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Patti Powell
A Visit with WWVA's "Long Haul Widow"

By Ivan M. Tribe and Deanna Tribe

Patti Powell
Patti Powell poses for a promotional photograph for her 1971 record titled, "Long Haul Widow."

In the spring of 1969, a young housewife and office worker from Banks County, Georgia, embarked on a career as a country music singer in West Virginia. Young Sybil Powell grew up enthralled with the sounds and voices of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Carl Smith, and Jean Shepard. For three years, she had been singing in the Atlanta area on a part-time basis.

Wheeling radio station WWVA with its popular Jamboree U.S.A. show would provide Miss Powell with her golden opportunity. She recalls that prior to this time, she had “never seen any part of West Virginia.” She was impressed, however, with the state’s “natural, untouched beauty. Somehow I knew then this was where I wanted to be.”

For the next 17 years, her voice would be heard frequently on the stage, first at Jamboree Hall on Wheeling Island and then at the Capitol Theater, as well as on shows while touring throughout the eastern United States and Canada, where music fans and WWVA listeners knew her as Patti Powell.

Sybil Louise Powell was born to a rural family near Gillsville, Georgia, on January 7, 1937. Her parents, Arthur and Lillian “Grace” Powell, farmed an 82-acre plot until her dad had a bad truck accident when Sybil was in high school and was unable to work. In time Arthur Powell recovered sufficiently to obtain a job as a night watchman at a textile mill. Sybil aspired to be a country singer. She would sing “at any gathering that I was asked,” she recalls, including “brush arbor meetings which we would attend; church; community dances; [and] front porch singing with family, friends [and] neighbors.”

Not long after finishing high school, Sybil, following the path of many Appalachian migrants, moved to the city, in this case Atlanta. She got an office job with Sears but also found opportunities for singing on a part-time basis. These venues included a Saturday radio show at WEAS, in suburban Decatur, with a band known as Cowboy Jack and the Southern Drifters. She also sang on the Dixie Jubilee and the HoedownMatinee, on Saturday evening and afternoon, respectively, both over WLWA-Channel 11 in Atlanta. All of these shows provided Miss Powell with much-needed experience, which she would soon put to good use.

A few years earlier, her singing career had been put on hold when she first married Bill Tarpley, a salesman, in 1958. Her mother, Grace Powell, had also become quite ill. Between home, working, and helping her parents, Sybil had little time for singing. Her mother died in August 1965. Reflecting back, Patti says, “Those were bad, sad years for me.”

In April 1966, Sybil Powell Tarpley started singing again, taking up where she had left off eight years earlier. In the intervening time, more women singers had come to win increasing acceptance such as Loretta Lynn, Norma Jean, Wanda Jackson, and Melba Montgomery. The following January, Sybil signed to record her first disc for Hillside Records, a local label owned by Little Jimmy Dempsey — a lead guitarist of some renown. Dempsey thought that the name Sybil Tarpley did not sound sufficiently commercial, so she took the stage name “Patti,” combined it with her maiden name, and became “Patti Powell.”

The record, “Cry Room” (b/w “The End of the Line”) received “lots of airplay,” Patti says, and led to her performing several songs on the syndicated Bob PooleParty Line TV show, based in Greenville, South Carolina. Her next single, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” released in 1968 by Pete Drake’s Stop Records of Nashville, garnered wider attention and national airplay. Among those who took note was WGUN Decatur artist and deejay, Bob Gallion. Bob, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, relocated to Wheeling’s WWVA in 1969, joining Mac Wiseman, popular Jamboreeartist and talent director. Meanwhile, Patti joined the cast of Jimmy Smart’s JR Jamboree, a Sunday evening program on Channel 17 in Atlanta, where she appeared for the next four months.

On April 26, 1969, Patti Powell made a guest appearance on Jamboree U.S.A., a performance that would change her life. The events of that day are etched in her memory.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.