When Willie Mayhoe was 11, a man offered her a fistful of cash if she would let him touch her. They were standing in the aisle of a grocery store, and Willie was hungry, just as she often was. She lived with her grandparents in a rundown house with no plumbing or electricity, and, especially toward the end of the month, a can of Spam and some bread would have to feed the three of them for four days.
Willie knew that her grandmother was in the next aisle at the grocery store, but she also knew that her grandmother didn’t have enough money to ease the gnawing in her belly for long. The man had given Willie and her grandmother a ride to the store, and he would be driving them back home. Willie knew that if she told her grandmother about the proposition and the man lied about it, she would be in trouble. Her grandmother hated her and had never sided with her about anything.
Willie wasn’t sure why that was. She figured part of it was because she was black, which didn’t explain much, because her grandparents were black too. Taking the money might mean a few real meals, and since she was someone for whom a baloney sandwich was a good Christmas dinner, she mulled it over for a moment.
“I had to decide,” she recalls, “ ‘Am I going to take this money and get something to eat and let this man touch me, or am I just going to go hungry and be done with it?’ ”
Her hunger wasn’t that strong. The thought of the man’s touch repulsed her, and, beyond that, she knew that it was wrong. “No,” she said. “I don’t want your money. I don’t need your money. Just leave me alone.”
Even at 11, Willie Mayhoe was hardened to tough situations. Her schoolmates beat her. She was not allowed to play outside. She had never been hugged. And there was the occasional round of psychological torture.
“I remember my grandmother one day sitting me down in a chair,” Mayhoe says. “She took out her gun, put it in her mouth and pulled the trigger. I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to kill herself.’ There were no bullets in the gun, but I didn’t know that.”
From an early age, she knew there was something terribly wrong with that kind of life. “There was always something inside of me saying, ‘This is not my life,’ ” she says. “ ‘There’s got to be more. There’s got to be better.’ ” She knew there had to be a way out, even if it took waiting until she was 18, when she could walk away. The thought kept her going. She had learned to steel herself, to find strength inside because there was simply no one else to whom she could turn. She clung to schoolwork, to the dream of a better life, and to the sweet, sad sound of the country music her drunken grandfather listened to on the radio.
She had no idea that for her, a black child growing up in Rocky Mount, Va., the way out would come years later in the form of a tour bus carrying an unreconstructed Son of the South, a man who occasionally runs a gigantic Confederate battle flag up the pole at his big Montana ranch. The bus would be owned by Hank Williams Jr.
These days, Mayhoe works as receptionist at MCA Records, a post she has held since 1988, when Jimmy Bowen headed the label now led by Bruce Hinton and Tony Brown. Hers is the first voice and face the label presents to the industry. She also helps coordinate the label’s intern program, handles ticket buys, tracks employee vacations, and does “whatever needs to be done that I have time to do.” She is a popular Music Row figure living a life she could only dream of in Virginia.
She has spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with George and Nancy Jones. She bought her first car from Vince Gill. She has been on a first-name basis with stars ranging from Conway Twitty to Reba McEntire to Trisha Yearwood. She babysits for some of Nashville’s top executives and producers, in part because of her love of children, and in part because it gives her the chance to play with toys and games her childhood never offered. Hers is a story of Music City salvation, a saga with a distinctly unlikely cast of characters.
That Mayhoe is here at all is a wonder. When she was 3, her mother tried to kill her by setting her in a fireplace, leaving scars on her legs that, she says, “will be there until the day I die.” Her mother was 17 and unmarried when she had Willie, and in 1965, in small-town southern Virginia, Willie’s grandparents were horrified. Not long after the fireplace episode, Willie’s mother dropped the child off at her grandmother’s house and simply left, moving north.
Her grandmother would hate both daughter and granddaughter all her life. “I have to raise this bastard child,” her grandmother would tell people in public. “She looks just like her sorry mother, and she’s never gonna be anything.”
Willie’s grandparents, who had only a few years of schooling, worked intermittently doing housework and yardwork, except for a brief stint as sharecroppers. After taking Willie in, they received a $54-a-month welfare check, which doubled when Willie entered the eighth grade.
