As one-half of the Poe Sisters with her real-life sibling, Ruth Weir, Nelle Yandell has lived a life worth showcasing. At age 94, she is the oldest living veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s legendary radio program and stage concert — and she’s got plenty of accumulated life lessons to share.
“When Ruth died [last year at age 90], I expected I’d be kickin’ the bucket, too — but so far, I’m still here,” Yandell told LifeZette over a crackling phone from her home in Mountain View, Arkansas.
“When Jimmy Dickens died [in January 2015], he was 94,” she said of the country music singer. “Well, I was born in May, so I’m already older than he was. And I’m still doing good.”
Yandell had two short tenures on the Opry in the 1940s — but her fans are still ardent and vocal. Even now, Nelle Yandell receives fan mail as well as phone calls. People want interviews or just to get the history right.
“There’s a lady from Nashville’s always calling me,” Yandell said, “asking me questions about Ruth.”
In Yandell’s day, especially when she and her sister toured with venerable country star Ernest Tubb, fans treated the stars like family, even inviting them into their homes for Sunday dinner. The stars felt the same about the fans — and Yandell is no exception.
“It’s a telling reminder that country music has always thrived on many levels, from the biggest stars to performers who work part-time playing local venues,” said her friend, John Rumble, senior historian at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Up and down the line, fans’ loyalty to the singers whose music touches them is strong and enduring.”
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Yandell, who sounds decades younger than her age, with a keen mind and quick recall, came up like many Opry listeners of the time. She ate black-eyed peas, cornbread, and tomatoes for dinner; attended a Baptist church; and listened to the popular barn dance programs on the radio.
Born in Big Creek, