Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Skeeter Davis

I just wanted to take a moment and look back at the career of Mary Frances Penick, otherwise known as Skeeter Davis, who became a member of the Grand Ole Opry on August 4, 1959. Had she lived, Skeeter would be celebrating 52 years as an Opry member.

Skeeter was born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky on December 30, 1931, in the middle of the depression. Her grandfather gave her the nickname of Skeeter. Skeeter grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and would sing along to the singers she heard on the radio. While in high school, her best friend was Betty Jack Davis, who was no relation to Skeeter. The two formed a duo called the Davis Sisters.

After spending some time doing local radio and television, RCA gave the duo a recording contract in 1952. Their debut record was a hit, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" and would be on the charts for six months. However, as the record was moving on the charts, Skeeter and Betty Jack were involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of Betty Jack.

Skeeter continued as a solo artist and began to establish her own career. Chet Atkins was her producer, and together they had a stream of top 10 hits, beginning in 1959 with, "Set Him Free." The one thing Chet did in the recordings that helped her career was that he "double-tracked" her recordings, to make it her records sound like they were still Davis Sisters duets. You career record of course was, "The End of the World".

After joining the Opry, Skeeter married Ralph Emery. Both Skeeter and Ralph have written autobiographies over the years detailing the marriage. Both came out of the marriage with bitter feelings toward each other, The marriage ended in 1964.

Skeeter was known for her very deep and public religious views and in 1973, she became involved in a very public dispute with the Opry over her support on the radio show of some "Jesus people", who had been arrested at a Nashville shopping center. The Opry suspended Skeeter from the Opry. The suspension lasted a little more than a year, after which the Opry, after repeated requests from fans, allowed her to rejoin the show. Skeeter was under suspension at the time the Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the new Opry House, thus she did not appear on the Opry on the night of the 1st performance at the new Opry House.

Her last hits were in the early 1970's, but even though she developed some serious health issues, including breast cancer and ultimately that cancer spread through her entire body, she continued to carry on and perform at the Opry. She was noted for her colorful outfits and skirts and later, her headbands.

Skeeter was known through out the world and she details her career in her autobiography, "Bus Fare to Kentucky."

Skeeter passed away on September19, 2004, after being under hospice care. She died single and after her death, many of her personal items were auctioned off and sold.

Skeeter's last show that I have listed was in 2001, and during those final years when she was active on the Opry, he was usually only scheduled on the 1st show on Saturday night, and mostly within the 1st two segments of the show. Skeeter's last scheduled Opry show was on Saturday February 3, 2001, when she was scheduled for the shows that night. In honor of Skeeter Davis, here is the line up from those 2 shows:

Saturday February 3, 2001
6:30: Porter Wagoner(host); The Whites; Bill Carlisle; Jim & Jesse; Jack Greene
7:00: Jean Shepard(host); Wilkinsons; Billy Walker; Hal Ketchum; Peasall Sisters; Alison Krauss & Union Station; Emmylou Harris
8:00: Jeannie Seely(host); SKEETER DAVIS; Mike Snider; Holly Dunn; Opry Squaredance Band; Melvin Sloan Dancers
8:30: Jimmy Dickens(host); Wilma Lee Cooper; Del Reeves; Vince Gill

9:30: Porter Wagoner(host); The Whites; SKEETER DAVIS; Peasall Sisters; Vince Gill
10:00: Jimmy Dickens(host); Wilma Lee Cooper; Billy Walker; Alison Krauss & Union Station
10:30: Jimmy C Newman(host); Osborne Brothers; Wilkinsons; Opry Squaredance Band; Melvin Sloan Dancers
11:00: Jeannie Seely(host); Stonewall Jackson; Mike Snider; Emmylou Harris
11:30: George Hamilton IV(host); Charlie Walker; Hal Ketchum

Just a side note: This show was only 10 years ago. But look at the list of those we have lost from that show, or are no longer a part of the Opry: Porter Wagoner; Bill Carlisle; Jim McReynolds; Billy Walker; Skeeter Davis; Holly Dunn; Melvin Sloan; Wilma Lee Cooper; Del Reeves; Sonny Osborne; Charlie Walker. That is quite a number.

In my final thoughts, Skeeter Davis was one of those Opry members who either liked or you did not. Personally, I did not care for her vocal style or songs. That is just me. But, I also admire her for the way she carried on and continued to do the Opry during her personal illness. Skeeter did not live the easiest life. She had three marriages and other issues. But, I still appreciate her talents as a member of the Opry.


  1. I'd also note, I count 23 members, including the Square Dancers, on the two shows. I guess the older artists then were still young enough to feel a little more welcome.

    Byron, I understand what you mean. I was never a big fan of Skeeter's singing, but she had style, or a style, which is something that I think we saw more of in the old-timers. And like so many of them, she just kept a-going.

    By the way, I think I remember reading that when Skeeter was suspended, Jean Shepard went to Bud Wendell and got on him about it, and he relented.

    And a Skeeter/Ralph moment. She did Nashville Now, and that was rare. But she did her song and came over and said, "Give me a hug!" Ralph said, very sheepishly, "OK, I'll give you a hug." Let's just say his hug wasn't very affectionate. So he's interviewing her and she starts telling a story about her brother, turns, and says, "You know my brother?" Ralph's eyes got big and he said, with a big smile and a slightly sarcastic tone--not unpleasant, "Yes, I know your brother!" Skeeter rattled on with the story. I thought maybe it was a spoof of Minnie Pearl. My mother said, knowing that Skeeter, bless her, could be a space cadet, she might have forgotten.

  2. I think it was in Ralph's book, or maybe Skeeter's, as I would have to look, that he was going to write about his marriage to Skeeter and leave the next page blank!!

    I had forgotten that Sketter did Nashville Now. To be honest, I thought that she had nothing to do with Ralph after the marriage ended. But, I do know that Ralph did have kind words and thoughts when she was going through her health issues and when she passed away.

  3. Ralph was the one who said it, saying he thought it would be funny and not harmful. I think she also did it when he was on vacation. Given the diametrically opposed stories they told in their autobiographies, I'm sure things were uncomfortable. I also wonder, in that often closed community that is Nashville, how their divorce affected their relationships with other people. Ralph commented that for a long time, Roy Acuff was mad at him about something, and he thought it was about a comment he made about Mr. Acuff possibly retiring. I wouldn't be surprised if it actually involved Skeeter and Ralph either didn't know it or didn't want to say it. Just an example, but I wonder.

  4. Skeeter had PEP, and we need more of that on the 'Opry. She loved life and loved singing on the 'Opry.
    No more "here's a song from my latest CD" for me.

  5. Nat, I will say that. I don't ever remember seeing Skeeter on the Opry and seeing her "down". She always came out bouncing and happy, saying hi and really looking like she enjoyed herself. And, she always gave the audience the big ones, the songs that got her to the Opry.