MOUNTAIN GROWN MUSIC • CELEBRATING THE TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN MUSIC OF HAYWOOD COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA

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Johnny Wiggins

Legends - Wiggins - The drive behind the dreams
Todd Callaway

Christmas 1965—Johnny Wiggins had been on the road with Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours for several weeks. He was back home for the holidays, and as he walked through the front door of his house, he met his 3-year-old son John. Instead of a hug for daddy, little John ran.

"He didn't recognize his own daddy," said Judy Wiggins, Johnny's widow, during a recent interview at her Allens Creek home.

At that moment, Johnny Wiggins' life-long dream of becoming a country music star gave way to a higher calling—his family.

"It really bothered him, being away from me and the kids," Judy remembered. "He knew he had to make a choice ... and he did—us."

Wiggins' agonizing decision to cut short a promising career, a dream he had cultivated since 1952, didn't cool his passion for music. Instead, he would spend the next 40 years of his life playing his guitar, singing songs and passing along his passion for music to others.

"My daddy left the mountains many years ago to come here (Nashville, Tenn.) to pursue his love for music," said Audrey Wiggins, Johnny's daughter. "He was in hog heaven. ... But he gave up his music career to give us an honest life," she said at her Nashville home recently.

Audrey, along with her brother John, went to Nashville in 1987 with hopes of succeeding in the country music business. Since then, the duo has recorded two compact discs and found the success their father encouraged them to seek.

Wiggins grew up in the Mills River community of Henderson County. He told The Mountaineer in a 1992 interview he remembered watching his father playing the fiddle, the first musical instrument in his home.

At age 10, Wiggins picked up a guitar his parents had intended for his older brother. But Johnny showed more interest in playing than his brother, and slowly began to learn more and more songs.
By his 16th birthday, Wiggins had improved his playing enough to perform live on WLOS Radio with banjo player Ray Wines. Over the next two years Wiggins would travel to California, Michigan and back to North Carolina before deciding to try his luck in Nashville.

While traveling the country, Wiggins worked as an automobile mechanic during the day Ñ a trade he picked up as a boy—and played with several different bands and at venues ranging from night clubs to an early morning television show in Michigan.

Thumbing through a tattered scrapbook full of memories lovingly preserved for her family, Judy retells her husband's life through photographs, records, contracts, a first royalty check and letters from his former boss, the late Ernest Tubb, each adding detail to a life steeped in music and family.

Judy pulls a photograph from the scrapbook revealing Wiggins at 16, playing guitar with Ray Wines. The duo performed on WLOS Radio, Judy said. Donned in cowboy hats and boots, Wines picked the banjo and Wiggins added the guitar and vocals.

This first taste of showbiz propelled Wiggins to pursue his music career to California, Judy said. In California, Wiggins found a day job as a mechanic and played with The Billy Jack Wills Band at night.

Working as a mechanic during the day and playing at night supported Wiggins while he moved from state to state between 1952-'56. He continued his wandering, moving to Michigan at the urging of an aunt in 1953. In Michigan, Wiggins worked in an automobile factory while playing music at night.

As it turned out, Wiggins' aunt had a connection at a local morning television show called The Casey Clark Show, and helped him get a job playing. This gig lasted for several months.
But itchy feet struck again, Judy said, and Wiggins headed back to Western North Carolina in 1954. From 1954 to '59, Wiggins played clubs, dances, and private parties all over the South, even recording two singles—on the independent record label Cactus Records Ñ with then-partner Kenny Rhodes as The Country Boys.

In 1957, Judy and Johnny were married. Wiggins headed for Nashville in 1959, hoping to land a record deal and fulfill his dream.

Wiggins signed a recording contract with Jim Denny's Artist Bureau on the newly founded record label Dollie Records. Denny had turned Elvis down earlier but signed Johnny, Judy said.
Wiggins was the first artist on Dollie Records. He recorded four singles, but none of them got much airplay, Judy remembered.

"Things were hard for him in the beginning," Judy said. So hard Wiggins had to work as a diesel mechanic at the Nashville Transit Authority, even though he had signed a recording contract in 1960 with his newfound friend Mel Tillis. Wiggins cut some records on Tillis' new record label, she said, but again the singles didn't receive much airplay.

The transit authority job, however, would turn out to be Wiggins' big break. It seemed Ernest Tubb had his tour bus serviced at the transit authority, Judy said.

"Johnny met some of the Troubadours and found out they were looking for a bus driver. Well, he let them know he could drive the bus and fix it and they hired him," she remembered. At the time, Tubb didn't know Wiggins played guitar and sang, but Judy said Johnny just wanted to get his foot in the door.

And in 1962 Wiggins got his chance to take the stage as Tubb's "Singing Bus Driver." For the next three years, Wiggins was a featured act on Tubb's radio show, The Ernest Tubb Record Shop Jamboree, and toured with the Tubb and his Texas Troubadours while still driving the bus.
Yet there was something missing in Wiggins' life, Judy explained. He agonized over splitting time between the road and his family, she said. So in December 1965 he made the decision to give up the big-time music business and raise his family.

Wiggins took a job with WNC Paving Company where he worked until he died in 1993. But he never lost his love for music, Judy said.

"Musicians cling to each other. And Johnny knew a lot of them around here," she said.
Many musicians paid regular visits to Wiggins' home to play music with him and his family.
"Growing up I remember there was always some kind of music around," said John Wiggins, Johnny's son. "On the weekends we always had company. Mama would cook, and we all would be in the living room making music."

Wiggins' life ended tragically in 1993 when he was killed in an automobile accident.
"It happened in seconds," Judy remembered. She and Johnny were passengers when the car they were riding in slammed into a concrete barrier on Interstate 40, flipping onto its top. Johnny's neck was broken.

But the legacy he left behind lives on in his family and especially in John and Audrey. The duo recently released their second compact disc on Mercury Records.
"I think our father lived his dream through us," Audrey said. "Our daddy was as much a part of our dream as we were."

"He loved his kids and spent most of his leisure hours with them," Judy said. "He loved everybody. He had friends from all walks of life."

Closing the scrapbook, Judy said that over the years Johnny might have had second thoughts about his decision to quit the music business, but he never talked about them.
"I suppose he had regrets, but he always knew he'd made the right choice. If he'd stayed in Nashville he wouldn't have known his kids like he did," she said.

The four years since Wiggins death are still like days to the family.

"We're still not over it," Judy said as tears filled her eyes. "What we decided, me and the kids, is that it was just his time to go and the Lord took him."

Quitting his quest to be a star never left Wiggins bitter about life. Friends and family remember him as a loving and kind man who always had time to share with neighbors.

"It was Johnny's dream to be a Grand Ole Opry star, but he had to come home to take care of his family," said Kyle Edwards, friend and owner of the Stompin' Grounds in Maggie Valley. "In his own way, he was a philosopher. ... He was the most talented musician and mechanic I'd ever seen."
"It's a tough business, but when you step on stage, that's worth all the trouble you've gone through," Wiggins said in a 1992 interview.

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