About The Artist
Molly O'Day was once heralded as one of the most significant girl country singers in spite of a professional music career that lasted for only a decade. Lois Laverne Williamson was born in one of the more remote parts of Pike County, Kentucky where according to her own description, "they had to break daylight with a sledgehammer and the ground hogs carried the mail." The young girl grew to adolescence listening to and idolizing country radio singers such as Lulu Belle, Patsy Montana, Texas Ruby, and Lily Mae Ledford. LaVerne and her brother Cecil (later known as "Fiddlin' Skeets") learned to play guitar and fiddle mostly by listening to their favorite radio musicians.
In 1939, Skeets went to Charleston, West Virginia and got a job playing fiddle with the fledgling band Ervin Staggs and his Radio Ramblers that also included Johnnie Bailes (of later Bailes Brothers fame). He told them about his singing sister who soon joined them using the name "Mountain Fern." After a few months, they went back home, but soon began playing a new, but small station WBTH in Williamson where older second brother Joe (Duke) played banjo with them. Soon, however, she and Skeets again teamed up with Johnnie Bailes at WJLS Beckley where she took a new nickname, "Dixie Lee" Williamson.
Wishing to remain in radio, Dixie Lee wrote a letter applying for a job at WHIS Bluefield with Lynn Davis and his 49ers who were established at WHIS. Leonard "Lynn" Davis (B: December 15, 1914 — D: December 18, 2000) had been born in Johnson County, Kentucky and had first worked weekly at WSAZ Huntington, West Virginia in 1932 while still working in the coal mines. A couple of his songs had been published in Asher and Little Jimmy Songbooks and from 1936 went to Bluefield briefly before joining up with Shorty Fincher. After the 1936 election (Fincher's group evidently worked in the Landon campaign), he came back to Bluefield and organized the 49ers. In the summer when musicians often had to scramble if they had a seasonal sponsor (cough medicine was an example), Lynn went to KVOO Tulsa and the Saddle Mountain Roundup. He had a pair of cowgirl singers — Sue and Ann Mason — from Reading, Pennsylvania, but one got married and the other went back home. Dixie Lee's job application was not only well-timed, but it sparked a romance which resulted in an April 9, 1941 matrimony. Henceforth their careers were intertwined.
Late in 1941, the band went to WAPI Birmingham where their programs were broadcast on an eight-station hookup that blanketed Alabama and their band included fiddler Marion Sumner, Walter Bailes, and Jimmie Barker from their Bluefield group. It was during their Alabama days that Lynn and Dixie Lee first became friends with Hank Williams from whom she learned Grady and Hazel Cole's "Tramp on the Street" as well as some of Hank's original songs. This acquaintance would later play a role in both of their careers.
Paul Groah wrote an article in the Big C Writeup in 1964 about Molly's Career. He never met Molly, but he had talked with several who knew her.
Later in 1942, Dixie Lee and Lynn went to WHAS Louisville and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance on Saturday nights. In Louisville they met legendary fiddler Clayton McMichen who suggested that Dixie might want to change her name as that one was already in use. Henceforth, Lois LaVerne Williamson Davis became "Molly O'Day," a name she would carry to the grave. According to one story, General Douglas MacArthur listened to her programs from far-away Australia and was much impressed with her rendition of "The Drunken Driver." They remained in Louisville / Renfro Valley until early 1944 except for several weeks in the summer of 1943 when they returned to Alabama to fulfill some prior commitments.
When Lynn and Molly left Renfro Valley in January 1944, they went back to West Virginia and spent most of the year at Molly's one-time spot WJLS, Beckley, West Virginia. They reverted to the older band name 49ers since they had been known as such during their Bluefield days. In Beckley, they added Burk Barbour, a quality fiddler to their entourage, but when they relocated to KRLD Dallas for three months until May 1945, they took no additional musicians with them. Their stay in Texas was brief, but they did remain long enough to cut a large volume of transcriptions for the Sellers Corporation, most of which have yet to surface (only seven known per Ivan Tribe) that also had the services of Alfredo Caesares on fiddle.
Then in May 1945, the couple came to WNOX Knoxville where they hit their stride. Their group had the services of the Lilly Brothers for a time. But as World War II came to an end their band, renamed the Cumberland Mountain Folks, included a friend from their West Virginia days, George "Speedy" Krise on Dobro, Skeets Williamson on fiddle, and Mac Wiseman on bass fiddle and featured vocals. Fred Rose, who knew Lynn from both of their short stints at KVOO, heard Molly sing on the Mid-Day Merry-Go Round and thought that there was a voice that would fit the compositions of Hank Williams, who Acuff-Rose was in the process of signing to a writer's contract. As one might say, the rest is history.
Molly did her initial session with Columbia on December 16, 1946, recording two Williams numbers among their eight songs. "Tramp on the Street" was the best number that she had got from Hank, but he did not write it. "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels" and "Six More Miles" were composed by Williams and "The Drunken Driver" also did well. Lynn and Molly would eventually do a total of 36 numbers for Columbia through 1951, divided between her solo numbers and their duets.
Further research into that first session which was said to be at radio station WBBM's CBS Studio, then located in the Wrigley Building. Besides Molly, others on the session included her husband Lynn Davis, George (Speedy) Krise on dobro, Mac Wiseman on bass and Cecil (Skeets) Williamson on fiddle. The producer for that session was Art Satherly. Her next recording session would be in December 1947 at the Castle Studio in Nashville.
