Marijohn Wilkin: 07/14/1920 to 10/28/2006
Some called her “The Den Mother of Music Row,” but Marijohn Wilkin was one of the best pack members herself. In the film Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge: Where The Music Began, she sits there between Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, reminiscing about the years when their generation of songwriters came to Nashville and raised everyone’s idea of what a Music Row song might turn out to be. She cranks up some rhythm, clapping until the two of them reach the speed to back her as she sings the endlessly covered recovery song she wrote with Kris, “One Day At A Time”.
And that was not even the best-known song in Wilkin’s provocative, substantial song catalogue. In 1959, the year after this Texan moved to Nashville to play piano at a bar in Printer’s Alley, she co-wrote two songs that would hit the charts the same day — Stonewall Jackson’s incessantly catchy “Waterloo” and, yes, that indelible saga “Long Black Veil”, a song so telling in story detail that it was often mistaken for an ancient folk tome, all the more so by those who first heard it by Joan Baez or The Band rather than Lefty Frizzell, who had the original, spookifying hit.
Marijohn Wilkin songs were grabbed up by the rock ‘n’ roll world, as well as country — “Cut Across Shorty” (Eddie Cochran, Rod Stewart) and “I Just Don’t Understand” (the Beatles) for two.
Wilkin joined the likes of Mel Tillis and John D. Loudermilk as a key member of the Cedarwood Music writers stable, and was a pioneer as a top-level woman writer and music publisher in very male-dominant Nashville (she discovered and signed Kristofferson, for instance). All the while, she remained a much-in-demand studio backup singer, sometimes joining the fabled Jordanaires, sometimes as leader of her own group, frequently seen on the Bobby Lord television show. She recorded several relatively obscure country LPs of her own for major labels before establishing a more successful performing career in gospel.
Wilkins’ songwriting took hold in the ’50s when her guitar-slinger son Bucky (later of surf rockers Randy & the Daytonas of “G.T.O.” fame), began appearing on the “Ozark Jubilee” national TV series out of Missouri; she began providing songs for the show. Acknowledged struggles with depression and alcoholism may have complicated her personal life and her health, but it never sidelined the grit and gifts of a singular talent.
Kristofferson noted, when news came of her passing on October 28 at age 86, “Marijohn embodied the spirit of the way of life to which I was to commit myself some 40 years ago….She was a tough, intelligent, and funny woman making it in a man’s world. She taught me more in the first couple of years I was in Nashville about the heart and soul of the Nashville music world than I could ever have learned on my own.”