Fans of the Grand Ole Opry are very familiar with Jeannie Seely who is a regular performer on the “show that made country music famous.”
She’s known for her quick wit, ability to engage with the crowd, and dynamic performances in her own right. But she’s also a matriarch of sorts in the way she welcomes new artists into the fold. Whether they are making their debut appearance or returning as they continue to build their music careers, if she’s making the introduction, she does her homework, sharing a little bit who they are with the audience and helping them feel comfortable.
“The real matriarch of the Opry family right now is Loretta Lynn,” Seely says, “and unfortunately, she’s not able to be at the Opry for health reasons. But I hope I kind of do what I think she would do if she was there. I remember when I first came to the Opry. I walked in and Loretta was sitting on a bench. She moved over, patted the spot beside her, and said come sit down and talk to me, I want to know you better.”
Loretta listened as she shared a few things, then Loretta had some questions of her own.
“Finally,” Seely recalls, “she patted my leg and said, ‘You’re gonna be great. They’re gonna love you because I can tell YOU love it.’ And that was that.”
Seely was inducted into the Opry on September 16, 1967. It was the year after she recorded and released “Don’t Touch Me” which became a major country hit and still serves as her signature song.
She marked her 55th this past Saturday night, then later in the show, was honored to do one of the things she loves to do most, introduce a new group or artist. This time, Chapel Hart.
“I know they let me do that because they know I love Opry moments,” Seely says. “So, having me introduce Chapel Hart on my 55-year anniversary was certainly an Opry moment.”
For more than five decades, Seely has been devoted to performing on the Grand Ole Opry, even though at times, it might not have seemed the best career-move, financially.
“Years ago, and for a long time, to stay a member of the Opry, you had to give up half of your weekends for the year,” she says. “You had to be at the Opry 26 Saturday nights every year and that’s when some of the people left because they were giving up money on the road. It was difficult, but I looked at what was most important to me. I’m not a material person and my idea of success is being able to do what you want to do the way you want to do it.”
She’s definitely made her mark over the past five-and-a-half decades, especially in terms of moving things forward for women. She pushed for female artists to be able to serve as Opry hosts, something that was reserved for men until she finally broke through in the mid-90s.
Seely also altered the way women dressed after she famously took to the Opry stage in a mini skirt.
“That was such a freak thing,” she says. “I go down in history for the mini skirt, but the significance wasn’t what I was wearing, but that it broke the mold of what everybody else was wearing. I moved here from California, and I had seen the magazines of the girls wearing gingham and ruffles, but I just thought that’s what they wanted to wear.”
Since she’d never been to the Opry, when she made her first appearance, she wore what she wanted to wear, and ended up changing things for others.
“Once I got away with wearing what I wanted to wear, the rest of them said, ‘I’m not going to iron those gingham ruffles anymore, either. Some went to pantsuits like Jan Howard, some went to sequins, others went to chiffon. Loretta went to the gowns. Everybody could now do their own thing, that’s the significance of that.”
Throughout her career, Seely has achieved status as a solo artist, a duet partner (she recorded and toured with Jack Greene in the mid-70s), and a songwriter. She also an on-air personality and host on Sirius XM’s “Willie’s Roadhouse.”
Last year, alongside fellow songwriters, Bobby Tomberlin and Erin Enderlin, Seely co-wrote her first bluegrass hit. It was a song called “If I Could,” that Rhonda Vincent recorded and took all the way to No. 1.
“I just love Rhonda so much. Since then, she and I have co-written a couple of other things and I have another song on her bluegrass album, one I actually started writing about 16 years ago.”
Her notes for that song were lost when the 2010 flood ravaged her Nashville home.
“My notes went down the river in the flood and for a long time I couldn’t remember it,” Seely says. “Then all of a sudden, the lyrics came back to me.”
In addition to songwriting, Seely is working to help bring back Ernest Tubb’s famous Midnite Jamboree, once held at his record shop on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. The shop no longer exists. But a group of new owners, including Tubb’s grandson, are working on a new show with a new format that will be recorded live at the Texas Troubadour Theatre located not far from the Grand Ole Opry.
Seely held her 55th Opry after-party there this weekend.
“I’m so excited about this,” she says. “Bringing back the Midnite Jamboree is going to give a lot of acts a new platform because it will be live, you’ll have your studio audience, and it’ll be on WSM AM 650 and WSM Online live.”
As she moves forward, Seely has some other projects in the works like an autobiography, a documentary, and hopefully more hits as a songwriter. There are other goals, too, like her longtime dream of becoming a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“That’s not something you can make happen, but if it did, I would be so truly honored and feel so blessed. And I’ve said if it can happen, I hope it can happen while I’m still active because I would like to be involved with it, like I am with the Opry.”
Seely has no plans to slow down any time soon. At 82, she says she rarely even thinks about age.
“I’ll put it this way, I don’t think about it as often as other people do.”
She can remember decades ago when people told her in her early 40s that she was too old to record this or do that. Her response back then was the same as it is now.
“Why are you more interested in how long I’ve been here than in what I’m doing today? That never made any sense to me.”
Seely says one of the things that kept her going in the past and continues to motivate her today, is her refusal to accept defeat.
“In a lot of ways when you think about it, we’re our own worst enemy in that if somebody shoves defeat at us, they win. I won’t accept it, I just won’t. If I can change it or do anything about it, I will, but if I can’t, okay, I’ll do something else. But you didn’t defeat me.”
She’s already talking about her 60th anniversary at the Opry. Continue to look for big things from Jeannie Seely.