucky”, and “When It’s Over”.
In 1973 Jeannie transformed the hobo lament “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister?” into the Top Ten hit “Can I Sleep In Your Arms?”. The following year she adapted the Appalachian ballad “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” into another hit single titled “Lucky Ladies”.
For two years Jeannie served as a radio disc jockey on her own Armed Forces Network Show, and for several months she traveled on military tours throughout Europe and Asia. Upon returning from an overseas tour, Jeannie noted during an Opry performance that there was no U.S. flag - a patriotic symbol that she was accustomed to seeing. There has been an American flag displayed on the Opry stage ever since.
A 1969 duet recorded with fellow Opry member Jack Greene titled “Wish I Didn’t Have to Miss You” went to Number One on the charts and launched one of the most successful duos and road shows in country music history.
Nominated for numerous Country Music Association (CMA) and Grammy awards, Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely toured together for over ten years, performing everywhere from New York’s Madison Square Garden to London’s Wembley Arena.
The duo changed the format of “package shows” and was considered forerunners in opening doors and bringing country music to wider audiences around the world. Through a special invitation from the White House they were named Goodwill Ambassadors to the annual United Nations Concert.
A long list of artists - including Dottie West, Norma Jean, Tex Williams, Lorrie Morgan, Jack Greene, Connie Smith, and Doyle Lawson - have recorded compositions written by Jeannie. In 1972, Faron Young took “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” to the Number One position, earning Jeannie a BMI Songwriter’s Award.
In addition to Faron Young, other Country Music Hall of Fame members who have recorded Jeannie’s songs include Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Ernest Tubb. The lyrics to one of Jeannie’s songs was actually used for a Hallmark greeting card.
For several years Jeannie was married to Hank Cochran, the writer of such songs as “Make the World Go Away”, “She’s Got You”, “I Fall to Pieces”, “The Chair”, and “Ocean Front Property”. The marriage - the first and only for Jeannie but the fourth for Hank - finally ended in a divorce.
In 1977 the career of Jeannie Seely almost ended abruptly when she was involved in a near fatal automobile accident that left her with serious multiple injuries. “You know, it sounds like a cliche, but it’s true that your perspective changes when you have a close call,” she reflects. “What you took for granted you come to appreciate more.” It was with the help and support of best friend Dottie West that Jeannie was able to recover and get back on her feet.
Ironically, Dottie’s death in 1991 was due to injuries she suffered in an automobile accident while en route to the Opry. “I still think about Dottie all the time and miss her very much,” says Jeannie. In 1995 she served as a consultant for the CBS television movie about Dottie’s life titled “Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story”, and Jeannie was portrayed in the movie by actress Cathy Worthington.
In the early ‘80s, Jeannie performed as the opening act for friend Willie Nelson’s concert dates across the country. She also appeared in Willie’s successful “Honeysuckle Rose” movie and sang on the soundtrack recording, a contribution which earned her a platinum album.
Jeannie became the first female artist to regularly host half-hour segments of the Grand Ole Opry. Those hosting duties actually began in 1985 when she was called upon as a last minute replacement for Del Reeves, the scheduled host, who was caught in a rare Nashville snowstorm.
During the late ‘80s Jeannie starred in several major stage productions. She played Jean Shepard’s daughter and Lorrie Morgan’s mother in the 1986 country musical called “Takin’ It Home”. In 1988 she portrayed “Miss Mona” in a sold-out run of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the following year took a nonmusical role as the title character in Everybody Loves Opal.
In 1988 Jeannie published her own book, Pieces of a Puzzled Mind, containing a collection of Jeannie’s unique witticisms. Also known as “Seely-isms” around Nashville, Jeannie notes that many of the sayings actually began as song titles or opening lines.
“County music has made so many of my dreams come true,” Jeannie wrote in the book, “I just wish someone would have warned me about the nightmares.” One of the most popular quotes from the book is “You don’t have to kiss anyone’s a-- in this world, but sometimes it’s best to bend a little bit and make ‘em think you’re goin’ to.”
Jeannie portrayed lead singer Danny Shirley’s mother in Confederate Railroad’s 1993 chart-topping music video for the song “Trashy Women”. She also was featured in a video shot at Dollywood for the song “Wrapped Around” by fellow Opry member Brad Paisley who took Jeannie as his date to the 2000 CMA Awards Show. Ironically, the video was shown during Brad’s performance on the 2001 CMA Awards Show - and Jeannie could be seen in the video clip.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s Jeannie appeared frequently on shows like “Nashville Now”, “Crook and Chase”, “Music City Tonight”, “Grand Ole Opry Live”, “You Can Be a Star”, “Family Feud”, and “Prime Time Country”. She served as a regular host of “Opry Backstage”, interviewing everyone from new and upcoming acts to superstars like Garth Brooks.
County artist Lorrie Morgan recorded a song co-written by Jeannie titled “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand” for her 1997 album Shakin’ Things Up. Lorrie has credited Jeannie as being a major influence in her career and often refers to the Opry cohort as her “second mom”.
