Johnny Seay, a country and folk singer who had a gold record in the ’60s and is known for songs such as “Day for Decision”, had a big hit in 1970 that he was inspired to write in Franklin.
He was living on a ranch in Franklin on Wilson Pike, and his neighbor was Willie York – a 59-year old alcoholic and convicted murderer. Seay wrote a song about him, his dying wife and their grandchildren, named “Willie’s Drunk And Nellie’s Dyin.'” It was a hit, and LIFE magazine came down to do a profile on Seay, York and Franklin.
A recent story on the restoration of the Old Jail in downtown Franklin to become the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, mentioned (and showed the video of) the song and how York was at one time a prisoner there.
After the story first ran, Seay reached out to us. In his deep twangy voice, like the kind you can hear on old records nowadays, he gave us some insight into the song, the history of Franklin and what it was like being a famous country singer back then- how you could be a success and struggling all at the same time.
Seay, who spent the past 35 years as a crop duster, among other things, now lives in Glen Rose, Texas.
“In 1958 when I was 17 years old, still in high school, and I got into a talent contest on a dare. And won it. I got a 1-year recording contract with NRC. I put a couple records out, got a manager who took me to Louisiana Hayride, and in 1960 I came to Nashville, came to the Grand Ole’ Opry.”
“I got into it all by accident, I guess you could say. I had fun, it was a great experience, but I don’t want to do it again.”
He lived off and on in Tennessee and California for the next few years, working on the railroad not exactly in disguise but not exactly letting anyone know he was that Johnny Seay. In 1966 he got a Gold Record for his song Day For Decision. Then he met Willie York.
Here’s one of his songs:
York, apparently, told varying accounts of what happened the night in 1944 when he and his brother killed a Franklin constable, or deputy or whatever it was he said. But one thing is for sure: he killed someone, a law man, and he and his brother did 11½ years in jail. Seay met him in the late ‘60s.
“He was just an old mountain man type of guy. He lived pretty much in another world. I’m talking about far removed from modern world of even that time. He was an interesting character to me, guess is why I wrote the song.
“I wrote what he told me: A Williamson County sheriff had his brother handcuffed in the jail and was whipping him with a blackjack, and Willie said he came up behind him and got the man’s pistol, and when he looked around he said, ‘Oh, my god!” and, Willie said, he was talking to wrong man and put the gun on him.
“Later on, after the song and everything, I heard a recording of him talking about it on tape to someone- and he said it happened on the side of the road, on the side of the highway, and he and his brother ran away from the scene after he killed the man, and when the highway patrol caught up with them they said, why did you run, Willie? And he said because he ran out of bullets and was afraid the man’s family might come after him.
“The truth is he did kill a man. In some ways I had respect for him, he was a tough old son of a buck. I didn’t respect what he did but felt sorry for him, his wife and their kids.
“I was told by deputy friend of mine that he shot another man later on. One of those old moonshiners , which there was plenty of in the hills around Franklin.
“Not very far away in the hills they had a place where they fought chickens, too. Willie used to go do that. I didn’t want to get involved.”