She was born Marijohn Melson in Kemp, Texas, to a deacon and his wife. Though she had always been talented as a child, Melson showed little interest in the entertainment industry and even turned down a movie contract with Monogram Studios in the '30s, preferring an education and a husband to fame. Following college, she worked as a music teacher. Not long after her wedding, her husband, Bedford Russell, was killed during World War II. The recently widowed young woman married another, but the marriage only lasted long enough for her to bear her son John (usually called "Bucky"). After the divorce she married Art Wilkin Jr. and soon afterward began writing songs.
In 1955, the Wilkins moved to Springfield, Missouri, so Bucky could play guitar on The Children's Ozark Jubilee. Marijohn made her own recording debut there with a song she co-wrote with James P. Coleman, Take This Heart; her songs were later recorded by other stars of the show. Occasionally, Wilkin sang in local clubs at night to augment the family finances, and it was there that a local lawyer suggested she try her luck in Nashville. She went and began singing in a local club while trying to sell her songs. At first she had no luck, but then found a spot at Cedarwood Publishing, where she worked alongside such stars as Mel Tillis and John D. Loudermilk. On the same day in June 1959, both Stonewall Jackson and Lefty Frizzell debuted two of her songs -- Waterloo and Long Black Veil, respectively. While Frizzell reached number six with Long Black Veil, Jackson found the biggest hit of his career in "Waterloo": the single spent five weeks at the top of the country charts. Three years later, Jimmy Dean recorded P.T. 109 (an account of the 1943 sinking of John F. Kennedy's torpedo boat), and the single hit number three.
Though Wilkin's hits placed on the country charts, she was a versatile writer and wrote pop songs as well, her two most famous being Cut Across Shorty and Whip-Poor-Will. Occasionally, she also freelanced as a backup singer, and has worked with the Jordanaires. Between 1960 and 1961, she recorded two solo albums for Columbia, including Country Western Songs That Sold a Million. In the mid-'60s, Wilkin founded her own music publishing company, Buckhorn Music. It was there that Bucky had his first songwriting success with the surfer classic G.T.O., which he recorded with his group Ronny the Daytonas.
Buckhorn Music soon became a haven for Nashville's fringe. It was there that Kris Kristofferson got his start, as did Johnny Duncan and Ed Bruce. Although Wilkin was a highly respected writer, she was prone to bouts of depression that were eased with heavy drinking. Her third marriage disintegrated in the mid-'60s, and at two points she became suicidal. By 1974, however, she had turned her life around and found God. With Kristofferson, she penned the heartfelt One Day at a Time. Recorded by Marilyn Sellers, it made the Top 20 and has since been recorded by over 200 different artists.
Wilkin later devoted her life to writing gospel tunes. In 1974 she celebrated her joy on the album I Have Returned for the World label. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975 and in 1978 published her autobiography, Lord Let Me Leave a Song. However, in later life she was stricken with heart disease; coronary bypass surgery in the early 2000s failed and Wilkin was informed that a further operation was impossible. Marijohn Wilkin died on October 28, 2006 in Nashville; she was 86 years old. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi
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