In 1974, renowned Appalachian singer-songwriter Jimmy Wolford released a song titled “Will There Be Any Red Dog in Heaven?,” which referenced the abundant slate-like material that was derived from coal mines and used on many rural road projects until the late 1970s.
The legendary folk singer now knows first-hand if there is indeed any red dog in heaven as he died on Thursday, March 5, at the Paul Patton East Kentucky Veteran Center in Hazard, Kentucky, at the age of 85, following a battle with dementia.
Jimmy Wolford was born March 22, 1934, to the late Luther Wolford and Rosa B. McCoy Wolford. Wolford grew up in Williamson, working as a shoe shiner at the historic Mountaineer Hotel as a young man until he graduated from Williamson High School in 1952.
Wolford enlisted in the United States Navy and served as a corpsman during the mid 1950s. While he was serving, one of the deadliest peacetime sea disasters in American naval history occurred.
On May 26, 1954, an explosion rocked the aircraft carrier USS Bennington, which claimed the lives of 103 crewmen and injured 201 others. Wolford, who was stationed nearby, flew via helicopter and rendered aid to the injured crewmen.
Wolford sparked an interest in music while stationed in Port Lyautey in North Africa. After he was discharged, he traveled to Hollywood, California, to begin his music career.
During his storied career in the music industry Wolford recorded songs in Nashville and traveled and played with various popular musicians such as Cliffy Stone, Leon Mcauliffe, Dallas Frazier and gospel singer Oral Roberts, among others. He eventually moved back home to Tug Valley.
Several of Wolford’s songs, such as “Impatient Heart,” “Wake up in a Tree” and “She Looked a Whole Lot Like You,” appeared on the Billboard Music Charts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wolford, who was a descendant of the McCoys, also recorded a long-playing album that tells the story of the Hatfield and McCoy feud in song titled “The Hatfields and The McCoys: The Great Vendetta.”
The album, which was written by Wolford along with co-writers Bob Stanley and Larry Johnson, tells the story of the famous feud that took place in the 1800s along the Tug Fork River.
Another claim to fame for Wolford is serving as an entertainer on the national campaign trail for presidential candidate Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
After Humphrey lost the Democratic primary, Wolford also sang at certain venues for presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy, as Humphrey endorsed the future president.
Wolford worked for years at the old WBTH and WHJC radio stations in Williamson and Matewan and also radio and news stations in Pikeville, Ashland and Huntington and is credited for writing the old jingle played on WBTH called “Williamson, Williamson, That’s My Hometown.”
Kyle Lovern, who wrote a magazine article in Golden Seal and also newspaper articles about Wolford, said Wolford was a colorful figure to talk to.
“He had so many experiences such as campaigning across the country with Hubert Humphrey during his presidential campaign, to a successful music career and appearances on ‘To Tell the Truth’ and ‘Family Feud’ because of his McCoy heritage and knowledge of the infamous feud,” Lovern said. “Jimmy rubbed elbows with many famous people, but always remembered his hometown of Williamson and his alma mater Williamson High School.”
Local attorney and former Mountaineer Hotel owner Mark Mitchell, who was close friends with Wolford, said that Jimmy was the reason many celebrities such as Paul Newman, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others visited Williamson. Mitchell named a room in the hotel after Wolford prior to selling the hotel in 2019.
Jimmy’s younger brother Clyde Wolford, remembered Jimmy as a community man who would do anything to help out anybody, even if he didn’t know them.
“Jimmy loved everybody, and everybody loved Jimmy,” Clyde Wolford said. “He was good to everybody, if you needed help or were in any kind of situation, Jimmy would be there to help you. He was truly a community person. ... I’m sure we all have enemies, but I honestly don’t know anybody that didn’t like Jim.”
Wolford was active in the Tug River Valley flood relief efforts during the spring of 1977, which ravaged Williamson and surrounding areas.
In 2012, the street where Wolford and his family grew up in East Williamson, Watkins Street, was officially dubbed “Jimmy Wolford’s Place” by Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick. Wolford lived in Burnwell in Pike County, Kentucky, for the past several decades.
During his lifetime, Wolford received various awards for community service but none he was more proud of than the Distinguished West Virginia Award from Gov. Cecil Underwood on June 20, 1999.
Wolford’s survivors include one daughter, Melodie Wolford of New York; two sisters, Juanita Ramey of Virginia and Frances (Arthur) Pegg of Burnwell, Kentucky; one brother, Clyde (Betty) Wolford of California; one grandchild, Alexander Craven; and a host of nieces, nephews, family and friends.
Visitation will be held from 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, in the R.E. Rogers Funeral Home Chapel in Belfry. Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 12, in the funeral home chapel with Larry Keen officiating. Burial will follow in the Mountain View Memory Gardens, Huddy, Kentucky.
Belfry Chapter #141 D.A.V. will conduct military graveside rites. In lieu of flowers, the family asks to make donations to the Alzheimer’s Foundation in Jimmy’s name.