It was June 1967. The summer Nashville night air seemed to bear down as Teddy
walked quickly to his waiting, sleek Cadillac. Once more, as the applause echoed
inside the auditorium, his overpowering problems swept down.
Few times has Teddy opened up about what happened as a result of that fateful
night during 1967. A lot of people today, in fact, know some details about the
family members who were born in Hardy, Arkansas, then started singing on a
street corner as an attempt to help the family survive the Great Depression.
Some also know about that family group who overcame the hardest of times and
the separation of war to come back and become one of America’s most beloved
musical groups and one of the last of the great singing brother duos. Few,
however, know the real Thurman Theodore Wilburn.
What follows has been combined from several historic interviews conducted
from 1976 through 1978, parts of which appeared in Marijohn Wilkin's 1978
biography, Lord, Let Me Leave a Song (Word Books), the 1979 book, God Comes to
Nashville (New Leaf Press) and several television productions. Most of what
makes up this powerful, revealing MyBestYears.com exclusive comes from the
files of the author of those books, Darryl Hicks, and much of those candid
conversations has never been made available to the public before.
DH: What happened that night in June 1967 that started so many other things happened?
TW: It got to be too much. The hectic pace and public appeal demanded more and more
from me. I had nothing left. It was everything we had ever worked for since we were little
kids in Hardy, Arkansas, but when we got it, when everything really happened for us, I was
anything but happy. I was troubled beyond words.
DH: What was your life like that made it so troubled?
TW: Professionally, we were on top. In 1967 we were on the road doing somewhere around
250 shows on the road. We were on at least 20 Saturday night Grand Ole Opry
DH: Certainly your work in Nashville kept exploding, right?
TW: Definitely. I was personally involved in over 50 recording sessions. Doyle and I were
involved as executive and co-owners of Nashville’s Wil-Helm Talent Agency and Sure-Fire
Music Publishing Company. It required hours of writing and rewriting and demo sessions
with staff musicians.
DH: Where did that leave you, personally?
TW: Empty. I know people may not understand what I’m about to say. I doubt I would have
understood it before it happened to me. Outwardly, everything was beyond belief. We were
seeing our career skyrocket! I remember hearing all the applause inside the auditoriums,
but when I walked off the stage, I was just overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness and
emptiness. I don’t even have words to express it, even now as I look back.
TW: Like a million tons of weight. It finally got so I couldn’t keep up with everything. Doyle
was just coming out of a bad marriage, so he wanted to work on the road even more. That
and everything else got to be more than I could take. Finally, that one night in June of
1967, I told him, “That’s it! I quit!”
DH: Just like that? You were going to walk out on one of the biggest country music careers
TW: Not immediately. I told Doyle that I would finish the contracts through `67, then that
was it. I was through!
DH: It was sort of a line in the sand, wasn’t it? Was it a line that marked the beginning of
things getting better for you?
TW: Just the opposite. The problem wasn’t the career. It was me. I thought it would be
better, but it was really the beginning of what could have been the bitter end. I plunged
head-long into the ultimate depths of despair, drinking and paranoia. How I survived is
certainly beyond me.
Teddy Wilburn walked out on one of the brightest careers that country music
would ever know, a career that had followed a rocky 30-year road starting back
on the fertile fields and dusty roads surrounding their hometown of Hardy.
Born November 30, 1931, and officially named Thurman Theodore, Teddy was the
fifth child of Depression-ridden farmers Benjamin and Katie Wilburn. Benjamin
was a disabled World War I veteran. Lester Lloyd, Leslie Floyd, Vinita Geraldine
and Virgil Doyle already filled the small house. During the darkest years of the
Depression, Benjamin tried several occupations in addition to farming—trapping,
the WPA—just to keep greens and `taters’ on the hand-hewn table.
DH: How did the family get involved in music during those darkest days?
TW: We had made it through most of the Depression, barely surviving. One day while
taking crossties to Hardy to sell for twenty-five cents apiece, Daddy saw a family playing
musical instruments on a street corner.
DH: A family from Hardy?
TW: No. They had been traveling through town when their car broke down. They were just
trying to collect enough nickels and dimes to fix the already-patched-up car. Anyway, Pop
saw them on the dusty corner singing, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”
DH: Were they a well-known group?
TW: Not at the time. They were traveling then as part of the vaudeville circuit, known as the
Log Cabin Mountaineers. They were named Rhodes—Slim, Dusty, Bea and Speck.
