The serendipitous final romance of Statler Brothers tenor Lew DeWitt
“Lew DeWitt was a very humble man who made it big and never understood how or why.” At last the original Statler Brother’s widow Judy Wells breaks her silence to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Country Music Hall of Famer’s passing from the tortuous Crohn’s disease at age 52 on August 15, 1990. The haunting high tenor-voiced guitarist wrote “Flowers on the Wall,” whose combined YouTube views exceed 12 million. He shared a stage with Johnny Cash for eight years, was covered by Waylon Jennings [“I Tremble for You”],” and loved B-westerns wholeheartedly. Wells is a former newspaper columnist and school superintendent’s secretary whose resilience and sense of humor kept DeWitt contented for the final 11 years of his existence. An undemanding country girl from Virginia, Wells was not enamored with music. When DeWitt learned that his future flame did not compose songs or poetry, he retorted, “Thank God.”
The Judy Wells DeWitt Interview
How did you meet Lew?
The Statler Brothers started out singing gospel as the Kingsmen. My neighbor Joe McDorman was originally with them [bassist Harold Reid’s younger brother and future lead singer Donnie was my age and still in school]. They rehearsed at the McDorman’s home in Lyndhurst, Virginia, on Sunday afternoons. I and other friends would go over and listen. I was 12 years old in 1957 — a long friggin’ time ago!
I didn’t see Lew again until 1968 at Alwood Studios in Waynesboro where my aunt JoAnn Wells Ellinger worked. Lew was having publicity photos done, and I was there to see Aunt JoAnn. Alwood was associated with and in the same building as the News-Virginian where I worked in advertising and had a weekly column about where to shop in the city.
Lew noticed me and wanted to meet. He sang “Brown Eyes” to me on guitar [composed by DeWitt and issued as the B-side of his rare solo Columbia single “She Went a Little Bit Farther” in May 1967]. I was 22, and Lew was married to Glenda Kay Simmers with two children — Denver and Donna [Brian and Shannon were born later]. I don’t have any kids.
When did you see Lew again?
In 1978. I was divorced and so was Lew [from second wife Joyce Anne Arehart]. I was working at the school board as a secretary to the superintendent. Lew called out of the blue, which shocked me as I really hadn’t thought of him much during the past decade. I was aware of the Statlers and their success and never really imagined Lew could be interested in me because of who he was.
Lew and I met at my apartment and talked. He called again a few months later, asking me out that night. I realized eventually that he did everything on the spur of the moment, never knowing how he would be feeling. I told him I was busy, which was true. Lew thought I didn’t like him and didn’t call again until September 1979. He wasn’t used to being turned down.
I finally went out with him, and we kept seeing each other. This was during the height of the Statler Brothers’ career, so he was gone a lot. When he was on the road, he called often after a show and we would talk for hours.
Before Lew called out of the blue, had you been following the Statler Brothers’ career closely?
No. Don’t laugh…I’ve never been into music! That’s one of the things Lew loved about me.
He knew you wanted to be with him for the right reasons and weren’t a besotted fan.
Exactly! One of the things Lew asked was whether I wrote songs or poetry. When I replied that I did not, he said, “Thank God.”
Where was your first date?
At first Lew seemed shy around me, revealing that he hadn’t actually dated for so long that he didn’t remember how. We went to Mrs. Rowe’s Family Restaurant, Lew’s favorite place to eat in Staunton. He didn’t really care for going out in public because people recognized him and constantly wanted autographs or photos. The fans did not irritate me. He was not well and took Prednisone for inflammation. Lew would pick at his food. We also went to the movie theater and had dinners often at my mother Martha Wells’ house. She was a complete angel [interestingly enough, my father was named Lewis].
During your dates, was Lew like me, always asking questions? Would he mention problems that he was facing? Were the Statlers brought up?
Funnily enough, the conversations seemed to always be about us. Lew mentioned that he was a flower on the wall in school and not very popular. Once he became famous, everyone he met said they had gone to school with him.
