Sunday, April 27, 2008
Like many stars of the Grand Ole Opry, Skeeter Davis was born and raised in Kentucky before reaching fame and fortune in Tennessee. And like many good Kentucky folk, her story is one riddled with peculiarities:
First and foremost, her name wasn’t even Skeeter Davis. It’s hard to fathom someone deliberately choosing “Skeeter” as a stage name, but there it is. Apparently it was her grandfather’s affectionate nickname for her, and she thought it would be a great idea to adopt it permanently. Her real name was Mary Penick, and she was born in Dry Ridge, KY in 1931.
The “Davis” name comes from her dead former partner, Betty Jack Davis from Corbin, KY. Skeeter and Betty sang together as a duo, billing themselves as The Davis Sisters. That they weren’t sisters and that Skeeter’s name wasn’t Davis didn’t seem to matter. Ms. Penick began calling herself Skeeter Davis to fit their story, and soon they had a hit record with RCA, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” which reached number one on the Country charts and hit the Top 20 pop charts.
The two were in a late-night car accident in Cincinnati in 1954, killing Betty instantly and injuring Skeeter. Rather than dissolve the duo at a time when their hit record was climbing the charts, it was decided that Betty’s sister Georgia - a real Davis sister - would be sent out on the road to take the dead one’s place singing with Skeeter. The hope was that the average listener wouldn’t notice the switch, but evidently they did - the duo bombed without Betty.
Skeeter dissolved her partnership with Georgia in 1956 and went solo, using the latest multi-tracking technology to overdub harmonies with herself. Now Skeeter was her own Davis sister. She began a long string of hits as a solo artist throughout the next decade, most notably her apocalyptically oddball pop-crossover hit “The End of the World” (which many people assume is Lesley Gore when they hear it on oldies stations).
The 1970s were not as kind to Skeeter. In 1973 she was banned from the Grand Ole Opry for making a “political speech” complaining about the recent arrests of members of a conservative Christian group. It was noted by some that Roy Acuff had, only the week before, made an onstage plea to reinstate the death penalty after the murder of Stringbean, which was just as much a political statement as Skeeter’s yet received no fallout. Skeeter was allowed to return to the Opry in 1975, but the damage to her career had already been done and the hits had stopped coming by then.
As years went by, Skeeter gradually morphed into a sort of eccentric and spacey southern hippie character, and her onstage patter provided some of the more spirited - surreal, even - moments onstage at the Opry. Having been a second-tier member of the ensemble for much of her previous tenure there, her personality and charisma tended to dominate and shine above the non-entities she was forced to share the stage with in later years.
She died in 2004 at the age of 72, leaving behind a legacy of albums that range from the majestic (Singin’ In the Summer Sun) to the puzzling (Skeeter Davis Sings Buddy Holly).