DH: As in Speck Rhodes, Porter Wagoner’s sidekick and member of the Grand Ole Opry?
TW: Yes, though it was years before he would be known all over the world as a comedian.
He already played banjo and bass fiddle, and he was already honing the comedy skills that
people would come to love so much. Their family was from about 40 miles northwest of us,
a little town called West Plains, Missouri.
DH: Also known as Porter’s hometown, right?
TW: Yes, though that was long before any of them were famous. That didn’t happen until
DH: So how did this family influence your family?
TW: It wasn’t a direct influence at the time, though we got to know them later. It was mainly
just him seeing them singing together. By the time Pop got back to our farm from Hardy, he
was dreaming about his own family becoming a musical group to help with our horrible
Within the next few weeks made its first public appearance on a dusty, wind-blown street corner in nearby
Benjamin sold a load of logs, and
with that money sent off an order
through the mail for a guitar,
mandolin and fiddle from the Sears
and Roebuck catalog. He and Katie
taught the children how to play the
musical instruments and sing
harmonies together. On Christmas
Eve, 1937, first-grader Teddy and
his siblings, auspiciously named
the “Shirt-tailed Children’s Band,”
Thayer, Missouri. They sang their hearts out. It was a small beginning, yet fruitful.
Their “take” of $6.40 began the adventure of a lifetime, a twelve-year, 300,000
mile journey across the country as the family sang in nearly every possible
setting, singing and collecting money to pay for groceries and a night’s lodging.
DH: Undoubtedly to people who saw you perform, you were stars, or at least a curiosity,
right? Even though you were far from the big time, the family attracted a lot of attention.
TW: We were probably too young to really realize what was happening. Lester was 13,
Leslie 12, Geraldine 10, Doyle 7 and I was 6. It was more like a job, something we needed
to do to help make some money for the family. It was really fun, I remember that, and we
truly enjoyed making music together, but kids that age are usually more interested in
climbing trees or going swimming than in doing the business part of performing. I
remember, for example, how when Dad would get a new shipment of pictures, he’d sit us
around a table and have us autograph every copy for people who would write for them or
ask after our shows. Instead of really understanding that this was show business, I
suppose, we were more interested in finishing as quickly as possible so we could go
outside and play. Since I was the youngest, just learning to print my name, you probably
know who was always the last to finish writing T-h-e-o-d-o-r-e!
DH: Things really started taking off when you
started doing radio, right?
TW: For us and for nearly every other
performer trying to make it in those days.
For us, the big break came in 1938, not too
long after we got started. That’s when we
did our first radio broadcast. The towns-
people in and around Hardy took up a
collection and furnished a panel truck for
Pop and all of us to travel over to Jonesboro,
Arkansas. The station call letters were KBTM.
I remember to this day what it felt like. We
were so excited. The program started and
we took off on “She’ll Be Coming Around the
The Wilburn family was too poor at that point to own their own radio,
so Mom Wilburn caught a ride into Hardy to sit in Leonard’s Café and
hear the broadcast with the townspeople who packed the diner.
DH: What a sight that must have been in downtown Hardy as she sat with the
others and listened to their own homegrown singers!
TW: We heard later how she sat there with tears running down her cheeks.
When we got home, you could tell that she was so proud of us.
DH: Was it the big break that you hoped for?
TW: In some ways. Mostly, we just kept at it. Pop was the master of ceremonies, as well as
agent and manager. We spent six months of each year in Hardy's one-room schoolhouse
and the other six touring radio stations, school auditoriums, dirt-floor theaters and
churches throughout the South. I don’t think we were looking for just one big break. We
just wanted to keep food on the table and a little gas in the tank so we could get to the next
DH: When did the truly big break come?
TW: it actually came after what was
probably the worse time in our lives.
We started singing on Christmas Eve
in 1937. Times were very hard the next
few years. The Depression was at its
worst. Money was short everywhere.
Then in 1940, our little house caught
on fire. We weren't able to salvage
much of anything. Our family had to
move into a little chicken house on the back of the property. The walls had lots of holes.
The floor was just packed, smelly dirt. I remember how we covered the holes with old
newspapers and did whatever we could to try to stay warm. I ended up getting tuberculosis.
I was too sick to do much of anything for awhile. Thankfully, before our big break came, I
got well enough to join the group on the road again.
