Marijohn (Melson) Wilkin
Musician and Song Writer
Marijohn Wilkin is a native Texan. Born in Kemp, she attended public school in Sanger and went on to higher education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She furthered her academic work at Hardin-Simmons University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941. One month after graduation, in February 1941, Marijohn married Bedford Russell, a former star football player for Hardin-Simmons, who had recently earned his airman wings and was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He was deployed to North Africa in December 1942, and tragically, was killed in action near Tripoli, Italy, a month later.
Marijohn paid her college tuition by singing in the Hardin-Simmons University Cowboy Band as its first female member. After the untimely death of her husband, she taught music in the public school system in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before beginning her long career in the music industry in Nashville.
In Nashville, Marijohn joined the staff of the prestigious publishing company, Cedarwood, where within six months, she penned her first hit song Waterloo which would become a country classic, shortly followed by more to-be-classics: Long Black Veil, PT 109, and Cut Across Shorty. This kind of success earned her Nashville Songwriter International’s highest honor, “The Manny,” placing Marijohn in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1975.
The songwriter broadened her scope within the music industry with the formation of a recording back-up vocal group dubbed “The Marijohn Singers.” The group was to be heard on hundreds of Nashville recordings which led to appearances on the then widely viewed “Good Ole Nashville Music” television show.
Coupling the experience gained in the world of music with business acumen, Marijohn established her publishing interest, Buckhorn Music, in 1964. The company began with the hit song GTO written and performed by her son, John “Bucky” Wilkin (Ronny of Ronny & The Daytonas). As a publisher it was Marijohn who signed a young writer to Buckhorn Music who would change the face of country music and become a show business phenomenon – Kris Kristofferson. She has groomed many writers of note throughout her 40 year tenure as a publisher, as well as befriending many would-be writers and musicians with her “always open door” (open heart) policy. Buckhorn Music houses hundreds of copyrights and is still an integral part of the Nashville Music industry, celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2004.
Marijohn produced many record sessions, outstanding among those are Marijohn’s own recordings. With an original recording contract with Word Records, Marijohn recorded four albums, all songs self-penned. All four albums are still in distribution and still popular selling favorites today.
Marijohn’s best known song One Day at a Time, written with Kris Kristofferson, became a Country and Pop hit by Marilyn Sellers, a Number One Gospel hit by the Thrasher Brothers, a Number One Country hit by Cristy Lane. Charted Top Ten in seven different countries by seven different artists, the song went on to earn a BMI Millionaire award. It also garnered the prestigious Gospel Music Association Dove Award in 1975. To date, the song has been recorded over 750 times worldwide in numerous languages, styles, and genres.
In the 1990s, at a time when many of her contemporaries were retiring, Marijohn was enjoying the awesome success of then newcomer LeAnn Rimes, who had recorded not one, but three songs from Marijohn’s publishing company on albums Blue and Unchained, the Early Years. Between 1996 and 2000 numerous artists, including Darryl Singletary, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Chieftains, all recorded Marijohn’s song Long Black Veil, establishing it as a recurrent classic. The Chieftain’s album entitled Long Black Veil was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1996.
Marijohn was inducted into the Southern Songwriters’ Guild Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the North American Country Music Association International as “Hall of Fame Legendary Songwriter” in 1999. In 2003, One Day at a Time was recorded as Un Dia a la Vez, a Texas-Mexican rendition featuring both English and Spanish lyrics. This recording brought Marijohn full circle back to her Texas heritage and the musical styles reminiscent of her years growing up in Texas.
Marijohn received the Hardin-Simmons Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994 and an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Hardin-Simmons in 2001. The Nashville Songwriter Association International is slated to honor Marijohn with the Stephen Foster Award for her many accomplishments in the field of songwriting in 2004. Marijohn Wilkin, songwriter, publisher, producer, performer, recording artist, extraordinary individual, has been, and continues to be, a true inspiration through her music and her life.
Dr. Wilkin could not be here today but sends this expression of her gratitude: “In the midst of the worst depression and World War II, I stayed true to the promise made to my father on his death bed to complete my education and graduate from college. With the tremendous help and support of this university, I fulfilled that promise. And so, today, I accept this great honor in the name of my father Ernest Melson, a baker from Sanger, Texas. Thank you.”
It is the high honor of Hardin-Simmons University to recognize one of her own and to formally induct Dr. Marijohn Wilkin into the HSU Hall of Leaders.