Mary Francis Penick, better known to the hillbillies amongst us as Skeeter Davis, was born in Kentucky today in 1931.
It was early August, 1953, and an upstart country duo called the Davis Sisters, Skeeter and Betty Jack, had just made their debut on the Wheeling Jamboree country show in Wheeling, West Virginia. The girls weren’t sisters, and both weren’t actually named Davis, but you would be forgiven for thinking that they were from the harmonies they made. They were from Kentucky, and for what it’s worth, sound like it. Their voices joined together in the high hard mountain style of bluegrass singers, but a healthy dose of echo and modern country instrumentation softened them and placed them in, if not uptown, at least midtown. A few months earlier, in May, they had recorded a song that was about to become a smash number 1 hit on the country charts called “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Success though, at least for the two of them together, was not to be. Just outside of Cincinnati, on that warm August night, while driving home from the Jamboree, Skeeter Davis remembers how she had mentioned to Betty Jack just how close to home they were when a car crossed the doubles. She doesn’t remember anything else from the accident. When she awoke in the hospital Betty Jack was gone.
Shortly after the accident “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” bumped Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter” from the top spot on Billboard’s Country Chart. It would hold it for eight weeks until Webb Pierce knocked it off with “There Stands the Glass.”
Ten years later Skeeter would release her biggest hit: “The End of the World.” The song was produced by Chet Atkins, who incidentally, played the guitar part in “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” “The End of the World” is a foundational piece to what would become known as The Nashville Sound. Soft strings and a cascading piano fade up into a gentle waltz, and in 2 minutes and 39 seconds Skeeter lays down the track that to this day remains the bar for all country pop songs. It’s an out of body experience of loss and confusion in the aftermath of failed love, where not only has the singer been betrayed by her lover, but also the sun and sea, birds and stars, and even, her own heart. Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?
Skeeter Davis died of breast cancer, at the age of 72, on September 19, 2004.
Postscript ~ Listen to the Phil Phillips 1959 classic “Sea of Love,” and see if you don’t hear the doomed prequel to “The End of the World.”