I didn’t know of this “Den Mother of Music Row” until a musician in a local Bluegrass group at our church gave me the lead. But Marijohn Wilkin has had a significant influence in modern country and Gospel music as a performer, writer, publisher and mentor. Her eventful life can’t be captured in just this blog, but I’ll give it a surface treatment, the only thing I can do. The fact she had some association with Missouri is a plus for me.
Marijohn was born in Texas in 1920, the only child of a baker and fiddle player for the local Baptist church. As an honors student at Hardin-Simmons University, she was the only female member ever of the University Cowboy Band and she excelled in college as a musician although her degree was in English. The band traveled all over the country and they performed at FDR’s third inauguration. She married just after graduation, but her husband was killed in World War II by friendly fire. She continued a career as a teacher and later remarried and stayed married long enough to have a son, “Bucky”. When that marriage tanked, she married Art Wilkin. Bucky turned out to be a talented guitar player. Red Foley of the Ozark Mountain Jubilee wanted him to join, so the Wilkins moved to Springfield, Missouri where Bucky was introduced each night by twelve year old Brenda Lee. Meanwhile, Marijohn worked playing piano and singing backup vocals. Her first song was recorded by Red Foley and gradually, her songwriting career took off. She wrote over 400 country songs, many going to the top of the country charts. Hits came her way, but they competed with alcohol in her life. She twice attempted suicide. Important people in her life passed away and she was divorcing Wilkin. By age 37, she was in Nashville as one of the leading songwriters in country music and founder of Buckhorn Music Publishers. One of her most important writers at Buckhorn was Kris Kristofferson.
One day, at the end of her rope, she impulsively stopped by a small church and asked a fledgling minister for help. She was the first person he ever counseled. When she admitted to him that she had no money problems and was in good health, but couldn’t articulate why she was so unhappy, he told her to thank God for her problems. Impelled by his advice, she returned home, sat down at the piano and composed the entire chorus to “One Day at a Time”. When she finished, she realized the song was actually a prayer. She continued to write the verses but felt the first verse was not quite right. Kris Kristofferson was in town, so she asked for his help. Though she shared the credit for the song with Kris, he admitted he only helped with a line or two. He was embarrassed that she put his name on it. It became a hit in 1973, ironically sung by Marilyn Sellars, who was the other woman in her divorce case. “One Day at a Time” is generally considered the biggest gospel song of the 1970s and has been recorded over 600 times since then. The song began her new career as a gospel recording artist and she wrote over 300 gospel songs thereafter. In 2005, she was honored by the SOURCE organization as a pioneering Music Row businesswoman. She died a year later of heart disease.