Was there a moment when you knew deep down that Lew was the one?
Funny, but when I think back there was not one particular moment. It was a combination of really small things. Lew had a great sense of humor and was extremely witty. He reminded me of a little boy in some ways [unsurprisingly, in 1974 DeWitt penned “The Boy Inside of Me” for the Statlers’ Thank You World]. He needed someone to care for him. Lew was comfortable to be with and talk with. Always a perfect gentleman. Not to sound conceited, but I could tell he wanted to impress me as a man, not as an entertainer. He let me know he loved that I was not materialistic but a simple country girl. I felt like we had always been together. One of those once in a lifetime, meant to be relationships.
Did friends or family discourage you from spending time with an entertainer who was rarely home, previously married twice with four kids, and not in the best of health?
Lew fit in with my big family right away [I’m the oldest of five girls and we’re all very close]. No one objected except my grandfather Jim Wells and two guys I was dating who begged me not to marry Lew. Granddaddy was afraid he would hurt me, but Lew eventually won him over. Unfortunately, not long after we were married [February 16, 1980], Lew sang at his funeral.
“I Believe in Santa’s Cause” was a September 1978 A-side that Lew composed with Statlers touring guitarist Buddy Church also distributed on the Christmas Card album. Recall any Yuletide memories of Lew?
For Christmas 1978 Lew sent me red roses. I dried them, and that’s what I carried when we got married. We went Christmas shopping so I could help pick gifts for his kids. Lew wore a big black cowboy hat and couldn’t understand why people were still recognizing him. I told him it was because of the hat, which he mistakenly assumed would offer concealment.
What was Lew’s marriage proposal like?
There was no grand gesture — Lew was always totally down to earth. He asked me three times before I said yes. I didn’t want anyone else to have Lew, and I’m thankful I finally agreed. I wanted to iron out the creases in his jeans — they were always wrinkled.
All kidding aside, I told him I didn’t want people to think I was marrying him for his money. He said he didn’t have any, and he was right. Lew lived in a $60,000 house and drove a seven-year-old yellow Lincoln Continental car. I learned later that his money [e.g. songwriter and performance royalties] mostly went out for income tax because he never turned in deductions or write-offs. His CPA was floored the first year we filed taxes together because of everything I turned in. Lew had no head for business and no one to help him. His finances definitely improved after I came into his life [listen to DeWitt’s “Whole Lotta Money” from 1986’s On My Own for his lighthearted outlook].
Where did the wedding occur?
The ceremony was at Lew’s best friend Ray Robertson’s house with only family. Another friend named Garvey Winegar sang the Gene Autry song “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine” [part of the soundtrack to Autry’s 1936 western The Big Show where Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers appear as instrumental support; the Statlers dropped their cover on 1980’s 10th Anniversary]. Neither of us were nervous, and everything seemed very natural and loving. There was no honeymoon as Lew was busy on the road, and I don’t care much for traveling. We lived at my place for a couple of months until we discovered a home in Staunton. Lew needed to live there on account of business purposes.
How did you and Lew solve disagreements?
Believe it or not, we rarely disagreed. Nothing stands out in my mind that required “solving.” We never went to bed angry as some couples do.
I tend to be a night owl and not an early riser. Was Lew similar?
Yes. But once Lew got off the road, he quickly adapted to a near normal routine.
When did you first see Lew onstage?
Staunton’s annual Fourth of July celebration in 1980, about five months after we became husband and wife. The Statler families were seated to the right of the stage in a fenced-off area. I felt like a little girl from Lyndhurst in a big dream. I attended awards shows, too.
Did Lew introduce you at any show featuring the Statlers and tell the crowd that you had been recently married?
No. We were very good at keeping the two lives apart. In Nashville at an awards show rehearsal Lew took me by the hand and said he wanted to introduce me to someone…Johnny Cash. The Man in Black was onstage rehearsing, so there was not much time for conversation besides pleasantries.
Did you see Lew’s hand-picked successor Jimmy Fortune in concert with the Statlers?
