Revisiting a point I’ve made before, there were a lot of traditional country music artists who spent at least part of their careers performing what would become known as rockabilly. Guys like Onie Wheeler, who was never a big star but did enjoy a long, solid career before dying in 1984, in a way that many country performers might choose for themselves — on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
The Missouri-born Wheeler (and yes, Onie was his real name) began his musical career immediately after he’d served in World War II. Already proficient on guitar and harmonica, he soon found work on radio and with touring country music shows. As he traveled the country he picked up a lot of experience and made a lot of friends, and by the early 1950s had formed his own group, the Ozark Cowboys.
By then he’d relocated in Nashville and had managed to land a record contract, which didn’t lead to big sales but did pay the bills. He also found some success as a songwriter, furnishing songs like Lefty Frizzell’s Top Ten hit, “Run ‘Em Off,” but his own records didn’t really began to sell until he moved to a newer sound — what would become known as rockabilly. Songs like like “Onie’s Bop” and “Tell ‘Em Off” began to get him noticed by the young crowd and he sold a lot more records, but still didn’t hit the charts in a big way.
During the 1960s and 1970s Wheeler gradually moved back to a more traditional country sound, recording his biggest hit — “John’s Been Shucking My Corn” — in 1973. Along the way he performed with some of the biggest stars around, often appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and in other shows, and had a successful guitar shop on the side. He also had the pleasure of seeing his daughter Karen get her start in the business — and she is still performing even now.