Grand Ole Opry mainstay Stonewall Jackson, famed for his 1959 pop-crossover smash “Waterloo,” died on Saturday (Dec. 4) at age 89 following a long struggle with vascular dementia.
Between 1958 and 1973, Jackson placed 44 singles on the country charts, including 18 top 20 hits. In 2007, he was honored with a star-studded tribute album that featured contributions by Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, Tanya Tucker, Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels and dozens more.
Born in rural North Carolina, he was named for Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was his ancestor. His railroad-worker father died when Stonewall Jackson was a toddler. He joined the Armed Forces at age 16 to escape an abusive stepfather. While in the Navy on submarine duty, he polished his guitar skills and began writing songs.
Following his 1954 discharge, he worked at farming and logging in Georgia. He saved $350 to drive to Nashville in his pickup truck in 1956. He sang his songs at the Acuff-Rose publishing company, which resulted in an audition at the Opry. He made history by being signed as a Grand Ole Opry cast member without a recording contract or a hit record.
Columbia Records signed Jackson. He debuted on the label in 1958 with “Life to Go,” which he’d co-written with George Jones. A year later, Stonewall Jackson shot to the top of the charts with the thumping “Waterloo” (co-written by John D. Loudermilk & Marijohn Wilkin), which also became a massive pop hit.
Ernest Tubb took Stonewall Jackson under his wing, introducing him on the Opry, teaching him to dress, taking him on the road and signing him to his publishing company. Marty Robbins loaned him money for groceries. Jackson’s wife Juanita Wair Jackson (1937-2019) was a business-college alumnus who did his correspondence, kept the books and became his business manager.
Hits such as “Smoke Along the Track” (1959) and “Mary Don’t You Weep” (1960) led to the self-penned “Why I’m Walkin’” (1960), which was Jackson’s second major smash. It became an enduring country favorite, recorded by Tubb, Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Ricky Skaggs, George Hamilton IV, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Paycheck, among others.
The singer received “newcomer” awards from Billboard, Cash Box and Record World. He appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and headlined at the Hollywood Bowl. He continued to be in the country top 10 with “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” “”Leona” and “Old Showboat” in 1962-63. In 1964, “B.J. the D.J.” rose to No. 1.
This was followed by “Don’t Be Angry” in 1964. The song was revived as a big country hit by Donna Fargo in 1977. Jackson’s next single was 1965’s “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water,” which also proved to be perennially popular with other artists.
Stonewall Jackson was featured in the 1965 film Country Music on Broadway. Two years later, he returned to the county top 10 with “Help Stamp Out Loneliness.” His other 1967 hit was “Promises and Hearts (Were Made to Break).”
In 1971, he became the first artist to record a live album in The Ryman Auditorium, “The Mother Church of Country Music.” He was in the country top 10 that year with his version of Lobo’s pop success “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.”
In the 1980s, Stonewall Jackson recorded for the MGM, Sunbird and MSR labels. He and Juanita invested in real estate throughout Nashville. Their son Turp (Stonewall Jackson Jr.) often joined his father at Opry appearances.
Jackson made a cameo appearance in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 film about the life of Patsy Cline. In 1991, his fan club published his autobiography, From the Bottom Up. He portrayed the disapproving “Dad” in Confederate Railroad’s 1993 video for its hit “Trashy Women.”
In 1996, Jackson’s “Jesus Is My Lifeline” spent four months at No. 1 on the Music City News Gospel Voice charts. He and gospel artist Don Richmond co-wrote the song and performed it as a duet. It earned the Opry star an award from the Country Gospel Music Association. The following year, Stonewall Jackson was honored with the Ernest Tubb Memorial Award for his lifelong contributions to the country-music industry.
In 2006, Stonewall Jackson celebrated his 50th anniversary as an Opry cast member. The commemorative, 22-track album Stonewall Jackson And Super Friends: A Tribute featured a country-music Who’s Who. Among those appearing on it were Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Hal Ketchum, the Gatlins, Joe Diffie, Grandpa Jones, John Conlee, The Kentucky Headhunters, The Whites, Connie Smith, Lynn Anderson, Marty Stuart, Waylon Jennings, Mac Wiseman, Hank Snow, Jim Ed Brown, Lorrie Morgan and Porter Wagoner, in addition to the artists previously mentioned. It was issued in 2007.
That was also the year that Stonewall Jackson sued the Grand Ole Opry for $10 million, charging age discrimination. He was angry that the show didn’t feature him often enough. The Opry countered that being a cast member did not make the show his employer. Furthermore, the show regularly booked Wagoner, Jimmy Dickens, Bobby Osborne and other cast members who were Jackson’s seniors. The parties reached a settlement in 2008.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s oldies became favorites among artists in the emerging Americana format. Buddy Miller and Heather Myles both revived “Why I’m Walkin.’” Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris and others brought back “Smoke Along the Track.” The Greenhorns recorded “Waterloo,” and Dale Watson sang “Don’t Be Angry.”
Saturday night’s Grand Ole Opry performance was dedicated to Stonewall Jackson. Funeral arrangements for the star have not been announced.
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