Bus Fare From Kentucky: The Autobiography of Skeeter Davis

New York: Birch Lane Press

By Steve Eng

For over thirty years, Skeeter Davis has been a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry. She has charted 40 country music hits in Billboard, eight of them hitting the pop charts as well. Her most famous record, "The End of the World," went to No. 2 in both country and pop in 1962, and is still a standard today.

On stage, Skeeter is a strong, polished performer, whose effervescence has won audiences in many parts of the world. Yet she has dipped her pen in blood and tears to write one of the most candid, painful show business memoirs ever published.

Born Mary Frances Penick in a shack in Kentucky in 1931, a family murder left her with a challenging homicide to investigate later. Her great-uncle had been caught out in the barn with his niece — so he murdered Skeeter's grandfather with six pistol shots. Skeeter has tried to sleuth out the whole story since, with mixed results. (A "family values" conspiracy, perhaps.)

"Poverty and pride should be the Penick coat-of-arms," she writes (her style is excellent, in spite of — or because of — not having a co-writer). Skeeter was ridiculed by her schoolmates for her shabby clothes, which explains her penchant for wondrous show costumes today. (Analogous to Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" episode.) She became a cheerleader (and still is, with her music). Her daddy was an alcoholic, and her mother stood by her man, and his bottle, by becoming one too.

Skeeter's surrogate sister was Betty Jack Davis, and as the singing Davis Sisters they had a No. 1 hit with "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know." The record was just breaking, when a car wreck killed Betty and hospitalized Skeeter. Betty's mother clung to Skeeter, and kept her in an alleged drug stupor for months. (Quite bizarre, even for this book ... .)

Skeeter's second-worst accident was her marriage to Ralph Emery, King of Country Music Radio and TV. Ralph suspected Skeeter of messin' around (see his "Memories" book); Skeeter says Ralph's pregnant girlfriend cut her wrists. In pages that would make the ghosts of Hank and Audrey Williams jealous, Skeeter says Ralph pulled his pistol on her — and worse, wouldn't let her have coffee and hamburgers on the road! As Oscar Wilde said, divorces are made in Heaven ... .

Skeeter describes her suspension from the Grand Ole Opry in 1973 for having chided the Nashville cops for arresting some evangelizing Christians. This sabbatical from Nashville helped popularize her even further in foreign markets. After a year-and-a-half she was reinstated — and all was forgotten, if not forgiven.

Skeeter's present marriage is to Joey Spampinato of the rock group NRBQ. (Skeeter cut an album with them.) Other trials intensify the latter pages — breast cancer, her father's death — but the entire book is buoyed with its author's indomitable, driving spirit to be happy.

Skeeter Davis, who has always been with us, has in some ways finally arrived!