NOTE: On December 12, 1973, after 15 years as a star of the Grand Ole Opry, Skeeter Davis was suspended as a member of the Opry and has not appeared there since that time.
The following interview took place at Skeeter's home in Brentwood, Tenn. in late August.
CMB: What is your relationship with the Opry now?
Skeeter: I still love it. But I haven't heard from them since last December, since I've been suspended. When that happened they said they'd call me, but it's been almost a year and they haven't called me.
Nor did I get invited to the dedication [of the New Opry House] although my secretary did.
CMB: Do you want to sing on the Opry again?
Skeeter: I would love to. I think the thing about it though is that I'd have to go back just as I came.
In 1959 I signed with the Opry and no one ever told me "Skeeter, now you're not allowed to sing gospel songs or religious songs, or say anything about being a Christian." In other words there was never anything told me like that, there was never anything said at all.
CMB: Has the Opry ever come down on anyone over the issue of religion before?
Skeeter: Not to my knowledge. Also, the reason that so many people have been shocked, and I can tell you they have been, all over the world, at the Opry suspending me, is because they thought of the Opry as being a "religious" in quotes, type of program. Not that it did all gospel songs, but they figured the Opry is run by more or less religious people. I don't even like the word religious. What I told people was that I was a Christian, I'm not that religious. But I am religious about getting to the Opry every Saturday night when I'm home.
CMB: What was your relationship with the Opry before this all happened?
Skeeter: You know, I had just come in off the road from a very busy year. I worked continuously and was home very little. So when I came home I knew that I wanted to make up my weeks at the Opry. We have so many weeks to perform to be a member. And as everybody knows, the Opry doesn't pay very much, and you can make a lot more on the road. But that's where my loyalty was, to the Opry. I always felt like the Opry was my home. When I look at the oldtimers, the backbone of it, someday, I think, if I'm still singing I'd want to be there. I'd like to be able to go down from my farm and sing a song on the Opry.
So I would sacrifice dates to be there. It just happened that I had such a busy year that I was afraid that I was going to get kicked off, that's the truth. I talked it over with my people. I told them "It would kill me. It would just kill me if I were to get kicked off the Opry." I decided that I would stay home the rest of the year. I really worried about it so, that I started checking to see how many appearances other people had made. I loved the Opry that much that if they had told me that I wasn't on enough weeks I was going to say neither were other people. I didn't do that being ugly, I hope everybody understands that. I did it because it was going to be my security, to get to stay. So I arranged to stay home. I also wanted to be there at the Opry for those last weeks at the Ryman.
CMB: How did Christ Is The Answer come into the picture?
Skeeter: As a Christian I usually go to different churches when I'm on the road. I met the group called Christ Is the Answer in Indianapolis. Me and my musicians went to their tent meeting. People refer to them as Jesus people, but it's a group of Christians who travel all over. It's a straight, strict, Christian organizaion. No drugs, no premarital sex, there's nothing like that. It's all strict Bible-believing Christians.
There's a lot of married couples in there too, some over thirty; but people only notice the young ones who've got the long hair. Boys with beards and girls with long dresses, and they frown on that a bit which I don't understand.
Anyway, in Indianapolis they told us they were coming to Nashville. I said "Hey, maybe we'll see you there."
Well sure enough they came to Nashville. The evangelist came down with my drummer, at the time, and he introduced me. There were some more from the group at the Opry, in the balcony. I said I wanted to sing a song for a group called Christ Is The Answer, Jesus people who were in Nashville having a tent meeting. This was on a Friday night, two weeks before my suspension. I said I'm really happy they came to town and ya'all have to go down to their tent meeting if you get a chance. And I did "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."
Then on the following Saturday night I sung my hit record, "I Can't Believe It's All Over," and again I said something about the meeting.
Well nobody said a word to me. In fact I talked to Mr. Wendell [Opry manager] a lot that night because I was so happy to be home, at the Opry. I was bubbling over I was so happy. He knew how happy I was.
