Jeannie Seely may have celebrated her 80th birthday on July 6th, but the artist known as “Miss Country Soul” is twice as busy as most artists half her age. She just released her new album, An American Classic to rave reviews. Seely also hosts a weekly radio show on SiriusXM, continues to write songs and is about to celebrate her 53rd anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Seely is having a banner year, and even though the pandemic kept her from having a big party with all her friends, she’s planning to celebrate her 80th birthday all year long. “I decided that it’s my birthday and I can make up the rules,” Seely tells Sounds Like Nashville during an interview at her beautiful Nashville home overlooking the Cumberland River. “I’m going to be 80 for a year, so I’m celebrating for a year. I want to celebrate with every friend who said they would have been at the party, but we’re going to do two to four people at a time. I get to stretch my birthday out.”
Seely loves a good party and has enjoyed past celebrations to the fullest. “On my 50th birthday, my new rule was I could eat dessert if I wanted to,” she smiles. “On my 60th birthday, I said, ‘I don’t have to eat anything but dessert if I don’t want to,’ and I had an ice cream social on the lawn here. It was just an open invitation. Everybody was welcome to come and we had so much fun!”
Though it’s Seely who is celebrating her birthday, her fans are the ones who are getting the best gift—her incredible new album An American Classic. The 13-track collection features a duet with Willie Nelson, “Not a Dry Eye in the House,” a new recording of her Grammy-winning signature song “Don’t Touch Me,” a duet with Ray Stevens on the Paul McCartney-penned “Dance Tonight” and the Celtic-flavored “Peaceful Waters,” written by Don Cusic, who produced the album.
“Don came to me,” Seely recalls of getting the offer to do the album for Curb Records. “This was the greatest opportunity given to me at this point in my career. At this age, to be given a major label deal, I was just blown away. Don called me one day and said he was going to be at the Opry and he said, ‘Any chance I could get a few minutes to talk to you about something?’ I said, ‘Sure, just come to my dressing room as soon as I get off the stage.’ I had no idea what he was going to talk to me about. I was thrilled.”
Scoring a major record label deal and releasing a new album at 80 are just the latest accomplishments in Seely’s long and distinguished career. Growing up in Titusville, PA, Seely set her sights on a music career early. “I had dreams because I knew at eight-years-old what I wanted to be and that I wanted to be on the Grand Ole Opry,” Seely says, “but I was told growing up, ‘Well it’s a great hobby, but you can’t make a living doing that,’ so I went to night school at American Institute of Banking and that’s what I worked in. When I moved to LA, I found out there were people making living singing and writing songs. I didn’t know how to make a record and I wanted to, so it only made sense for me to go to work at a record company. I saw an ad, so I applied and I got the job at Liberty Records.”
While on the West Coast, Seely began singing on demos and her sultry voice began attracting attention. Soon she was offered a record deal. She was also gaining a reputation as a songwriter of considerable skill. Her songs were getting cut by Dottie West, Tex Williams and Connie Smith, among others. However, moving to Nashville and performing on the Grand Ole Opry was always Seely’s goal and she made that dream come true.
“As a child listening to the Opry, I would hear Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield and Mr. Acuff and all of them,” she says. “They all sounded so fun and like they all really loved and cared for each other. I thought, ‘I want to be a part of that family.’ When I talk about my pride in the Opry, it is not just the show, it’s the relationships with everybody there. The Opry family is not just the artists, it is the band, the office staff, the stage crew, lighting, security, the hostesses. It takes every single one of us to work together to put on that wonderful show and to make people feel welcome and taken care of. That’s the whole picture of the Opry to me.”
In September, Seely will have been part of the Opry family for 53 years. Her Opry membership, Grammy win and being honored with a doctorate last December from Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) are among the most treasured accomplishments during Seely’s stellar career. Getting her doctorate was an especially pleasant surprise. “This was not something I ever dreamed of being honored like that, so that’s just very special to me. I don’t require people to call me Dr. Seeley all the time,” she says with a sly grin. “I loved Dr. Ralph Stanley and that’s the same university that bestowed his Doctorate of Music. It’s so great. I just wish he would still be here so we could celebrate together. I was always so proud to introduce him as Dr. Ralph Stanley on the Opry. I miss that gentleman.”
