Jeannie Seely Rebuilds Life & Career One Year After Floods
Exactly one year ago, the Nashville area was hit by what has been termed the '100 Year Flood.' More than 30 people died, thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, downtown Music City was flooded up several blocks from the Cumberland River, the Grand Ole Opry House and Opryland Hotel suffered millions of dollars in damages and numerous other businesses were closed for anywhere from a few days to several months.
Residents of Nashville and the surrounding area who lived near any river or stream were likely flooded, with most of them having to flee their homes -- some of them by boat rescue. Within days after the water receded, as soon as residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods, they started the process of tearing down and rebuilding. Endless numbers of volunteers helped them to start to reconstruct their lives.
Jeannie Seely was one of the Nashvillians whose home was flooded. With three feet of water in her house, she lost almost everything in it. A year later, Jeannie, now 70, is back in her cottage by the Cumberland River, and very grateful to say she survived. She also has a big smile on her face these days due to her new husband and a new album of favorite tunes.
In an online letter to her fans, Jeannie offers an upbeat attitude. "I have new appliances, computer, television, DVD, radio, telephones, etc. that I don't know how to operate!" she writes. "My new washer and dryer now tell me what to do. ... which, of course does not settle well with me, but they are bigger than I am and they know I need them so they can do whatever they want to ... I'll adjust!"
It's just like the singer to find a positive side to last May's disaster. Jeannie, who joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1967, took time to welcome The Boot into her newly renovated home to talk about how she's doing since the flood, to reveal details of her new album, 'Vintage Country,' and to share her thoughts on the Grand Ole Opry and the current state of country music.
With the first anniversary of last year's flood now upon us, when you look back, what are your feelings about what happened?
What a mess and an ordeal to go through. I feel like I was one of the lucky ones. It's like my friend Carol McClain says, "We couldn't believe it when it was happening, and it's almost like we can't believe that it did happen." Had we been able to get in the next day, we could have salvaged more, but we couldn't get in for three days. [My husband] Gene [Ward] and I left in his truck, but we couldn't get my car out. Afterwards, we finally got in a row boat and came down to our street, and then we got out of the boat and were able to walk in water not quite up to our knees. Then that leveled out and we were able to come up our driveway.
How did you ever get it all sorted out and cleaned up?
There were different volunteers who came out to help, people we knew and people we didn't know. There was a group from Opry marketing who came over and pressure-washed everything and washed windows when we first were going through stuff. There were two couples from Hendersonville who came down when we were going through the kitchen. The women were asking what I wanted to keep and I just looked at them and said, "The kitchen is the least familiar room in my home for me. If it looks like something unique, or a one-of-a-kind something you might keep, or if it looks like it was passed down to me, keep it. If you can get it at Wal-Mart later, let it go." We would just get worn out, because all this cleanup had to be done in the extreme heat of summer, with no electricity for fans much of the time.
Just about that time, there was a group of young people from Hardin Valley, just this side of Knoxville, who were supposed to go to Jamaica but couldn't because there was too much violence there. So, they came here, and what a difference that group made. Those young people hit this place like a swarm of bees, they were cutting the weeds that were starting to grow, trimming the shrubbery, hauling out trash, digging up where the water had settled in the mulch. We couldn't believe them. They no sooner finished one job and they would go and ask, "What else do you have for me?" They were the most inspirational group of kids. That was the pivotal day that turned it around for us. I just can't commend them enough for their efforts.
The area churches fed us and brought cleaning supplies. We were offered way more support from neighbors and churches than any of the organizations, which are just now coming around. We're like, "Where were you when we needed you?" The good news is, all the efforts of Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks are starting to pay off. The volunteers in this area are just amazing, the work they have done and continue to do, and there's no way we can thank them enough for all their help.
What about all your stage clothes and other memorabilia you've collected through the years?
All of my long coats, the long gowns, they all were gone. My closet had double racks, so the bottom row was lost. Most of my tops, the sequined things, were hanging up high. It smelled so bad in here and I was very afraid of snakes, so a lot of things that might have been pulled out and washed, I was too afraid to go through. There was this ungodly odor. There's no way to explain it to anyone who hasn't seen it.
Do you have nightmares, or find yourself thinking often about what had happened?