Willie never knew anything but grinding poverty. In her grandparents’ house, there was a hole in the living-room floor. There were oil lamps Willie wasn’t allowed to use, so the rooms were usually dark after sunset. The house was heated by a fireplace, but Willie remembers bitter cold and acrid smoke. The walls were bareher bedroom never had a wall hanging of any sortand she can remember moving a piece of furniture one winter day and discovering a nest full of baby rats.
Mostly, she remembers hunger. “Food was just extremely rare,” Mayhoe says. “My grandfather drank, and we had Budweiser before we had something to eat. We’d get our check at the beginning of the month, and we’d get Spam, pickle loaf and bread, and lots of soup. Sometimes there would just be bread and sandwich spread for days. By the end of the month we were starving, and the only meal that I would have access to would be at school.” Even that could be iffysometimes the other kids would take it from her.
From her first days in school, Willie was tormented by her schoolmates, with the other blacks being particularly rough on her. They may have known that Willie’s grandmother hated blacksand the darker their skin, the worse she hated them. They may have known that Willie and her grandparents spent every Saturday morning at the town dump, looking for clothing and bedding they could salvage and use. It may simply have been, Mayhoe suggests, “that they knew I was poor. I was an easy target, and they knew no one was going to defend me.”
Whatever the reason, they were merciless. Willie was almost never allowed to sit on the school bus. She was beaten. She was taunted. And there was little chance to make a friend outside school.
“I was not allowed to play,” she says simply. “I can only assume that my grandmother would not let me associate with other children because she was afraid I was going to get pregnant at a young age. She especially did not allow me to play with black children. That was just out of the question.” On several occasions, Willie asked why her grandmother isolated her from other children. “It’s none of your business,” Willie was told. “You know I’m in charge, and that’s just the way it is.”
A few people tried to help. A woman from the Franklin County social services agency would try to make sure she got a doll or toy for Christmas. The couple who owned her grandparents’ house might leave Halloween candy or an Easter basket, but Willie’s grandmother would always throw it away because the landlords were black.
Willie knew from a very young age that, if she was going to find answers, they would have to come from within. “I can remember deciding when I was 8 years old, ‘I have got to live my life and do things for me, not for my grandparents, not for anybody else.’ And that was one of the basic reasons I always tried to do well in school.”
Willie applied herself as best she couldshe could not study in the house after darkand got excellent grades, an accomplishment that never impressed her grandmother.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” she would tell her. “You’re sorry trash, and you’re not ever going to amount to anything.” Still, Willie wasn’t about to give up. “The more she threw in my direction,” she says, “the more determined I was to prove her wrong.”
As Willie learned, she dreamed. Her second-grade music teacher told her, “If you learn music, you can go all around the world.” Willie had no discernible talent, but she loved listening to music on the radio when she could, and she particularly loved the country music her grandfather listened to.
“When my grandfather was good and drunk and felt like being loud,” she says, “he would get out his harmonica and play along with the radio.” There were times when she would have a little change from collecting pop bottles and, rather than buy food, she would listen to a country songConway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette were all favoriteson the jukebox at a little restaurant nearby. “I think music feeds the soul better than food does sometimes,” she says. “There was something about the power of a song. No matter how bad your life is, if you hear a song that’s sadder than your situation, you can just get lost in it and forget about your troubles. And it seemed country music was often about hardship.”
She was also drawn to sports, but for reasons that were less aesthetic. “I found out the basketball and football teams got to eat after the away games, and that was another way to get a meal,” Mayhoe explains. She talked her way into a stint as the boys’ teams’ statistician and manager. She would stay late if even one player wanted to practice passing or shooting, shagging balls to put off going home for as long as possible.
She escaped into reading as well. Regular Bible classes helped nurture that predilection, although they led her to ask the question, “Why is God letting this happen to me?” It’s a question she still can’t fully answer.
Willie was quiet and shy, and dating was out of the question. The one time she told the team photographer that one of the players was cute, he said, “He would never go out with trash like you.”