DH: What's that saying about the deepest darkness right before the dawn? What was the
TW: In 1940, while we were traveling through Alabama,
Dad heard that the famous Roy Acuff was having a show
and talent contest at the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium,
not far from where we were at the time. Dad loaded up the
car and headed as fast as he could in that direction. I
remember that we had three flat tires on the way. Back in
those days there weren't a lot of gas stations and auto
repair places where you could get someone to fix the tire,
even if you had the money. You had to fix it yourself.
People from those days remember how you had to jack the
car up, pull out the inner tube, apply that cold patch with
awful-smelling glue, and then use an old hand pump to
refill the tire. I remember we went through such horrible
rainy weather. Finally, when we arrived at the auditorium,
the talent contest was already over.
DH: Already over? You had to be crushed.
TW: Horribly, but one thing our Daddy taught us was to never give up. He got our
instruments out and set us all up at the foot of the backstage steps. When the “King of
Country Music” came out after the show, Dad signaled to us and we burst into song.
DH: Do you remember the tune?
TW: I’ll never forget that moment—“Farther along, we’ll know all about it…”
DH: What happened?
TW: We were so caught up in playing and singing that it took us awhile to realize that the
great Roy Acuff was standing there watching us five ragamuffins pouring our hearts out,
and you could tell that he was touched deeply. He had these big ole tears in his eyes. To
this day I can’t even describe what that felt like. We had heard about Mr. Acuff forever. We
had listened to him on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. He was a legend, even back then. And
then to see him listening to us with tears running down his cheeks…wow! This was
everything we had worked for and hoped for, and all of a sudden the man who could make
it happen was standing right there in front of us.
Within weeks, Roy Acuff had them standing onstage at the old War Memorial
Auditorium, and he introduced the Wilburn children to an international audience
on WSM's Grand Ole Opry broadcast. From the very first Opry appearance, the
family received 100 pounds of fan mail!
DH: On Mr. Acuff’s recommendation, you were actually invited to join the Grand Ole Opry
that spring, but it wasn’t all springtime and roses, was it?
TW: We performed regularly on the Opry, even as we continued traveling, for the next six
months. Then our contract was terminated because the child labor organizations kept
putting more and more pressure on the Opry. I guess no one like us had come along
before—a bunch of kids—so the rules were a little sketchy, but in the end, they probably
didn’t have much of a choice. I don’t know if the government would have shut them down,
but I understand that it was pretty clear that we had to go.
DH: Why were they becoming so strict?
TW: It was probably a good thing, in many ways, just not for us. Before that kids were
expected to work long hours in sweat shops and on farms. As a sign of the times, I
suppose, child labor laws were becoming very strict to protect children from working such
long, late hours. All I know is that the Opry got threats that they would be closed down. I
remember hearing that Pop might be jailed. He was even told by the authorities that if he
persisted in having us perform at night at the Opry, we would become wards of the state
and placed in separate foster homes. I don't know how much was real and how much was
just scare tactics, but it definitely had the intended effect. We even had to turn down a
sponsorship deal with Dr. Pepper that would have changed everything for us.
DH: It had to be a crushing blow…
TW: Words can’t describe it. Still, even though we were forced off the Opry stage at the
time, people knew about us all over the nation and even in foreign countries.
DH: The first big break had happened, and you apparently passed the test with flying
TW: It seemed so. Now, instead of playing street corners and talent contests, we were
playing theaters, clubs and school auditoriums. We were appearing on the bill with some of
the Opry stars. We had definitely crossed a line.
The Wilburns returned to Hardy
and continued touring, but like
everyone else alive on December
7, 1941, life changed forever when
the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor.
Leslie was drafted. Geraldine got
married and retired from the road.
Lester, Doyle and Teddy kept
traveling and doing radio shows.
Eventually, though wounded in
action by a German mortal shell,
Leslie rejoined the group. By that
time they had been renamed "The
Wilburn Brothers." They ended up
on the "Early Morning Show" on
KTBS Shreveport in November
1948. A short time later they
switched to KWKH where they
became regulars on the famous
Louisiana Hayride. Teddy
graduated from Shreveport's
Fair Park High School in 1951
where Faron Young, another
future country music great, was
also a student.
DH: The Korean Conflict broke the
group up again, right?
TW: Doyle was quickly drafted into the
army. He spent 14 months with the 8th
Army Special Services. While he was
away, I stayed busy. The Gotham
Label released a single of a song I
wrote and recorded, “How Would You
Like to Call Me Sweetheart?” Webb
Pierce produced the recording. Webb
also had me play bass on one of his
Decca recording sessions in Nashville.