Lorrie’s father, of course, was the late George Morgan, an Opry star who became a close friend of Jeannie’s. “I admire Lorrie not only for her musical talent, but because she also inherited that wonderful sense of humor that her dad had,” notes Jeannie. “I don’t take lightly the fact that I was fortunate enough to know people like George Morgan, to work with him, and then to go on and become friends and work with his daughter. That’s pretty amazing.” Together Jeannie and Lorrie sang George’s hit “Candy Kisses” for an Opry anniversary special televised on CBS.
According to Jeannie, the past few years have been some of the busiest years of her career. Nashville music critic Robert K. Oermann wrote in his 2003 book Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, “With her chin-out, tough/tender, heart-of-gold manner, Jeannie Seely remains one of country’s most completely modern female personalities.”
In recent years Jeannie has entertained on several cruise ships, including the week-long Grand Ole Opry cruises, and for several summers she has performed at the Dollywood theme park. She’s also been part of a successful overseas tour with the “Grand Ladies of the Grand Ole Opry”.
Jeannie continues to enjoy acting and for three months in 2000 she portrayed the role of Louise Seger during a successful run of the Always, Patsy Cline musical in Atlantic City.
Along with friends Jan Howard and Rita Coolidge, Jeannie filmed the heart-warming motion picture Changing Hearts in late 2001. The movie, which stars Faye Dunaway, Lauren Holly, Tom Skerritt, and Ian Somerhalder, is now available on DVD and VHS. Jeannie portrays a comical role as a do-good Women’s Baptist League hospital volunteer named Mrs. Shelby. Proceeds from the movie help non-profit organizations dedicated to cancer research, education, and support.
Among the many honors and accolades that Jeannie continues to receive is the 2000 induction to the North America Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2003 she was honored with induction into the George D. Hay Music Hall of Fame located in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. Jeannie also received the 2003 Legend Award from Bluebird Country News.
An Internet poll conducted over a two-month period by TakinTheCountryBack.com placed Jeannie at Number Eleven among the “Most Influential Females in Country Music History”.
Jeannie and Jan Howard, who have been close friends since they first met in 1966, appeared as the official “Centerfolds” for the 2003 Ernest Tubb Record Shop Catalog. The two also appeared as part of an Opry article in the July 2003 issue of GQ magazine. In 2004, Jeannie was honored in the Nancy comic strip.
Re-released on CD format, Jeannie Seely’s Greatest Hits on Monument continues to receive strong praise, including a review in the All Music Guide to Country.
Jeannie’s music projects in recent years include a 23-song anthology CD called Personal, an album or traditional holiday songs titled Number One Christmas, and a collection of standards, fan favorites, and duets appropriately labeled Been There, Sung That.
In 2001 Jeannie sang with fellow Opry member Ralph Stanley on Clinch Mountain Sweethearts which received an International Bluegrass Music Association Award for “Recorded Event of the Year” as well as a Grammy nomination for “Bluegrass Album of the Year”.
In addition to her own recordings, Jeannie’s vocals can be found on over 60 additional compilation albums and CDs. Her vocals on the Janis Joplin hit “Piece of My Heart” appear on Bluegrass Goes To Town: Pop Songs Bluegrass Style released in April of 2002.
In the fall of 2003 Jeannie released her own acoustic and bluegrass project on OMS Records titled Life’s Highway. The album features musicians Josh Graves, Glen Duncan, Steve Wariner, Jesse McReynolds, and Buck White - as well as harmony vocals from Charlie Louvin, the Osborne Brothers, and the Whites.
Country Weekly magazine reviewed the CD and wrote, “Life’s Highway is one of the year’s most welcome surprises - a thoughtful, inventive acoustic winner that’s a much-needed slap in the face for anyone who might have forgotten how Jeannie earned her gig as one of the friendliest faces on the Grand Ole Opry. Jeannie simply owns these thirteen tracks. . . .”
When not booked on concert dates out of town, Jeannie regularly performs on the Grand Ole Opry’s Friday and Saturday night shows. Looking to the future of the Opry, Jeannie hopes for a peaceful coexistence of the old and the new. “I like adding the new talent to the Opry, but I don’t want them to ever change the Opry to where it becomes just another concert venue,” she states. “I like seeing the new artists, but value that tradition also and the uniqueness of it. And the music and all should change and will change. It always has.”
When it comes to naming names of those she applauds for understanding the Opry history and tradition – Steve Wariner, Martina McBride, Trace Adkins, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Lorrie Morgan are among those that come quickly off the top of Jeannie’s head.
Today Jeannie lives close to the Grand Ole Opry in a house that she renovated and decorated herself. She shares her quaint and comfortable home along the Cumberland River with her Shih Tzu dogs Cheyenne (who became a family member in 2002) and Shadpoke (whom she rescued many years ago and named after a ragamuffin term her late Mother used).
“Hopefully, I will see a future of doing pretty much what I have done in the past,” explains Jeannie. “I want to keep doing personal appearances and shows and what I’ve been so blessed to be able to do in my life. I want to be anywhere they ask me to be. There are plenty of life’s highways I want to travel. I’m not done yet.”