When songwriter Herbert Paul Gilley died at age 27 in a July 1957 drowning accident in nearby Morgan County, his parents were so stricken with grief they burned his personal belongings, author Chet Flippo wrote in his 1981 biography of Hank Williams Sr., Your Cheatin’ Heart.
The actions of Gilley’s parents erased many of his contributions to country and popular music. Flippo says that had it not been for Gilley, Williams would not have recorded two of his most famous songs, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Cold Cold Heart.” Gilley, who attended high school in Ezel in Morgan County, wrote both songs and sold them to Williams for little money. Williams then took the tunes to the top of the country music charts before he died at age 29 on January 3, 1953 — four years before Gilley.
Other songs written by Gilley, who is buried at Hazel Green in Wolfe County, include “Springtime in Alaska,” recorded by Johnny Horton, “Crazy Arms,” recorded by Ray Price, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” recorded by both Price and Perry Como.
Next weekend, Morgan County residents hope to begin helping Gilley receive credit for the important work that he did.
A “Paul Gilley Day” celebration will be held in the Morgan County community of Maytown (15 miles outside of West Liberty) on Saturday, June 9 starting at 11 a.m. The celebration will feature special music by Bob Johnson and his Nashville Sound Band, Andrea Trusty, Bill Trusty, Joanna Oldfield, Mike Havens and Blue Mountain Grass, Gary Ball’s More Than Country Band, Wells Family, Jessie Wells, Randy Maloney, The Lawson Family Reunion, and many more.
Morgan County Judge/Executive Tim Conley has also declared the day as “Paul Gilley Day” in Morgan County.
“Paul Gilley was a giant in his own right, figuratively and literally. He is now getting the credit that he so deserves as one of the greatest songwriting minds country music has ever had” said Frankie Spencer, event chairman and a Morgan County magistrate. “His life has been like a country music song in itself, one of the greatest country music stories never told, until now.”
Admission is free. Musicians will be taking the stage at 11:30 a.m. Other events will include an unveiling of a sign recognizing Maytown as the birthplace of Paul Gilley. The West Liberty Kiwanis Club will be giving out free cowboy hats to the children. Paul Gilley Day prints by Dewey Gibbs and t-shirts will be available for purchase, along with Paul Gilley’s biography, Paul Gilley, Ghost Writer in the Sky by W. Lynn Nickell of West Liberty.