While Lew was on a six-month leave of absence from the Statlers that started in November 1981, we went to Salem, Virginia, and sat in the audience to watch the group. Lew was very proud of Jimmy. About a month after he officially stepped down, Lew and I attended the 4th of July celebration concert at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton which the Statlers had founded in 1969. Lew wanted to see how Jimmy was doing. We stood along the fence across the street from their offices where we had a good view of the show. We were only there a few minutes when Lew suddenly admitted, with tearful eyes, that he wanted to leave because he couldn’t stand it any longer. On the outside looking in was not easy.
What prompted your move to the country?
After Lew regained his health and didn’t need to live in Staunton, in 1984 we bought a 50-acre farm in Waynesboro. Lew loved that placed and kept an acoustic or electric guitar in every room. For awhile we raised cows and pigs. We put a small lake in by the creek. My daddy stocked it with trout, bought Lew his first fishing pole, and taught him how to fish and clean ’em. He’d go catch a trout, and I’d cook it for him. Lew even went groundhog hunting. I sold it a few years ago.
Tell us about Lew’s neurotic, amusing personality.
Lew was not very organized, always misplacing things and swearing someone was coming behind him and moving it. One day he came in the kitchen and started opening and slamming doors shut. He said he was looking for his tour schedule calendar. If he didn’t find it, he was going to take the house apart brick by brick.
I took Lew’s hand and led him to his TV room where he had a table piled sky high with stuff. Under the table was a big box of more odds and ends. I slid everything off the table onto the floor, dumped the box on top of that pile, and told him to go through everything. If he didn’t find the calendar, he could start on the brick. A couple of hours later Lew found the calendar and straightened up the mess at the same time.
Lew liked getting suntanned in the summer. He sat on the patio facing the sun with a $20 bill folded over his nose so it wouldn’t burn.
Lew tried to quit smoking and his friend Jack Dull convinced him that chewing tobacco would make it easier. He would spit tobacco juice out his SUV as he was driving or open the door when stopped in traffic. The whole side of his Suburban was covered. Eventually the door loosened on its hinges from being open and shut so much. He quit both when he got sick the last time.
Was Lew an Elvis Presley fan?
Yes, but not overly. Surprisingly, he didn’t listen to music that much [in March 1975 Presley was the first pop artist to cover Don Reid’s “Susan When She Tried” on his Today album].
Did Lew keep up with contemporary country and pop radio?
No. He gravitated towards the Big Band swing era of the 1930s and 1940s and had a collection of 78 RPM vinyl records.
How determined was Lew to ignite a solo career?
Lew put together the great Star City Band and performed locally. He self-released the 10-song Here to Stay album and sold it at his shows. In 1984 or 1985 we went to Nashville like two fish out water and began searching for a record label.
I actually don’t recall who or how many companies we visited in Nashville. Lew was starting all over in the business as a newcomer doing something he hadn’t had to do before. He called it pounding the pavement. He was so green in the business-end of things and, of course, l knew even less. We had flown to town which meant paying a fortune in cab fare because he didn’t know the city [unlike most country artists, the Statlers’ home base was in Virginia]. One day we had two appointments downtown. We left the first one to go back to the hotel. We hired another cab in time for the second appointment only to realize that when we were dropped off we were back at the same building we had been in two hours earlier! Our next appointment was at the same destination. We had a good laugh and just said, “Well, hell!”
Compleat Records, a secondary level group, awarded him a recording contract. He was even more determined then. Lew did the Own My Own album  with Compleat. We made more trips to Nashville and found an agent and publicist. Lew eventually had bookings all the way into New York. I gave Lew’s eldest son Denver, who has a band and lives in Florida, the masters to both albums. I doubt he’ll ever do anything as far as reissuing them, and I wish we could get them remastered and available for streaming. Incidentally, I don’t own a computer. My sister Ella Fitzgerald takes care of any music business-related emails that come my way about Lew’s BMI song publishing company — Wallflower Music. No, she doesn’t sing [laughs].
