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Kentucky by Heart: Multi-talented Skeeter Davis — a true story about a Kentucky girl making good

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Stripping tobacco as a young boy back in the 1960s was never something that excited me, but I had to get used to the fact that we, as a family, would be doing just that every fall in an especially built room inside the outside car garage.

I also didn’t get excited about my parents’ choice of music on the radio —- country, and it was the twangy type. But frequently one particular song I liked was played, called “The End of the World,” and it was by singing artist Skeeter Davis.

The haunting lyrics told of one who had lost a loved one and couldn’t figure out why the world kept going on as usual with such pain abounding. I didn’t necessarily find the song fatalistic, thank goodness; I saw the song as a way to identify with some of the disappointments that came my way as I entered into adolescent life.

It cried: Please understand. From afar, I had a crush on the relatively young Skeeter Davis, and the fact that she grew up in Grant County, near Dry Ridge, intrigued me.

Recently, I saw her name in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky and curiosity led me to search for more information on the now-deceased Kentucky entertainer.

I found conflicting places of birth for Mary Frances Penick, nicknamed “Skeeter.” One source said Glencoe, Kentucky, near the Gallatin and Owen County line. Others said Dry Ridge, in Grant County, in 1931. Regardless, she spent most of her childhood near Dry Ridge with her grandparents. The Encyclopedia noted that she was born poor into a “farming family faced with challenges of alcoholism, incest, and murder. Skeeter was able to rise above her background and become an internationally renowned country music artist.”

Her ability to harmonize was demonstrated early at school and at the Dry Ridge Christian Church. The family later moved outside the Covington area where she attended Dixie Heights High School. There, she met Betty Jack Davis and they put their vocal talents together to form The Davis Sisters, though the two were not actually family-related.

Starting with local events and radio, the two hit on some significant success. After radio exposure in Cincinnati, Lexington, and Detroit, they signed a contract with RCA and recorded “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which became a top country hit in 1953.

Sadly, 1953 also proved tragic. The two were involved in an automobile accident northeast of Cincinnati and Betty Jack Davis was killed, with Skeeter suffering serious injuries, though not permanent.

For a short while afterward, Skeeter performed with Betty Jack’s sister, Georgia, and even toured with Elvis Presley. In 1956, Skeeter retired from performing to get married (one of three that ended in divorce), but embarked upon a solo singing career in 1958 with the encouragement of Ernest Tubb.

In 1959, she recorded “Set Him Free,” a hit, and signed a contract as a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville. She soon had another couple of hits with “I’m Falling Too” (1960) and “My Last Date (with You)” in 1961.

She was rolling, and she reached her career summit in 1963 with “The End of the World” song after recording it late in 1962. That song was helped along by the mentorship of guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, and was written by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee. The song was one of the top records of the year, selling over a million copies, a “crossover” hit, making it successful with country and pop listeners, and even sold well in the rhythm and blues market.

As a result, at various times Skeeter performed with such a diverse mixture as the Rolling Stones, Duke Ellington, Bobby Bare, George Hamilton IV, and Porter Wagoner.

In 1998, a section of the Kentucky Route 22 between I-75 and the Dixie Highway in Dry Ridge was named the Skeeter Davis Highway. She died of cancer in 2004, but it was a brave struggle, according to a first cousin, Cathy Penick, Dry Ridge.

Cathy and her sister, along with their mother, sometimes traveled to Nashville from Dry Ridge to be with Skeeter and drive her to her Grand Ole Opry shows.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

“I was there the last night she appeared on the Opry,” said Cathy. “Skeeter went through breast cancer and reconstruction surgery and had done pretty well before it came back.” By then, the star was pretty sick but continued to perform at the iconic showplace.

Cathy recalls what Skeeter would say on some of those show nights when they picked her up to drive her there: “Now girls, I don’t feel very well tonight and so I want to get in and get out.” They obliged, and what happened next is inspiring.

“We parked in the back to get ready to get her in,” said Cathy. “I was on one side and my sister the other…and she could hardly walk. We would get her onto the stage and (while performing) you wouldn’t have thought there was a thing wrong with her. She sang and danced like she always did and then as soon as she got backstage, she’d say: “C’mon girls, get me back to the car. She loved to perform. She loved that stage.”

Cathy told me about Skeeter’s early days when she appeared with Elvis Presley, and after shows, “would sit and talk on the back steps of whatever little honky tonk they were in.” Skeeter told her: “I never did date him, but he was always my friend.”

Skeeter had a good following on international tours, and at her funeral, country star Vince Gill sang. But she never forgot where she was from, noted Cathy.

“She talked about Dry Ridge onstage at the Opry,” said Cathy. She remembers Skeeter’s love for going to the family garden and picking rhubarb to eat. “She took her rhubarb inside the house, grabbed the salt shaker and just poured the salt on it. She loved that rhubarb and she was proud to be from Kentucky.”

Skeeter also showed pride in her heritage by co-authoring a children’s book about her Christmas experiences while growing up, called “The Christmas Note.”

There are many other details about the life of Skeeter Davis left out here, but suffice it to say that she was a true “Kentucky girl makes good” story.

Artist: Skeeter Davis
Written by Arthur and Sylvia Dee

Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
‘Cause you don’t love me any more

Why do the birds go on singing?
Why do the stars glow above?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?
It ended when I lost your love

I wake up in the morning and I wonder
Why everything’s the same as it was
I can’t understand, no, I can’t understand
How life goes on the way it does

Why does my heart go on beating?
Why do these eyes of mine cry?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?
It ended when you said goodbye

Why does my heart go on beating?
Why do these eyes of mine cry?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?
It ended when you said goodbye.

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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