DH: Country music lore says that it was
Webb who started calling you Teddy. Is
TW: I was pretty much Theodore up
until that time. Webb just started using
the nickname, and it sort of caught on
with others who heard it.
DH: You were staying busy, but
obviously you were draft age by then.
I can imagine that it was a bit hard for
guys your age to make a lot of plans
with the Korean Conflict raging.
TW: In many ways. Johnny and Jack, who were also featured on KWKH and the Louisiana
Hayride, along with Johnny's wife, Kitty Wells, asked me to join their band. They had been
asked to be regulars on the Opry. I told them that I was going to be drafted soon, so I
suggested that they hired Lester. He played with them for awhile before joining up with
Marty Robbins. Meanwhile, I headed off for the army.
Teddy was inducted into the Army in January of 1952. He
ran into Doyle, getting ready to be discharged, while both
were stationed in Seoul. While Teddy served in Korea,
Doyle returned to Shreveport where he began fronting,
singing harmony and playing the role of comedian with
Webb Pierce's show. Teddy joined his brother and Webb
after being discharged from the armed forces. You can
hear their close harmonies on Webb's smash hits,
"Sparkling Brown Eyes" and "In the Jailhouse Now."
DH: What a time it must have been during those early years.
Befriending Webb Pierce back in the early Louisiana Hayride
days sure paid off. I understand you actually recorded under
another name with Webb.
TW: (Laughs) Webb and I were "Rob and Bob." We recorded "The Waltz You Saved for
Me" and "One Day Later." Decca released it, but it didn't do a lot. Webb then got Doyle
and me signed to the Decca label, and "Little Time Out for Love" was our first single. That
was May 1954. "I'm So in Love with You" and "Go Away with Me" were good records for us
then, too. We weren't setting the world on fire as the Wilburn Brothers, but we were gaining
such great experience that would help us understand what was going on later when it really
began to happen.
DH: You were in some tall cotton.
TW: Webb was sure starting to ride the
crest, that's for sure. He was the number
one country artist of the 1950s. His
singles spent 113 weeks at number one
during that decade. I believe he had 39
songs that went to number one on the
country charts. That's just amazing!
DH: Webb was instrumental in your
career. I understand your old friend from
Fair Park High School provided a great
boost, as well.
TW: In the spring of 1955, Doyle and I went to work with Faron Young for $50.00 a show.
He had been discharged from the army about the same time as I was. By the time Doyle
and I went to work with him, he already had "If You Ain't Lovin," which was a huge hit. Right
after that, about the time we joined up with him, "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young" hit the
charts and raced up to number one. We did a lot of Opry dates with him and his first movie.
He was definitely one the hottest up-and-comers, already known as "The Hillbilly
DH: Where did "The Singing Sheriff" nickname come from for Faron?
TW: I believe people started using it around the time of his first feature film, Hidden Guns.
He co-starred with Bruce Bennett, Richard Arlen, John Carradine and Angie Dickinson.
DH: But he didn't play the sheriff, did he?
TW: He actually played a deputy named Faron Young. He also played a
marshall in a movie a year or so after that, Raiders of Old California,
with Marty Robbins and Lee Van Cleef, but for some reason he became
known as "The Singing Sheriff." I guess it had a better ring to it than
"The Singing Deputy" or "The Singing Marshall."
DH: By that time you were starting to make some major waves on your
TW: By 1953, we were once again back on the Opry.
DH: No more worry about child labor laws!
TW: (laughs) No more worrying about that. We were permanent
members after 1956. Leslie and Lester worked with us as “side men,”
but from that point Doyle and I were pretty much in the spotlight.
DH: You also recorded with Ernest Tubb, right.
TW: We did two top ten hits with him, "Mister Love" and "Hey, Mr.
In a town known for "latest and greatest" hyperbole, during the
coming decades the Wilburn Brothers quite literally put
together a truly legendary career (which inexplicably continues
to be ignored by the Country Music Hall of Fame).
For Decca Records, they recorded hit after hit. “Which One Is to
Blame,” “Roll Muddy River,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “It’s Another
World” and “Hurt Her Once for Me” still rank among the biggest
country hits of all time. “Trouble’s Back in Town,” forever their
signature song, was voted 1962’s Top Country Record. They
were also voted the Top Country Vocal Group for five straight
years and won virtually every award known to country
musicians. In all, from 1955 to 1972, the Wilburns placed 30
songs on the country charts.