Did Lew write any songs inspired by you?
Did Lew seek your advice if he was stuck on a lyric or melody?
No. Lew would sing something he had just finished writing for my opinion. I doubt I offered any real criticism — I probably always liked it [laughs].
Did Lew record music at home?
When we moved to the farm in 1984, next to the house was a big metal building with two rooms. Lew set up a recording studio in one, while the other room had a movie projector, screen, and shelves of western movies. He named that building “The Strand” [originally written by DeWitt and issued as the B-side of “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott,” Carry Me Back, September 1973].
Lew used reel to reel tapes to record himself. No one was allowed inside while he was “wood-shedding” as he called it. Unheard, newly written material as well as covers of artists that Lew appreciated were tracked. Lew didn’t write dates on the reels. He had a habit of reusing tapes so there weren’t as many as you might think. Sadly, I waited too long. By the time I found someone to transfer those reels, only one was salvageable. I do have lots and lots of Lew’s unheard song lyrics stored in acid-free folders.
Earlier in 2020 Jimmy Fortune divulged to me that he had considered finishing up and recording some of Lew’s unreleased songs. Is that a good idea? What if other artists expressed interest?
What was the history of Lew’s health struggle?
Lew always had tummy problems. He ended up in the hospital somewhere on the road during the Statlers’ early years and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease [an inflammation of the digestive tract causing abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition]. There was no real treatment for many years except diet.
He had emergency surgery right after he retired from the Statlers in June 1982. Fighting severe colon infection, Lew almost died. His hospital sojourn lasted seven weeks. He wore an ostomy bag for six months and slowly but surely regained his strength. Out of the 11 years we were together [counting the six months we dated], Lew had six pain-free years where he was optimistic and happy.
The infection returned by the start of 1989. When Lew wasn’t feeling so well, anger and depression settled in. He was only human. Lew made me promise he would never have to go back to a doctor or hospital. The only medical person he ever had to see again was a nurse who delivered supplies. I was trained to give him antibiotic IV’s for a year and a half leading up to his death. One of the lingering effects of that treatment is essential tremors in my hands.
Lew’s final concert was in July 1989 at the annual Waynesboro Parks & Recreation Summer Extravaganza [with a rainstorm cutting his performance short, DeWitt walked off stage forever after singing an impromptu “Singin’ in the Rain”], and his last public appearance was attending our local baseball team the Waynesboro Generals’ game exactly one month to the day before he passed. Lew was a big baseball fan and was given the game ball by the team.
Lew was in a hospital bed in our den for two months before he passed. My last memory of hearing Lew sing and play guitar was a day Dave Coffey [his piano player in Star City as well as final backing band the Sidekicks; bassist Robby Meadows was also part of both groups] came to visit shortly before Lew’s strength began to fail. Dave asked Lew to teach him “It Is No Secret [What God Can Do]” because he knew that was Lew’s favorite hymn. Dave sang “It Is No Secret” at Lew’s memorial service.
Were there any famous visits or phone calls?
Once Lew retired from the Statlers in 1982, there was no contact with other artists or celebrity visitors. When he got sick and it was close to the end, Johnny Cash called for the first and only time. Floored, I answered and immediately took the phone to Lew. God love him, Lew cried the whole time they talked. It was the last time they ever spoke. Lew did receive innumerable flowers when he passed from artists such as the Oak Ridge Boys, Barbara Mandrell, and Brenda Lee.
[Author’s Note: From 1964 to 1972 the Statlers were part of Cash’s touring and studio ensemble. DeWitt and the Man in Black actually co-wrote “I Tremble for You,” first distributed on Waylon Jennings’ RCA Victor LP “Love of the Common People” in August 1967. Cash also performed DeWitt’s “The Ten Commandments” on 1969’s gospel concept LP The Holy Land and “The Junkie’s Prayer” on his popular ABC variety series in 1971].
What happened during the final few days of Lew’s life?
