The Songwriter As Playwright:

Billy Edd Wheeler's New Play What A Way To Go
Premieres at Derby Dinner Feb. 1

By Kevin Gibson

After working in the music business for forty years, it would seem songwriter/playwright/author Billy Edd Wheeler would be ready to slow down, look back and relax a little.

The West Virginia native, however, is still forging ahead.

His most recent play, "What a Way to Go," opened at Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville Feb. 1, and Wheeler insists he isn't nearly finished.

"I studied play writing at Yale one year, and they told us to just go out and write, make your mistakes and learn," said Wheeler. "So that's what I did, and I'm still doing it. I'm still learning, too. I'll probably learn a lost from this production."

Along with composers Ewel Cornett, who founded Actor's Theatre of Louisville, and Dennis Burnside, Wheeler wrote the play with his trademark humor and insight.

The story features five retired men who gather to play cards and reminisce. Over the course of the play, they talk about life, love, sex, ex-wives, children, grandchildren and anything else that seems to matter.

"There are a lot of laughs in it," said Wheeler. "These guys are really funny."

Wheeler also admits the play has its serious moments, including an unlikely leading man at the play's conclusion.

Director Bekki Jo Schneider compares the mood of the play to the highly popular Steel Magnolias.

"This is a play for all age groups," said Schneider. "Older people will identify with the characters and younger people will recognize parents and grandparents and will appreciate the play's warmth and humor."

The play was born nearly two years ago when Wheeler, Cornett and Schneider met to discuss the concept. Wheeler and Cornett took off writing and the result was magnificent.

"We suddenly realized that this wasn't just another musical, but something with great depth and appeal that would have a long life after its premiere at Derby," said Schneider. "Several of the songs have such hummable tunes and memorable lyrics that we feel they are destined to be recorded and go high in the charts."

A number of Nashville artists have already expressed interest in several of the songs. Considering the chemistry of the writing team, it's no wonder.

Wheeler and Cornett first worked together in 1955, Wheeler's senior year at Berea College in Kentucky. Cornett, a Louisville native who has acted in such major national tours as "Camelot," "South Pacific," and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," went to Berea to perform in a production with Wheeler.

"We go way back," said Wheeler. "We've written a lot together." Their list of collaborations includes "Hatfields and McCoys," "The Glass Christmas Tree," "Young Abe Lincoln," and "Mossie and the Strippers," all successes.

"We've done pretty well for a couple of nobodies," said Cornett, who currently resides in Louisville. The secret behind their long-running professional relationship remains a mystery.

"We like the same kind of wine," Cornett said, "and the same kind of women, sort of."

He quickly adds that their success has come "because I'm very tolerant."

"Yeah, and because I'm pretty ignorant," Wheeler notes with a laugh.

Each has his own long resume of success. Along with his acting credits, Cornett also founded Theatre West Virginia, and produced "Hatfields and McCoys" for eleven seasons.

Wheeler has published more than 500 songs by artists such as Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and Ann-Margret. Some of his best-known songs include "Coward of the County," "Long Arm of the Law," "Jackson," and "The Reverend Mr. Black."

He has also recorded fourteen albums, written several humorous books and has been seen on virtually every television talk show in the country.

"What a Way to Go" runs from February 1 to March 13 at Derby Dinner. The run will include a March 7 concert by Wheeler at Derby Dinner featuring Nashville's Alex Harvey and Paul Kraft. For reservations to see the play or the concert, call 812-288-8281.