In a 1977 article in Country Music People (UK), John Atkins describes Molly, "...Her voice defies description, as Molly O'Day packs more power and guts into a song than most people will ever portray in a lifetime of singing. Certainly Molly has no parallels in modern Country Music..."
Ironically, as Molly's level of popularity was reaching new heights, she became increasingly uncomfortable with success and show business. She began feeling as though she had backslid from her childhood commitments made in the Pinson Fork Church of God she had once attended back in Pike County. If she rode on Knoxville busses, her name and pictures advertising her records and radio programs upset her nerves. She later concluded that she had sung herself "under conviction."
While she was in Knoxville, a future member of the Country Music Hall of Fame was struggling early in his career and was part of her band. Skeets Williamson recruited Carl Smith to be their bass fiddle man. He sang one song and got a little bit of mail. But Carl gave it up after ten weeks and then joined Archie Campbell's "Country Play House" where he got to sing a couple songs a day.
Finally, Lynn agreed to leave Knoxville, and the couple purchased a grocery store in Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky. This worked out fine until a mine strike crippled their business and they lost most of their life savings. During this time, they did go to Nashville and on December 28, 1947 cut another eight songs for Columbia including "Matthew 24" and "At the First Fall of Snow" as well as two more Hank Williams originals, "Singing Waterfall", and "I Don't Care if Tomorrow Never Comes." Speedy Krise was again available for the session and the sound was much the same.
Necessity forced them back into radio, but they tried to avoid Knoxville by going to WBIG Greensboro, North Carolina, where for their next session (April 4, 1949), they had the services of Slim Martin on harmonica and Skeets Williamson back on fiddle. Molly played clawhammer banjo and sang on what may be the definitive version of "Poor Ellen Smith" and a dead soldier ballad "Teardrops Falling in the Snow." Martin was also featured on their last Williams song, "On the Evening Train," a sad ballad reminiscent of "In the Baggage Coach Ahead," but totally original.
Soon, however, they received another call from Knoxville where WROL was trying to mount a serious challenge to WNOX and their management met a price that Lynn thought would be rejected, but it wasn't. Slim and Skeets accompanied them, but as Molly's nervous problems returned their stay lasted only a few months. They spent their last days on live radio at WVLK Versailles, Kentucky. They fulfilled their Columbia commitments in 1950 and 1951 recording only sacred songs with the exception of the temperance ballad "Don't Sell Daddy Anymore Whiskey" that is memorable for the crying baby that Columbia inserted into the sound track. A 1952 session was cancelled because of Molly's being ill.
At the beginning of 1950, the Davises came to Huntington, West Virginia where Lynn bought a small roadside restaurant. They attended a Church of God revival and Molly nd Lynn renewed their commitments to Christ. Contrary to widespread belief, it was Lynn who became the evangelist-minister and Molly simply assisted, sang some, and could testify for long periods of time in a virtual autobiographical manner. Or as Lynn phrased it, she occasionally "cut loose and preached a little." Lynn studied at a Bible college in Saskatchewan in 1951 where one of the music instructors named Bernice Brostrom contributed their last Columbia song, a duet titled "When We See Our Redeemer's Face."
Lynn and Molly did not record again until 1961 when they cut an album at home titled Molly O'Day Sings Again for REM (subsequently also released on Starday and Old Homestead). It contained some new songs (for them) such as "King Jesus Will Roll All Burdens Away" and "I'll Face Nobody's Record But Mine." At the end of the 1960's, they did an album for Ray Anderson's GRS label The Soul of Molly O'Day that included a pair of Louvin numbers and two P. D. (Public Domain) offerings. That proved to be virtually the end of their recording career except for a couple of home recordings that Old Homestead placed as fillers on a memorial album that Lynn had not authorized.
Lynn continued doing evangelistic work and also investment counseling from time to time and he and Molly lived more or less permanently in Huntington. In 1974, they started a gospel program playing records on the Christian station WEMM-FM in Huntington where they soon acquired a large and faithful audience within the born again community. They continued this program for the rest of their lives although in her last months Molly's declining health caused her to be frequently absent and sometimes hospitalized. She died at age sixty-four of cancer. Lynn continued doing the program alone from his home. On the day of his death, he was preparing the program and called the station as usual at 12:50 PM prior to going on at 1:00 PM.
As a long time friend, I (Ivan Tribe) attended both funerals. Although Molly's death was widely reported, no one from the CMA made any contact. The only media people there was just myself (who had written several pieces in country music about them) and a Huntington reporter who had introduced several living legends to a segment of the populace. Molly later became one the first inductees into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2011, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame honored her as well.
Upon her passing, many accolades and compliments were noted in tribute to her contributions. Robert Shelton, former country and folk music critic for The New York Times said, "...once called the greatest woman singer in country music." Earl Scruggs told of her beating him once in a banjo contest in Renfro Valley, KY and admitted he stood in awe of her singing and banjo-picking talents.
In a 1974 article, author Bill Malone noted that, "Molly is the 'female equivalent' of Roy Acuff." He went on to note that "...most female country singers who have achieved fame in the last 20 years (aka 1954-1974) had "...unmistakeable country voices that contain echoes of earlier great singers like Molly O'Day."
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