More than an autobiography, Billy Edd Wheeler’s new book is a love letter to West Virginia.
In 1964, a boy from Boone county hit No. 3 on the U.S. country charts with a song titled “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.”
They passed an ordinance in the town, they said we’d have to tear it down,
That little old shack out back so dear to me.
Though the health department said its day was over and dead,
It will stand forever in my memory.
Don’t let them tear that little brown building down.
It was Billy Edd Wheeler’s first single and, although he would go on to write songs for everyone from Johnny Cash to Jefferson Airplane, it remains his biggest hit as a solo artist. It is also, in all likelihood, the world’s most popular song about an outhouse.
In Wheeler’s autobiography, Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, we learn that his “Ode” was inspired by cartoons in The West Virginia Hillbilly, Jim Comstock’s fabled newspaper. Those drawings got Wheeler—by then a Yale-trained playwright working in New York City—thinking about the outhouses he’d seen and used during his formative years in West Virginia.
The story is Wheeler in a nutshell. No matter where he goes, no matter which of his umpteen artistic interests he is indulging at the moment, no matter how sophisticated the elbows he’s rubbing elbows with, the man is haunted by West Virginia. It’s a little surprising, considering the 85-year-old Wheeler has spent the majority of his life away from this place he calls home. He left the Mountain State as a young teenager to attend Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. And while he has returned frequently, sometimes for months at a time, his pursuits always led him back across state lines.
Yet Wheeler is always mindful of the image he portrays of his home state. In his autobiography, he spends page after page talking about the people in his hometown who shaped him—people like Mrs. Carter, an elementary school teacher who inspired Wheeler’s lifelong love of learning and, later, hired him to clean the poop out of her chicken coop. Almost a whole chapter is devoted to Oliver Hudson, a coal prospector who, besides teaching Wheeler how to pick and shovel and use dynamite, imbued him with a Mountaineer work ethic. There’s Johnny Protan, a highly ranked boxer who taught Wheeler how to fight, and Gene Green, a coal miner who showed him his first three chords on guitar. The only West Virginian who doesn’t come off as an unfailingly heroic figure is Wheeler’s abusive and domineering stepfather, Arthur. But, in the end, even he receives more grace from the author than one might expect.
Wheeler has always been so mindful of portraying his state in a positive light that, in the late 1960s, he nearly turned down the opportunity to write a musical based on the story of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. “The idea of West Virginians shooting each other to pieces just for the hell of it didn’t appeal to me,” he writes. Wheeler eventually wrote the play, though, as well as the songs that go with it. Theatre West Virginia has staged 47 productions of the musical since its debut in 1970.
Even Wheeler’s “Ode”—which, at first glance, seems like a podunk novelty tune—was intended as a meditation on equality. “(Outhouses) were a necessary part of life, whether you were rich or poor, dumb or educated,” he writes. “One minister said he’d dreamed up some of his best sermons there.”
Yet, for all this book’s charm, it’s impossible to get past its oddly dissonant opening note. In her foreword, Wheeler’s longtime friend, songwriter Janis Ian, began this way: “To call Billy Edd Wheeler a ‘hillbilly’ is to say that a man is only as good as his beginnings.” It’s Ian’s idea of a compliment, a Brooklynite’s way of saying Wheeler isn’t what she expected of a West Virginian. Given Wheeler’s protective tendencies toward his home state, it’s a strange decision to begin his autobiography—the definitive record of his life—with a sentence so out of tune.
Ian says her friend is better than his beginnings. But considering all the supportive, loving, and clearly intelligent West Virginians we meet in Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, it’s clear Wheeler is better for them.