Songwriter Marijohn Wilkin, who co-wrote “The Long Black Veil” and was one of Kris Kristofferson’s earliest supporters, died Saturday (Oct. 28) in Nashville at age 86 following a lengthy struggle with heart disease.
Born in Kemp, Texas, she taught school in Oklahoma and began writing songs for the school choir to sing. In 1955, she and her husband moved to Springfield, Mo., where their 9-year-old son, John “Bucky” Wilkin performed on the Ozark Junior Jubilee show. Continuing to write songs while playing piano in Springfield, Wilkin moved to Nashville in 1958 after her compositions were recorded by Red Foley, Wanda Jackson and others. Performing as a pianist at the Voo Doo Room, a club in Printer’s Alley, she became a staff writer at Cedarwood Publishing and found success with Stonewall Jackson’s 1959 hit, “Waterloo.” Written by Wilkin and John D. Loudermilk, Jackson’s single reached No. 1 on the country and pop charts.
Her tenure at Cedarwood also resulted in “The Long Black Veil,” which she co-wrote with Danny Dill. Originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, it sounded like a traditional folk song that was handed down through generations. Although it only reached No. 6 on the country charts, “The Long Black Veil” became an American music standard that was later recorded by Johnny Cash, The Band, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and many others, including a collaboration between Mick Jagger and the Chieftains.
Her other hits from the late ’50s and early ’60s include Jimmy Dean’s “P.T. 109” and Webb Pierce’s “Fallen Star” and “Take Time.” Another original, “Cut Across Shorty,” was eventually recorded by Eddie Cochran, Carl Smith, Rod Stewart, Nat Stuckey and others. Among the many artists who recorded her songs include Brenda Lee, Johnny Horton, Mel Tillis, Les Paul, the Fleetwoods, the Chordettes and Debbie Reynolds.
As a recording artist, she released two Columbia albums in the early ’60s and a project for Dot Records later in the decade. Her vocal group, the Marijohn Singers, appeared on numerous recordings in Nashville during the ’60s. After leaving Cedarwood Music, Wilkin established her own publishing company, Buckhorn Music. Her son, Bucky Wilkin, wrote the first song in the company’s catalog — “G.T.O.” — and turned it into a major pop hit in 1964 when he recorded it as Ronny & the Daytonas.
As a successful music publisher, Wilkin befriended numerous songwriters, including Ed Bruce, Johnny Duncan and Kristofferson. While still serving in the Army, Kristofferson sent several of his early songs to Wilkin after learning about her from a cousin. After visiting Wilkin in Nashville, Buckhorn Music began publishing Kristofferson’s songs, including one of his breakthrough titles, “For the Good Times.” Ray Price’s 1970 recording of the song redefined the singer’s career after it became a major hit on both the country and pop charts.
Although Kristofferson later signed with another publishing company, he and Wilkin remained close friends. In the early ’70s, he helped her write the gospel classic, “One Day at a Time.” A 1974 hit for Marilyn Sellars, it was named song of the year at the 1975 Dove Awards. Christy Lane’s version was a No. 1 country single in 1980.
Commenting on her death, Kristofferson said, “Marijohn embodied the spirit of the way of life to which I was to commit myself some 40 years ago. A highly respected artist — singer, songwriter, publisher — 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. I’ll be forever grateful to her for saving my life.”
Wilkin was a co-founder of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, and she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975.
Funeral services are pending.