They made a brief foray into movies, but their greatest success
came through The Wilburn Brothers Show, televised in first-run
syndication from 1963 until 1974 (and syndicated in re-runs for
years even today on such networks as RFD TV and AOL
Television). It was one of country music's first color TV shows
and part of a block of shows (along with Porter Wagoner) that
dominated Saturday evenings in most markets. The show
featured regulars Loretta Lynn, Harold Morrison and Don Helms.
The guest list read like a country music “Who’s Who,” including
Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, Tammy
Wynette, Bill Monroe, The Browns, Tex Ritter, Bobby Bare,
Johnny Paycheck and Barbara Mandrell. In all, Doyle and Teddy
hosted a whopping 354 half-hour shows.
They proved to be not only superbly talented performers, but
they also ended up being highly successful businessmen. Sure-
Fire Music was started in the Wilburn family home by Teddy,
Doyle and then-neighbor Don Helms, the steel guitar legend
who had played previously with such legends as Hank Williams,
Sr. They soon found that the success of the company made it
impossible for them to keep up with the work and continue to
tour around the country on show dates. Their two older brothers
Leslie and Lester joined the company to handle the business.
At the time the main publishing companies of any size in
Nashville were Tree, Cedarwood and Acuff-Rose. It wasn’t long
before Sure-Fire joined the big boys, in part because of a young
woman from Butcher Holler named Loretta Lynn.
DH: It was during this time that you started getting a reputation as a “song doctor.” How did
that come about?
TW: There were several people in Music City known as “song doctors,” so I certainly can't
claim too much credit. Marijohn Wilkin was called that because she was so good at helping
other writers move a verse here or there, add a hook or just generally work with good song
ideas to make it fit together better. I’ll take it as an honor that I was known that way, too.
DH: Another thing you were known for was that you never took writer credits for helping
people, even though some of the hit songs you doctored looked nothing like the original.
Isn’t that pretty unusual in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York or anywhere?
TW: I guess. Again, Marijohn was one of those that did the same thing. There’s no telling
how many people she’s helped during those famous guitar pullin's that took place at her
house or at the Cedarwood office or later at her Buckhorn offices. Like her, one of the
things I always believed in was the need for great songs. Our business is nothing without
the great writers, and often they needed a boost and credit a lot more than I did. Frankly, I
felt like this was just part of my job as a publisher. Marijohn was known for that, too.
Today, other music publishing giants have all been sold or
merged with larger companies, but Sure-Fire still operates as a
family-owned company, the oldest independently-owned
publishing company of any size in Nashville today.
Over the years many of Music City’s greatest writers called Sure-
Fire home—people such as Johnny Russell, Loretta Lynn, Patty
Loveless, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Merle Kilgore, The
Osborne Brothers, Cindy Walker, Faron Young, Lester Flatt, Earl
Scruggs, Johnny Bush and so many more. Their slogan was
"Make your Next Song a Sure-Fire Hit” and they did just that
over and over again.
Their Sure-Fire Music Publishing Catalog reads like a 50-year
history of country music hits—from “Fist City” to “Fool # 1,”
“Statue of a Fool,” “Wine, Women and Song,” “Woman of the
World,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” and “Coal Miner’s
Their Wil-Helm Talent Agency (formed with long-time friend and
steel guitarist Don Helms) booked a shimmering gallery of stars,
from Loretta Lynn (Teddy bought her first-ever pair of high-
heeled shoes), the Osborne Brothers, Sonny James, George
Jones, Slim Whitman, Jean Shepherd, Crystal Gayle, Charley
Rich and Stringbean.
But there was trouble in paradise. With the incredible
successes, old friendships blew up. Well-known artists walked
out of artist and agency contracts. Lawsuits kept lots of Music
City lawyers busy. The tension between Doyle and Teddy,
seemingly in the eye of the showbiz hurricane, subsequently
stretched to a breaking point.
Then came June 1967. The end. Teddy walked out on almost
thirty years of show business, an action that was sure to leave
emotional scars because it affected so many people.
DH: You had to know that leaving would cause a lot of problems…
TW: Definitely. For me, in the end, I knew I had to do something. I had to get away. I had
poured my life into our career, and I had nothing left to give. I told my brothers that I didn’t
care what happened anymore, and that I was getting out, no matter what.
