Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter and publisher Marijohn Wilkin was born Marijohn Melson in Kemp, Texas, on July 14, 1920. She was dubbed the “den mother of Music Row,” because she helped so many younger songwriters during her career. Wilkin was the daughter of Ernest and Karla Melson and grew up in Sanger, Texas, just north of Dallas, where she learned to play the piano at an early age.
Wilkin’s father, a baker and musician, died of cancer when she was only thirteen years old. After graduating from Sanger High School, she attended Baylor University in Waco. However, she soon transferred to Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, where she was the first female to join the renowned Cowboy Dance Band, thereby giving her the opportunity to travel around the country. While in Abilene, she also met and married Bedford Russell, although soon afterward he was killed in World War II.
After earning a B.A. in English in 1941, Wilkin moved to Lovington, New Mexico, where she became a schoolteacher. She remarried and had a son, John Buck, whom she nicknamed “Bucky.” However, she soon divorced and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she worked as a teacher, began writing songs, and eventually married Art Wilkin.
In 1955 Red Foley, a musician and talent scout from the Ozark Jubilee network TV show, heard Wilkin’s son, Bucky, playing the guitar and helped book him on another TV show called Junior Jubilee. The family soon relocated to Springfield, Missouri, where the show was taped. While in Missouri, Marijohn began working in a piano bar and singing with Red Foley’s road show.
In 1958 a booking agent named Lucky Moeller heard Wilkin performing in the piano bar and persuaded her to move to Nashville. At first she performed in the Voo Doo Room piano bar on Printers Alley but then began working for Cedarwood Publishing Company, owned by Jim Denny. In the ensuing years Wilkin had made a name for herself as a songsmith by writing or co-writing numerous hits, including “Long Black Veil,” “Cut Across Shorty,” “Grin and Bear It,” “P.T. 109,” and “Waterloo.” By 1963 she managed to have an average of one of her songs per week recorded by other artists.
In 1964 Wilkin started her own publishing company, Buckhorn Music, named after her son. In 1965 she signed a relatively unknown young songwriter named Kris Kristofferson to the publishing firm. That year she also formed the Marijohn Singers, a backup vocal group. After divorcing her third husband, she met and married record producer Clarence Selman who helped her form the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1967. However, after writing only a couple songs with Selman, the couple divorced.
The stress of long hours at work, coupled with alcohol and substance abuse, left Wilkin depressed, and she twice tried to take her own life. By the late 1960s, she had fled to Europe to escape the career pressures she faced in the United States. When she returned to Nashville a few years later, she decided to confront her problems through religious faith, rather than drugs and alcohol. In 1974 she wrote “One Day at a Time,” a song for which she credited Kris Kristofferson as co-writer. The tune won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award in 1975, became a Number 1 hit for Christy Lane in 1980, and has since been recorded by more than two hundred artists. Wilkin’s success with “One Day at a Time,” helped her launch a successful stint as a gospel music songwriter.
Throughout her career, Wilkin wrote songs for a diverse group of musicians, including Lefty Frizzell, Stonewall Jackson, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Joan Baez, LeAnn Rimes, and others. In 1975 Wilkin was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in honor of her achievements as one of the most successful early female publishers and songwriters. In 2005 she was honored by the SOURCE Organization as a pioneering Music Row businesswoman.
Following a series of heart problems, Wilkin underwent triple bypass surgery in 2003. However, the procedure failed to correct the condition and left her ineligible for a subsequent operation. On October 28, 2006, Wilkin died of heart disease in Nashville at the age of eighty-six. She is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville. Survivors included her son, John Buck Wilkin.