Lew had begun to hallucinate on Sunday night and didn’t know where he was. A nurse arrived at our home Monday to start morphine [I also had to hire a private duty night nurse]. Lew was not aware of anything through his passing early Wednesday morning. Eight friends and family members were in the room when Lew left us. His actual cause of death was heart failure, but it was all tied into Crohn’s disease.
I was not shocked when Lew died as he and I had both made peace with it. To say this always brings tears to my eyes — the last morning before Lew passed he tried so hard to tell me something. I could not understand him. It breaks my heart, but I feel confident that he wanted me to know he loved me and always would.
We had a private, invitation-only service on the lawn of our farm. Best friend Bobby Campbell and another good friend Dave Coffey sang “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done” [written by Roger Wilson and recorded by Johnny Cash as the lead cut on 1962’s Hymns from the Heart; The Blackwood Brothers, Florida Boys, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, and many others have debuted renditions] and Lew’s favorite — “It Is No Secret [What God Can Do”] (Ink Spots lead singer Bill Kenny unleashed a Top 20 pop hit in 1951 which Elvis covered on his 1957 Peace in the Valley EP). Lew’s only request was that he be cremated. I have his ashes.
When did the realization that Lew was gone hit you squarely between the eyes?
The hardest thing ever for me was hearing the door shut when the funeral home took Lew out. I will remember that sound forever.
Was Lew a Christian?
Yes. His faith became stronger as we experienced health setbacks together. We even attended the Church on the Hill, a Pentecostal denomination that had just opened its doors, for awhile. Fans were never an issue, and we could worship discreetly there.
[Author’s Note: In a November 1985 interview with Chicago Tribune writer Jack Hurst to plug the “You’ll Never Know” single from his upcoming On My Own album, DeWitt credited his mini comeback to “the Lord and Judy…when I finally gave in to the idea of the surgery and went into the hospital, Judy stayed with me day and night,’’ revealed DeWitt. “She slept on a chair by the bed and was there days at a time without going any farther than to the restaurant for food. When I talked about unpleasant things, even suicide, she was there to talk me out of it. She made me realize somebody loved me enough to make it worth living another day or two longer”].
In the past 30 years, did love serendipitously find you again?
Yes. I remarried, but it was a mistake. I’m not sure if it was because he wanted to fill Lew’s shoes or because I wanted him to. One day when Lew knew the end was near he said that he was gonna miss me and Thelma Lou [our loyal part-Doberman dog]. I told him it didn’t work that way — he’s the one leaving and he would be missed.
If Lew was alive and physically fit, what might he be doing? Could he have retired from music in 2002 as Harold, Don, and Phil Balsley did, or would the creative muse have been too great to ignore?
Considering that Lew would be 82 years old now, l think he would have given up music. Oh, I’m sure there would always be a guitar around that he would pick up from time to time. I just made myself cry because I haven’t thought of that before.
If such a thing existed, what would the perfect day have been for Lew?
Being at a western film festival. We went to a couple every year including the MidSouth Nostalgia Festival [formerly the Memphis Film Festival] and the Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Lew was in Heaven.
We watched B-westerns constantly together. Any Gene Autry movie — he named our farm Singing Hill after a 1941 Autry movie title [written by Harold and Don Reid, the affectionate “Mr. Autry” tribute is on 1979’s The Originals]. He truly admired all of the movie cowboys even down to the sidekicks. My favorite was Roy Rogers.
Being such a western aficionado, did Lew consider going to Hollywood?
Lew would be the first to tell you that he couldn’t act a lick. I’d be the second to tell you [on the contrary, DeWitt acquits himself nicely as Lester “Roadhog” Moran’s scared stiff, mute, out-of-tune, right-hand guitar man Wichita in this side-splitting, circa 1975 Pop! Goes the Country clip hosted by Ralph Emery].
How would Lew like to be remembered?
Lew was a very humble man who made it big and never understood how or why. He was down to earth, never arrogant, and never enjoyed being in the spotlight.
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. The Judy Wells DeWitt interview was edited and sequenced for clarity. To touch base, email email@example.com and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.