The next Friday night my secretary asked Mr. Wendell's secretary if she could schedule my spots early and late because I was going to the meeting. She said sure, and she did.
On Saturday night I did a spot at 7:30, then I left and went to the tent meeting.
Then I went to the shopping center where I saw that they had arrested some of the Jesus people there. They'd arrested 15 of them but when they got to the paddy wagon they could only get 11 of them in. So they told the rest of them to get lost, and that's the truth. And let me say I do believe in authority. I do believe in police. But I was really shocked. I started asking people what are they doing this for? Why are you having Christians arrested? They (representatives of the shopping center) said they didn't want them to scare the people off and bother them. So I went over and started asking people if these people were bothering them. They said no, they thought it was really something, especially at Christmas. That was the whole thing.
I went back to the Opry for my 10:30 spot. I had planned to do my hit again, but instead when I went out I said "This is really something I should share. I didn't ask our manager, but they've arrested 15 people just for telling people that Jesus loves them. And that really burdened my heart, so I thought I should sing you all this song. I did "Amazing Grace."
Well the people in the audience started singing with me. When I walked off, one of the policemen told me "I'm ashamed of you. Why did you do that?" And I was surprised at him. I said "What do you mean? I'm a Christian and I'm just trying to lift up Jesus. Are you a Christian?"
He said "Of course I'm a Christian, but what's that got to do with it?"
I said, "I don't understand why ybu should be so mad at me?"
He said "Well, you made the police look real bad by telling that we're arresting Christians."
I said "Well it'll be in the paper tomorrow."
And it was in the paper the next day. On the front page.
Then 2 days went by and Mr. Wendell called me and said we've got a problem. He said that this thing I said the other night, that I acted as a spokesman for National Life and the Opry. I said, 'no I didn't.' I even said I hadn't talked it over with anybody. I don't understand why I even said that. Usually I just said whatever I was going to say.
He said "The Opry is not a place for religion or politics."
Later, I said to someone, I listened to the Opry but I heard the President, so it couldn't have been the Opry. But it was. I couldn't help being hurt, I tried not to be. I kept thinking I can't be bitter or ugly. But it hurt my friends too, I think it hurt them as much as it did me. I've had letters, calls, telegrams but I never encouraged one bit of publicity on it. Attorneys wanted to take the case, to have me sue National Life, the Grand Ole Opry.
They told me someone who tapes the Opry had taped Roy Acuff the week before I said that, that's when Stringbean and Estelle had been murdered. Roy Acuff said on stage that they should restore capital punishment and he wished that they could get the murderers of String and Estelle and hang 'em. He probably don't even remember saying that, because he spoke out of emotion, just like I spoke out of emotion. But people said "how can they do this to you and not to him?" Because how political can you get when you say on the stage of the Opry that they should restore capital punishment? It's just a sad thing.
CMB: Where have you been working this year?
Skeeter: I kind of wonder why it all happened but I think it was really meant to happen. Since this happened it gave me a chance to go places I've put off going because of my allegiance to the Opry and the people in Nashville. In March I went to South Africa and Nigeria. After the African trip I worked with the crusade for three days in Ft. Lauderdale. Then I went to Norway for a seven-day tour with a group called Kurt and Roland and a band called Country Comfort. We did country/gospel concerts. Then I went to Denmark and finally back home.
Between March and June I was overseas four times. I had a chance to go see people who have loved me and wanted me to come over for so long, but I always had to put it off for lack of time.
I've been to some of these places before, except Africa, with tours. But we always flew in and out. This time we traveled by car, a big one with airplane seats built for a band to travel in. Seeing the country was really exciting.
CMB: Obviously you're known to the audiences in Europe. How did you find the reception there?
Skeeter: They're different from American audiences. There's nothing more enthusiastic than an overseas audience. They're almost grateful to you for coming. They applaud like this (Skeeter clapped her hands in a regular 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .4 . . . rhythm) all together.
