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Jeannie Seely travels life's highways

By John Lupton, December 2003

The cast of characters backing up longtime Opry mainstay Jeannie Seely on her new OMS release "Life's Highways" is chock-full of top level bluegrass talent that includes not only contemporary Nashville session aces like Glen Duncan and Rob Ickes, but historic names like Josh Graves and Jesse McReynolds as well. For all that, though, Seely prefers to think of it as an "acoustic" album.

"Simply out of respect for the true bluegrass artists, I wouldn't even venture to call it that. You know, I don't pretend to be able to do (bluegrass)," she says.

Her husky laughter charges through the phone line from her home in the Nashville area with the same force and delivery that's made her a formidable Opry stage presence since this Pennsylvania native hit Music City nearly four decades ago.

"I mean, certainly there is nothing about my voice that you could call the 'high lonesome' sound. I wish my voice was more like that. In fact, there was a time in my life when I idolized Jean Shepherd so much and that clear, 'ringing bell' sound of her voice. I was just certain there was no way I could ever have a career as a singer because I couldn't get the raspiness out of my voice. I couldn't sound like Jean Shepherd. And then one time, somebody said, 'Look, we've got a Jean Shepherd, let's hear what you sound like.'"That distinctive raspy, throaty vocal quality turned out to be Seely's ticket to a career of recording and performing on her own, as well as long-term associations with Jack Greene and Porter Wagoner (following her departure, Wagoner replaced her with a young up-and-coming Tennessee singer named Dolly Parton).

Since becoming a full-time Opry member in 1967, though, she has come to view the long-running WSM franchise not so much as her job, but as an extended family, and the new disc represents a family reunion of sorts that features members of the old guard and the new - Charlie Louvin, the Whites, the Osborne Brothers and Steve Wariner all make guest appearances, while the songwriting credits range from A. P. Carter to Cindy Walker to Garth Brooks to, well, Seely herself.

"I'll Be All Smiles Tonight", for example, is a Carter Family favorite that's been recorded countless times, but it has special meaning for Seely.

"I remember hearing Anita Carter sing that song. Of course, I thought Anita Carter had one of the most angelic voices I ever heard in my life, I just loved the song and her singing. But John and Marie Hartford were real close friends of mine. In fact at one time, Marie was my roommate at the big farmhouse I had out in the country, and she and John asked me to sing that at their wedding, and they were married at their house on the bank of the Cumberland River, which was just across the river from me and just barely around the bend. And again, later, the children asked me to sing it at her memorial service. John asked me to sing on several of his album projects through the years."

"Rose Upon The Riverbank" is a love ballad in the classic country mold that Seely loved for its timeless feel, the sense that it could have been written a century or more ago, even though it's of recent vintage.

Perhaps her favorite cut on the album is her cover of "It's A Heartache", a big pop hit for Bonnie Tyler some two decades ago. At first, though, Seely says she wasn't sold on it.

"(Co-producer) Billy Troy's wife, Sheryl, mentioned that song. She said 'your voice has just always sounded like her (Tyler)', and when she first mentioned that, I could not hear it at all, 'cause I was very familiar with the Bonnie Tyler cut. But then once we started fooling with it a little bit, oh, I could hear it so well, and it's ended up being one of my favorite things on the CD. In fact, to me that's the airplay cut on the album because I can see that getting people's attention and the uniqueness of it."

After so many years being backed up by electric guitars, drums and pedal steel, singing with banjo and Dobro was a different experience for Seely, but it wasn't a question of being unfamiliar with the bluegrass way. It was, after all, a form of music she grew up with in her northwest Pennsylvania hometown of Titusville.

"It seemed like all my uncles and everybody back in the country played fiddles and guitars, and my brother played banjo. I had so much of a variety of influences, really, in music, because my dad also played the '20s-style banjo, so I had all that influence, too. 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. And any holidays, when we were to- ' gether, it always ended up with pickin' and singin'."And, she recalls, it was a time when great country music was coming over the airwaves not only from the Opry on WSM, but also from the WWVA Jamboree out of Wheeling, West Va., not much more than a hundred miles away. She fondly remembers the network of small country music parks (now virtually gone) that provided a chance to see and hear their WWVA favorites up close.

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