Of course, Seely isn’t one to rest on her considerable laurels and her new album is proof. It’s a well-rounded project that spotlights Seely’s soulful voice and her ability to deliver any type of tune from a playful up tempo like “That’s How I Roll,” which features Lorrie Morgan and Vince Gill, to the tender ballad “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight,” penned by her former husband, the late Hank Cochran.
In recent years, Seely has produced her own albums, but in crafting An American Classic, she relied heavily on Cusic. “I really tried to leave myself open to Don because I’ve been doing all my albums myself, so I thought, ‘He’s a brilliant man, historian, producer and this may be your last opportunity ever to work with a producer.’ He must have heard something to want to work with me, so I tried to leave myself really open to what he wanted.”
In addition to the duet with Nelson, the album features other intriguing collaborations, including “If You Could Call It That,” recorded with Steve Wariner. “Ron Harman, my adopted little brother, has a lot of Dottie West’s memorabilia. He was going through some stuff and found this song she had started and he took it to Bobby Tomberlin and Steve Wariner to finish it,” Seely explains. “It’s almost like she was sending them lines for this song because I think that’s what she would have written. I can’t even imagine how upset I would have been if they had given this song to somebody besides me. I’m so grateful. And while I normally try to not sound like anybody, especially Dottie, there were some lines in it that I just simply channeled her. I could hear her so I just did it. I got to finish something she started.”
Sharon and Cheryl White lend their distinctive vocals to the album’s opener “So Far, So Good.” Bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent joins Seely for “All Through Crying Over You” and singer/songwriter Waylon Payne joins Seely on “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” It was a full circle moment for Seely who knew his parents Jody Payne and Sammi Smith.
“Jody was Willie’s guitar player for 35 years and when I was doing some shows with Willie, he had recorded an album and he asked me to do a duet on ‘Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You).’ Then one night, Waylon was scheduled on the Opry and he called me and he asked if I’d do that song with him on the Opry like I did with his dad. So we did. Then I was listening to playback on SiriusXM on the way home and thought that sounded really pretty good,” she says. So she decided to invite Payne to join her on the album. “It brings a younger generation in… Sammi Smith was his mom and I knew her. I remember when he was born. He’s such a talented young man.”
In addition to her soulful voice, Seely has long been known for her quick wit and spirited personality, which make her a perfect radio host. She’s been doing “Sundays with Seely” on Willie’s Roadhouse Channel on SiriusXM (Channel 59) every Sunday. “I never even thought about it,” Seely says of hosting her own show, but after seeing how funny she was while roasting industry veteran Charlie Monk at a charity event, executives at SiriusXM came calling. “I can’t believe it’s been two years already. I’m having a good time.”
With all that she’s accomplished, it’s hard to believe Seely isn’t a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame yet. Many people think she’s already been inducted, and those who think she should already be a member have launched a grassroots campaign to get folks’ attention. Obviously, Seely would welcome such an honor, but when asked about her bucket list, her thoughts turn to the music she’s yet to make. “There’s some other recording projects I want to do,” she smiles. “One of the songs I’m so happy about on the new album is ‘Teach Me Tonight’ because I’ve loved that song. Don said he wanted to find an old pop song I said I knew exactly the one. I’ve wanted to sing that somewhere besides my shower since I was 13 or 14-years-old. I’ve always loved this song. Someday I’d like to cut a whole album of those songs from like the 40’s and early 50’s, songs like ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ and ‘My Blue Heaven,’ all those kinds of songs.”
Though those classics have been recorded by many artists over the decades, it’s a sure bet when Miss Country Soul unleashes that distinctive voice, they’ll sound brand new. Now that’s something to look forward to.