In our shows we were doing country/gospel in two sections. I was giving people a chance to leave if they didn't want to hear the gospel part. Jesus didn't force himself on anybody and I didn't want to force my belief on anybody. I wanted to share it, to share what happened. I didn't even mention about the Opry over there at all.
CMB: Are the overseas audiences aware of the Opry and what it means?
Skeeter: No, they're not aware of it. It's funny, in Japan they're very Opry minded. In Sweden the Opry doesn't mean all that much to them. There've been very few singers who've been there.
CMB: What kind of an audience was it?
Skeeter: That was so strange too. So many young people were in it, like the people you see at a rock concert here. I don't think there was hardly anybody over 25.
CMB: Did you get a chance to speak to the people who came?
Skeeter: Yes, but that's so different too. You don't sign autographs. They're more shy. Much more reserved. They applaud, they're really happy to see you, but if you go out and talk to them they are afraid that you're above them. In England it's a whole different thing. But in the places that I was, Norway, Sweden, they must have thought that I was a princess or something. That's when I called home and cried because I said they loved me too much. That's the truth. They just wanted to touch me. I had to have police protection.
CMB: Did you find any problems with the language difference?
Skeeter: Most all the young people there have been learning English from the third grade. The only problem was that I talked too fast. After the first show I had to take care and talk slower. But I got to where I really relaxed. And I've got to tell you a secret, it's like I've not enjoyed working so much here since I've been back. Though the people here have been great.
CMB: What are your plans for this next year as far as performing?
Skeeter: Well a strange thing's happened, a thing that really hurts me that I wish all the fans and country music people would understand. I've had a lot of mail, I can't tell you how much, from people who were shocked that the Opry did this to me. And I do say did this to me because I really don't think that I wronged anybody. Because it was news and in the paper that the Jesus people had been arrested. And it hurt my people.
It hurts me that some of the acts, the first week I went down after that happened, they acted like they didn't know how to treat me. People that have always been so friendly to me, and I've got a lot of love in my heart and I express it. All of a sudden these same people that had been so nice were afraid, almost like 'what can we do now?'
My neighbor told me the other night "Skeeter, I want you to know you haven't lost one friend." But it's like if all these people would say something. And it really hurt me when people said I shouldn't say anything about the police now when they're trying to solve Stringbean's murder. I loved Stringbean and Estelle. I was very close to them. But Stringbean's murder had nothing to do with what happened to me and why should that even be brought into it. So I got a lot of hurt like that.
But to get back to the question, you won't believe the dates I had cancelled on me. I've worked so little this year.
I talked to my agency and they said they don't know what to do. They don't know what the Opry's going to do. So all of a sudden I had cancelled dates.
Up till now I had no work in October. Yesterday the agency called and said I've got a couple of dates. Last year I worked right up to December.
CMB: Have the promoters not offered you dates because of the problem with the Opry?
Skeeter: Apparently. The agency tells me they don't know what to do. These promoters all come in for convention say, and they're on good terms with Mr. Wendell or somebody, it's almost like, if they don't like you . . . we love you but we can't use you.
CMB: Do you think that they're afraid of offending the Opry?
Skeeter: Yeah, which really hurts me. And that's another reason why I think I've been wronged.
So where I go from here is just where the Lord leads me I suppose.
But so many new things have happened for me that maybe it's just the kick I needed to have more time to put into something that's a lot more substantial in the end.
CMB: I'm curious about what you want to do as far as music now? After all those years of records , all the hits, you've done about everything. What I'm really wondering is if you get bored with it?
Skeeter: That's nice. Yes I do get bored with it [Skeeter is laughing as she says this]. Really sometimes I do. Maybe I shouldn't say that but it's true. I tell you, here's what I've been thinking. What I'd like to do now that I've made a strong stand where people can really see my Christian conviction, what I'd like is if I could do some good gospel songs, but do it with heavy arrangements to reach more people. Why should gospel music always sound the same? I'd like to do that and record my other songs too, because I think I could reach more people that way.