DH: Earlier you said that it went from bad to worse for you…
TW: Horrible. I thought it would be better. It wasn’t. It was all downhill. I was searching for
answers, but I kept turning to the bottle. It was like a really bad country song, only I was
actually living it, verse by verse. I screwed up every relationship I had—my family, other
artists, even myself. I hated what I became, but I seemed powerless to do anything but
keep tumbling downward.
That downhill plunge continued with another unfortunate experience. Teddy
moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. A Los Angeles dramatics
workshop he attended pushed him over the brink even farther.
DH: How did the workshop experience cause so many problems?
TW: It wasn’t just the workshop. It was me—where I was at the time. The approach in
method acting is to scrape off any and all inhibitions the student has from performing any
and all roles. One example is that I had never used foul language much before, but in
scraping off what the dramatics coach called “the limitations that social standards have
created,” I became one of the most vulgar-speaking people you’d ever meet. Now I was a
hopeless drunk with a foul mouth and no inhibitions, to boot! What a mess!
One of the low points came when Teddy was arrested for driving while
intoxicated. His famous name didn’t keep him out of jail. Still, instead of getting
help, his downward spiral continued.
DH: When did you actually hit bottom?
TW: I became so filled with paranoia that I didn’t trust family members or close friends. I
think the absolute bottom came when I started thinking of suicide. I truly felt that I didn’t
have anything to live for. Then I simply didn’t want to live anymore. I truly hated the man
who looked back at me in the mirror. I hated me! That was the bottom.
DH: Where did all this self-destruction and self-hate come from?
TW: I think part of it is the whole star thing. The “star” is always supposed to make
everybody happy. Once you have success, you have to keep the success going. The
pressure gets greater, not less. That pressure has crushed lots of stars. And worse, all the
people who worship the stars are often very fickle. It can go from being worshipped to
being a has-been literally overnight. I had seen it happen lots of time. Getting to the top is
one thing, but once you get there, the battle really begins as you start fighting to stay there
on the pinnacle. One false move, and you fall down like a crashing avalanche, soon to be
forgotten. It’s hard to put into words for people who haven’t experienced it, but it’s so real
that after awhile it becomes something that looms over you with constant, persistent
pressure, year after year. It's what destroys so many people in showbiz, especially when it
gets fueled by alcohol or drugs. Then it becomes like a whirlpool dragging you down. After
awhile, you feel as if you can't fight against it. I had seen it happen to so many friends, but I
honestly thought it would never happen to me...until I found myself in the middle of the
same black hole being pulled down.
DH: What did it do to you personally?
TW: Oh, when we were performing or taping in the studio, I looked like the happiest guy in
the world. At least that’s what I thought I looked like. Most other people seemed to think
that way. But I would go to bed night after night, year after year, lying there and wallowing
in all the problems and pressures. I remember trying to pray like I did as a child. I would
start twenty or thirty prayers, trying to ask for God’s help, but I couldn’t even finish a simple
little prayer. I’d start thinking about my problems. Finally, often in the wee hours, I’d fall
asleep for awhile.
DH: And the drinking kept getting worse?
TW: One thing fed another, and it all kept the avalanche falling out of control. I just kept
taking the bottle-way out. That was the easiest. I kept thinking that if I could only drink
enough, I could find a way to enjoy life. I remember waking up many afternoons and not
remember when or how I got home. I gave up trying to remember. This just added to my
paranoia. What a nightmare!
DH: What happened at the bottom?
TW: By the mid-1970s, I had a bout with hepatitis. Thinking of committing suicide is one
thing. You are still somewhat in control of the situation. But when you are truly faced with a
disease that can cause death, and when you realize that you don’t really have control, that
will get your attention. It did mine. Larry Gatlin wrote a song back then called, “Light at the
End of the Darkness.” That’s where I was. I had no way to look but up. Bill and Gloria
Gaither’s song, “I Lost It All to Find Everything,” also sums it up. I had nothing else to lose.
That’s finally when I started realizing that my main problem was that God had been there all
the time, waiting for me to turn to Him.
DH: It sounds so simple, yet…
TW: Doesn’t it? I had been so blind that I didn’t see Him right in front of me. It was because
of my own stubbornness that I felt to such depths. It wasn’t God’s fault. He knew me better
than I did. He knew my stubborn personality. Again, it’s like the Gary S. Paxton song, “He
Was There All the Time.”
DH: Old friends came back into your life during this time, right?