In her senior year, she was able to win a one-year scholarship, including room and board, to nearby Ferrum College. She got a ride there, leaving with $3 she borrowed “from the lady on welfare next door” until she could earn some spending money.
After that year, she had no choice but to quit and go to work full-time. She was living in a YWCA in Roanoke, Va., working in a Winn-Dixie grocery store for $6 an hour. She had escaped the oppressive clutches of her grandmother and had begun to assemble a life, although it was still one of bare subsistence. She had no car. She had never seen a movie. And she dreamed of moving to Nashville.
On her 21st birthday, a friend who lived at the Y asked Willie how she wanted to celebrate. Mayhoe, who walked everywhere she went, said, “Let’s just drive around in your car.” Late in the evening, they passed the Civic Center, where Hank Jr. and Earl Thomas Conley had just performed. As one of the tour buses pulled away from the venue, they decided to follow it for 20 miles, just to see where it went. The destination turned out to be a nearby hotel, and Willie and her friend walked into the bar and waited until two men who looked like musicians walked in.
The men were in Conley’s band, and they struck up a conversation. Willie began telling them of her love for country music. She could tell by the way they looked at her that they were thinking, “What could this 21-year-old black chick possibly know about country?” The songs she had heard on her grandfather’s radio spilled out. She told them about George and Tammy, about hearing the Oak Ridge Boys when they were still gospel, and of her love for songs like Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“I’m working in a grocery store right now,” she told them, “and my goal one day is to move to Nashville.” One of the musicians gave Willie his phone number and told her to call when she wanted to make the trip. Not long afterward, in 1986, she moved to Nashville and enrolled at Belmont University, where she took part in an intern program at MCA. On Feb. 15, 1988, she began working full-time for the label.
After 18 years of hunger and three of week-to-week subsistence, her first decent payday led her to some quick splurging.
“The first thing I did with my paycheck,” she says, “was stock my shelves, from top to bottom, and two closets with food. I spent most of my childhood being hungry, and food was pretty much all I ever thought about, other than getting out.” She bought staples and frivolous indulgences, including six packages of Archway peanut butter cookies, which she had longed for, but never had, while growing up. After she had stocked the shelves, she stared at it all.
Shortly after she began working at MCA, her grandmother became ill. Through the years, Willie had anticipated this moment; it was the one payback fantasy that she allowed herself. “I can remember thinking, ‘One day you’re going to get old and I’m going to have to put you in a home.’ That was going to be my revenge. I was going to leave her there and never go to see her.”
When the time came, though, it wasn’t in her. “The day I had to do it I cried like crazy,” she says. “I just felt guilty for having to put her in there. I guess it’s because I’ve got somewhat of a conscience. That taught me a valuable lesson in planning to get even with someone if they had done me wrong. It just taught me that revenge is not sweet.”
Her grandmother’s hatred of blacks endured to the endshe did not want her body to go to a black funeral home.
There is joy in Mayhoe’s life, although there is a bittersweetness to much of it. Christmas with the Joneses can ease but not erase the fact that as everyone announces holiday travel plans, she has nowhere to go to find family. Her search for family extends even to the babysitting she loves.
“I was babysitting for [MCA senior vice president and head of A&R] Mark Wright, and his little boy said, ‘Willie, will you read me a story?’ I remember putting him in my lap and picking out a book and reading a story, and I can remember choking back the tears because nobody ever read me a book at home. I was thinking how blessed and how lucky these kids are that they have two parents and a home with the basic necessities.”
Her good fortune amazes even her.
“Someone asked me, ‘Willie, why aren’t you on drugs or pregnant or on welfare or just plain out of your mind?’ Well, I look back, and I have to think all this happened for a reason, even if I don’t know what that is yet,” she says. “I believe there was a higher power, that being God, just looking out over me. That and human desire. There’s just something within me that drives me to keep going no matter what.”
The dream now is about giving another kid a chance. And that may, ultimately, be the sweetest sort of revenge. “I’m going to go back to my high school and start a scholarship called the Mayhoe Scholarship,” Willie says, “to prove to my grandmother, even though she’s dead, that the Mayhoe name can stand for something good and something positive.”
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