I think I really found the answer over there because, like I said, I had this young audience and I think that's a good time to reach people. If I can point in the right direction, that's even better.
CMB: Have you tried any shows like that in this country?
Skeeter: No. But I wonder if that was what the Lord was trying to show me? I'm going to be honest in whatever I do.
CMB: Do you think that the audiences that you've been playing to over the last few years here would come to a show that was both Christian and entertaining?
Skeeter: I think so. But you know what else is funny? I had some dates cancelled because the promoter thinks like 'does she preach now?' One promoter asked my guitar player the same thing and the band told him "we think you'll be happy. She does whatever she feels like, but we don't think you'll have any complaints." The show was outside of Roanoke. Now I had the biggest crowd they had there in 15 years. The promoter was beside himself he was so happy.
I did my songs. Told people that I was saved when I was 18 and sing a song that tells how I feel. I close my shows with "I Believe In Music" and tell people that no matter what other kinds of songs I've done on that stage this would kind of sum it up. In the last chorus I say "I believe in Jesus, I believe in God" and I kinda close that way.
I've worked two parks this year. People didn't book me because they were afraid, they thought people wouldn't come, whatever. But promoters a lot of times and disc jockeys, don't give the people enough credit.
In Lincoln Park in Massachusetts I had the biggest crowd they had all season. But the rest of my dates all of a sudden have been cancelled.
Last weekend we worked a fair in Canada, two days, and we had over 20,000 people.
But there again I think that's what the Lord's trying to show me. That he can use me. That I shouldn't give up on my music. I don't think I should jump out of this and just get into religious work. I don't think that's what He wants me to do. I think that that would be turning my back on the challenge I have in going on, doing my shows and being in a situation where I can reach people who are Christians and people who aren't.
If I can do some little bit to spread the light then I'II be happy.
CMB: One last question. Since the Opry suspended you, you say they haven't gotten in touch with you again. Have you tried calling them?
Skeeter: Yes, I called them a couple of times and they just said no, it's still nothing. We'll just let you know. But they never called.
You know, I feel like sometimes that they were insulted by all the stuff in the paper, but there again they have to be like me. I didn't say a lot that was in the papers either. We're at the mercy of writers. Like the writer who wrote in the San Francisco paper that the Opry had fired me and my career with RCA was hanging in the balance and my record producer was fired because of this thing. And none of that is true. I was suspended not fired, and I'm finishing up 21 years with RCA at the present time and Ronnie Light was not fired because of this.
But I'll tell you something, if you write the truth about me it'll be exciting.
It's really strange though, going this far and everything and it seems like to me that things came against me all of a sudden. I don't know why. It just shocked me.
I came to the Opry first as a fan, when I was in school. Betty Jack (Davis) and I. We started in the balcony and kept moving till we was on the front row. And that's when we got to go backstage. We talked to Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, got all their autographs . . . and I still got my book.
When I signed with the Opry Art Devine was the manager. I went up there that day with Ernest Tubb, I was fixing to leave on tour with him. When they gave me this little piece of paper to sign I said "I've got my own pen" because I wanted to save it. When we left, Ernest Tubb said, "Skeeter, you've got something I don't have. That little contract. Ain't nobody got a contract that I know of." I'm the only one with a contract that ain't on.
But I still got my pen. I guess maybe someday I'll give it to the Hall of Fame, if they want it.
CMB: Any regrets?
Skeeter: The only thing that really gets me uptight is that I went this far and gave this much of my time . . . and it wasn't all just for me. If it had been just for me then well . . . so what, it's been good to me, though I had a lot of ups and downs.
So it hurts me, if this was the end of Skeeter Davis. If I had to go out like this, then it kind of turns me around.
But I'm not one to sit around and be bored.