TW: I didn’t know it then, but more and more of my Nashville buddies had become
Christians—people like Connie Smith, Billy Walker, Jeanne C. Riley, and more. A lot of
them had started joining in prayer for lost souls like me, including buddies like Marijohn
Wilkin, Jessi Colter and Donna Stoneman. I also didn’t know about that, but I did know that I
began to sense that something was starting to happen around me, that there were
answers, and that I could possibly find some help. Back in Nashville, Skeeter Davis got me
to go to the Lord’s Chapel for a service. Not long afterward, Mae Boren Axton talked me
into going to another service there. It was there that some of the leaders of the Lord’s
Chapel prayed with me. I didn’t really make a major decision that night, but I felt a real
peace that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. I didn’t know what it was, but something
was happening to me.
DH: Sometimes we want to think that once you begin taking the first steps toward God, that
everything will suddenly get better. It didn’t go that way for you, right?
TW: Feeling that initial peace was more like the calm before the storm. Two days later, as I
sat drinking my second beer of the morning, I suddenly felt those old feelings of paranoia
creeping into my mind. It scared me to death because I had gone two days without those
feelings. I knew I needed some help, so I called my doctor. He told me to come right over. I
barely arrived at his office when a chill hit my body and I started trembling.
DH: What did your doctor do?
TW: He sat there dumbfounded. I can only describe what took place next exactly like it
happened. I’m not sure I would believe it if someone else told me this, but I can assure you
that it happened exactly this way. I felt so chilly, and I heard God saying, “I’m preparing you
for death!” I started crying uncontrollably and saying, “I’m going to die tonight!” I heard
God’s voice say, “Oh, no, not tonight. I’m preparing you for when you do die.” I had never
heard anything like this. I asked Him, much like a little child, “Do you want me to be a
preacher?” That same Voice inside me said, “No. I just want you to spread My Word. I will
put the words in your mouth.” I asked Him, “Do You want me to write religious books?” The
conversation went on. Finally, I looked at my Jewish doctor friend and said, “I’m being
saved!” He thought I was totally flipping out, but he could also see that something truly
wonderful was happening to me. When I truly accepted Jesus Christ into my heart, the
feeling that I knew right then was the closest feeling to heaven that I had ever known. The
whole experience lasted forty-five minutes or so. I left the doctor praising God, bathing in
His presence. I drove down the highway toward my home. Everything was so different. I
was singing and praising Him.
TW: Frankly, I suddenly thought, “Maybe that was just me.” It stunned me at first, then I
prayed, “Please Lord, let me know that all that was from You.” I got home and searched
around until I found a big, thick Bible in a box. I had never read it much because I couldn’t
understand all the old-timey language, or at least that was always my excuse. Anyway, I
took the Bible into my bedroom, and the first page I opened to was Psalm 60:1-3, which
reads—“O God, thou hast cast us off, thou hast scattered us, thou has been displeased;
O turn thyself to us again. Thou has made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal
the breaches (brokenness) thereof; for it shaketh. Thou has shewed thy people hard
things: thou has made us to drink the wine of astonishment.” Now maybe that doesn’t
speak to you or anyone else like it did to me, but it was exactly what I needed to read.
Those verses made it real for me. I had felt cast off and scattered. I had been broken. Now,
I was starting to actually feel that God was going to heal me. It was all pretty astonishing to
me. It wasn’t just a coincidence or something I had made up. I knew it had been from God.
He truly had all the answers, and I had none except Him. That night, as I understood more,
I went ahead and totally prayed to accept Jesus as my Savior and Guide and Lord. Then I
started reading more of the Bible, and for the first time in my life, I actually understood what
I was reading. It was like reading something for the very first time with eyes that had been
opened dramatically. All I know is that I didn’t sleep much that night. I just fell deeper and
deeper in love with Jesus. I had never known such peace before!
That was February 19, 1976. It was a brand-new beginning for a man
who had scaled the heights of country music stardom.
Teddy soon became involved in a Bible fellowship, meeting regularly
with other well-known Music City greats who were also discovering
how to walk victoriously through showbiz and personal minefields.
Feeling a need to reach outside of his own needs and hurts, he also
worked with a “Seven Steps” program that ministered to prison
inmates. During the coming months, he returned to sing
professionally with Doyle, and the lines of communication began to be
repaired with his family. In 1978, Doyle and Teddy recorded their last
Decca album together, fittingly a collection of Gospel tunes. On
October 16, 1982, at the age of 52, Doyle’s life was claimed by cancer.
