Skeeter Davis

Few artists have traversed the perilous line between country and pop as disarmingly as Mary Frances Penick, known professionally as Skeeter Davis.

Birth: December 30, 1931 - Death: September 19, 2004
Birthplace: Dry Ridge, Kentucky

Under the aegis of Nashville Sound mastermind Chet Atkins, she amassed a sizable following in both camps during her 1960s heyday. Yet the musical legacy of the outspoken singer has been obscured by a series of personal tragedies and controversies.

Born at the onset of the Depression, Skeeter (a nickname bestowed by her grandfather) learned early on to harmonize with singers she heard on the Grand Ole Opry. In high school, she and her best friend, Betty Jack Davis (no relation), formed a vocal duo called the Davis Sisters. Radio and television exposure eventually landed them on RCA Records in 1952. But as their smashing label debut (“I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”) began its six-month run on the country charts in 1953, Skeeter and Betty Jack were involved in a car accident that fatally injured the latter.

Devastated, Skeeter nonetheless persevered in her career. Although she and Betty Jack’s sister Georgia were unable to duplicate the original Davis Sisters’ success, Skeeter ultimately established herself as a solo act with such Top Ten hits as “Set Him Free” (1959), the “answer” song “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too” (1960), and “My Last Date (With You)” (1961). On these as well as most of her early 1960s releases, producer Atkins “double-tracked” the artist’s plaintive voice to re-create the feel of her Davis Sisters work. The subsequent addition of uptown embellishments resulted in a string of crossover hits highlighted by the blockbuster “The End of the World” (1962) and the Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition “I Can’t Stay Mad at You” (1963).

Meanwhile, Davis joined the Opry in 1959 and wed Nashville media celebrity Ralph Emery one year later. As would be chronicled in their respective autobiographies, the stormy relationship lasted only until 1964—not much longer than her earlier marriage to Kenneth Depew. Later, in 1973, the deeply religious singer became embroiled in a well-publicized dispute with Opry management over her broadcast support for some “Jesus people” who had been arrested at a local shopping mall. She was suspended for more than a year.

Though hitless since the early 1970s, Davis continued to perform regularly, and her wide-ranging album catalog remains of considerable interest to collectors. She Sings, They Play (1985), a charming collaboration with the revered rock band NRBQ, led to her third marriage, in 1987—to the group’s
bassist, Joey Spampinato. Her autobiography, Bus Fare to Kentucky, was published in 1993. Davis died of breast cancer in 2004. — Pete Loesch

— Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.

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