Were COVID-19 not in the way, Jeannie Seely would have held court at the SOURCE Awards on Aug. 25, co-hosting an event that celebrates the women who are instrumental in the growth of Nashville’s music business.
Seely would’ve swapped jokes and one-liners with Brenda Lee about height and aging, likely with a little sexual innuendo thrown in to keep the crowd laughing, handling the spotlight at age 80 as well as she ever has in over 50 years as a Music City artist. Seely has been a Grand Ole Opry member since 1967, the same year that she won a Grammy for her signature song, “Don’t Touch Me.” But her comfort and command of the stage have her living out her golden years as a veritable golden girl, country’s version of Betty White.
“I’ll take that,” she says in a socially distanced conversation on her back patio that overlooks the Cumberland River. “I love animals like she does. I hope I can live as long as she has.”
She’s certainly living well. Seely hosts a regular Sunday show on SiriusXM’s country oldies channel, Willie’s Roadhouse — a role she was offered after participating in a roast of fellow personality Charlie Monk — she’s an ambassador for the Grand Ole Opry, and she’s still making new music, issuing the appropriately titled album An American Classic through Curb on Aug. 14.
The cover art treats the golden girl like a bit of a glamour girl, but the contents mine foundational sounds and ideals in popular music. Produced by music veteran Don Cusic, Classic includes remakes of her two biggest solo singles, “Don’t Touch Me” (No. 2, 1966) and “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” (No. 6, 1973), plus versions of songs associated with Dolly Parton and Roger Miller, Paul McCartney‘s “Dance Tonight” and a somewhat forgotten pop standard, “Teach Me Tonight,” associated with 1950s MOR acts Jo Stafford and The DeCastro Sisters.
“I have wanted to sing that song somewhere besides my shower since I was like 13, 14 years old,” she says of the latter tune. “It takes me back to my high school days, you know? I think it’s a very romantic song, and I don’t know that we hear that many romantic songs anymore.”
The project pairs her with a series of collaborators (mostly fellow Opry members), including The Whites, Steve Wariner, Lorrie Morgan, Bill Anderson, Rhonda Vincent, Ray Stevens, Vince Gill, Waylon Payne and Willie Nelson, who has been intertwined with Seely’s story throughout much of her career.
The Pennsylvania native first met Nelson in 1963 when she worked as a secretary for a Los Angeles record label. When she suffered multiple injuries in a 1977 car accident, Nelson aided her rebound by making her an opening act on his fair dates for several years and including her on-screen and in the soundtrack of his 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose. And when the flood of 2010 swamped the Cumberland River bank and covered her patio, house and front lawn, Nelson came to the rescue again.
“Willie called me,” she remembers. “We chatted for a little bit, and he said, ‘Well, I see that you no longer have a mailbox. Where do I send a check?’ It just makes me cry now to think of it. So he was one of the first ones to step up, offer help. And then again with the [show on] Willie’s Roadhouse, and now again with this album.”
Like others who have reached their golden years with grace, Seely remains active in the present instead of dwelling on the past. She doesn’t deny her experiences, for they inform how she handles the current moment and enabled her appreciate the leadership position she occupies, both as an icon for country acts now following in her footsteps and as someone who has lived in the business role of the women she has helped to honor through the SOURCE Awards.
“[Hosting] means a lot to me because of my years of being a secretary and working at that desk, and knowing how you had to be good at that position,” she says. “You had to know a lot of what your boss knew. There’s a lot of responsibility sitting there, and a lot of crap comes across that desk that you kind of have to sort out yourself. It’s a very important position, it’s hard work, and you’ve got to be able to use every bit of diplomacy.”
That said, Seely — much like Betty White — has figured out how to diplomatically flirt with blue humor and still maintain her shining aura. She demonstrated that when she performed “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” recently on the Opry. As she introduced the song, she casually recounted how she had written it in the early 1960s.
“Some guy hollered, ‘Holy shit!,’ and I mean the entire auditorium fell down laughing,” she says with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what I was thinking.’ Everybody was turning around trying to see who said it. This guy, I think he was drunk, but [even] with SiriusXM delayed, they didn’t get it stopped. So it went out on SiriusXM for the world.”
Seely is, in her eighth decade, getting the last laugh — honing her chops in a late-blooming radio show, calling on scads of famous friends as she releases a new album and continuing an evolution from the old-school role of quiet girl singer into one of country’s respected golden girls.
“I was never given a chance to say anything in the early years,” she says. “Once I was given a chance, I ran with it.”
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