Teddy continued to sing solo, remaining a member of the Grand
Ole Opry. Tributes poured in, even from new generations of
fans and performers. Dwight Yoakam personally delivered a
framed gold record to Teddy for the Sure-Fire Music song,
“Smoke Along the Track.” Ricky Van Shelton did the same after
recording other Sure-Fire tune.
One of the most meaningful, classy and touching tributes came
from superstar Patty Loveless, who had been given her start in
the music business by the Wilburn Brothers back in the 1970s.
During the late 1980s, even as she skyrocketed to career
heights that included five Number One hits (country music can’t
possibly get much better than Patty’s angst-drenched version of
the Dallas Frazier-penned classic, “If My Heart Had Windows”),
she encouraged MCA Records (Decca’s parent company) to
release a Wilburn Brothers compilation CD in 1987, and she
hired Teddy to open shows for her.
Teddy Wilburn remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry, though he was
eventually diagnosed with PSP (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, similar to
Parkinson’s Disease). He spent the last years of his life with family and friends.
Then on November 24, 2003, less than a week shy of his seventy-second birthday,
the last of the Wilburn Brothers passed away from congestive heart failure. His
funeral was held at the Ryman Auditorium, site of so many legendary Wilburn
Brothers’ performances, and he was laid to rest beside his brother Doyle at the
Nashville Veterans Memorial Cemetary.
Lester, the oldest sibling, died in 1990. Leslie, the last of the surviving brothers,
passed away January 15, 2005. Geraldine Grisham, the remaining sibling,
continues to live in Arkansas and enjoy her family, friends, and the legacy she
helped begin so many years ago.
Today that treasured legacy of the little family from Arkansas is alive and well
among multitudes of country music fans around the world!
Teddy was very aware of that legacy and how he nearly lost everything because
of the paths he choose, as well as the decisions he made that helped him survive
the worst of times. Several years before his death, Teddy candidly reflected on all
that he had been through:
“I look back now and realize how good God was to me, to all of my family. He
gave us these talents, and even though I tried to tear everything down, He
still stood by patiently until I finally got desperate enough to ask Him to
come and make something beautiful out of all the mess. And I can say from
experience, there is no life torn asunder, totally ripped apart, that God
cannot repair and make more beautiful than it ever was before.”
And in the end, a verse that he shared at the end of the final interview came true:
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in
heaviness thorough manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being
much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire,
might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus
Christ: whom having not see, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet
believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end
of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9).
When he read those words, Teddy’s eyes were brimming with tears. Those eyes
had experienced the highest highs of show business, and the lowest lows of life.
As he finished reading that passage in 1 Peter, the unmistakable “peace that
passeth all understanding” filled his face and heart.
To many people the circuitous path that started for Thurman Theodore Wilburn in
the backwoods of Arkansas ended on a bleak 2003 day in Nashville. Teddy knew
better. For him, the best was just beginning!
No one could see behind the glistening smile on the
tanned singer in rainbow-splashed Western clothing.
Strumming his personalized guitar, Teddy broke into
a song with his equally rainbow-splashed brother
Doyle. The Grand Ole Opry audience instantly
exploded with applause.
Another smoothly-blended song. Twin guitars
twanged. The legendary Wilburn Brothers again slid
their close harmony all over the scale in a slow,
heartsick winsomeness. Once more, ringing cheers
filled the auditorium.
Behind the plaudits, behind Teddy’s glittering suit
and flashing smile—behind it all, a deep-down ache
was reaching extreme proportions.
...Lost It All to Find Everything
|Webb Pierce and the
|Steel guitar great Don Helms joins
the Wilburn Brothers
|With Bob Wills, the
King of Western Swing
|With Elvis Presley, the
King of Rock and Roll
|Joking around with
Max Baer, Jr.,
"Jethro Bodine" of the
Beverly Hillbillies TV
|The Wilburn Brothers
Show featured regulars
Loretta Lynn, Harold
Morrison and Don Helms
|The Wilburn family with
Roy Acuff, decades after
the King of Country
Music gave the
youngsters their first
brief time on the famed
Grand Ole Opry stage
during World War 1
|Photos used are
collected for Marijohn
Wilkin's biography, Lord,
Let Me Leave a Song
(Word Books), the book,
to Nashville (New Leaf
Press) and several
|Friend and fellow Music
City "Song Doctor"
in from the
and Ricky Van
Fair Park High School,
alma mater for both
Faron Young and
|Click on the image
below to watch a
classic early 1960s
performance of "It's
Listen to "Trouble's Back in Town"
|For best quality,
allow to load