I was one of the lucky ones who didn't have to get rescued by a boat. We were able to drive out. Those who were rescued by boat have a lot more trauma attached to them than I do; they still have nightmares. For the most part, I'm OK with everything. There is a sadness about it and still a lot of disbelief. I have to say, and I'm only speaking for myself, that there is a sense of resentment because I won't ever feel the safety and the security that I felt before. I've heard other victims of crimes say you never have that safe sense any longer, it's taken away.
Let's talk about all the good stuff going on with you. You're a newlywed. How did you and Gene meet?
He is legal counsel for ROPE (Reunion of Professional Entertainers), so we had known each other for several years. I had always admired him. We started seeing each other, and I'd ask him to go with me when I needed an escort. He's wonderful. I love his stories. At one time, he was the attorney for Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell and Faron Young. Can you imagine? He's enjoying going with me on a lot of road dates, and he goes to the Opry and everything. It makes it more interesting for me when he goes with me on some of these long, lonesome trips I make. I have a trip to Washington state, to a cowboy festival, coming up. I haven't been there in a long time and Gene's never been. It's fun to show him this side of life.
One of the positive things from the flood was that we got to rebuild the house together. He has a larger home in another part of town, but he loves the cottage so we're living here, and if we have a big family thing, we do it at the big house. We got to choose things and rebuild it together, and it belongs to both of us and we're both a part of it. He loves the river and the boat. I've always felt that living here is like being on vacation, and this little area where we live, you feel like you're in the country. The neighbors are all very close, and you never have to be alone here. You go out on the street and someone is riding their bike, or have their children out on their tricycles, or walking their dog. If I have rolls or desserts left from a dinner party, I'll call my neighbor and ask if she wants some. She'll say, "Yeah, meet me at the fence."
You have a new album titled 'Vintage Country,' with classic songs such as 'Ode to Billie Joe' and 'Blanket on the Ground.' Why do an album of songs that have been previously recorded as opposed to new songs?
I try to listen to my fans. I hear over and over, "I love the old songs, I want to hear things I already know. I like to relive memories and I want to relax and enjoy and sing along." A year ago, when I did the Grand Ole Opry cruise, I put together a medley of great female performances, and 'Ode to Billie Joe' was one of them. It got a great response. I had always loved that song. It sounds so different, and the story still fascinates me. The smartest move Bobbie Gentry made was not to identify what was thrown off the bridge -- we are still asking that question. Then Billie Jo Spears and I did a tour in Ireland with Philomena Begley, and both of them had hits with 'Blanket on the Ground.' It was such fun doing that with her, and I couldn't stop humming that tune.
What's the story behind recording 'Darktown Strutters Ball?'
My mom was a good singer, and she used to sing it to me all the time. She would dance around when she sang it. When my friends and I were teenagers, there was a renewed interest in the Charleston, and we were all thrilled to death that my mother knew the songs and could dance the Charleston. I have put almost a Western swing thing to it, as I do so many of my songs.
How do you take a classic such as Harlan Howard's 'Another Bridge to Burn,' and make it your own?
I am a huge Jimmy Dickens fan, and it was such a hit for him. I recorded it partly because I love Jimmie so much; he's one of my heroes. I have tried to learn to sing a ballad with the sincerity and emotion that Jimmy does. He was my teacher and mentor. I just love the song; I've lived through that situation, the words are real, and I love the feel of the song.
What's next for you, recording-wise?
In the back of my mind, I still want to do a CD of all my own songs. I'm at the point in life and my career where I'm thinking of history, and I want the songs down. Being in the studio again has renewed my interest in recording. That's always been a part I liked, because there's the challenge of creating when you record. I'm a team person; I love working with the musicians. They're inspirational to me because some of them are so creative, always coming up with a guitar or piano lick.
What do you feel is the future of the Opry? Is it as important today as it once was?
In my mind, it's more important than it's ever been ... but it has changed. It used to be important because it created stars, it gave people a way to release music and have it heard on radio and get new fans. Through the years that has diminished as television came along, and all the other technology that we have today. The reason I think the Opry is becoming more important is because it is the only American institution of its kind. The Opry is every bit as important as everything in the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, and it's alive.
There was a time when it was kind of put-down to be on the Opry. Those were rough times for me and others. It was almost to the point of mockery. People would ask, "Why would you want to be on the Opry?" Well, a lot of those same artists, and I haven't forgotten who they are, want to be on the Opry now. The Opry changed in my era. Electric guitars were there before I joined, but the full set of drums came after I joined, and they started allowing horns. Every generation brings their stories to the Opry, they bring their fans and their families. It will go on.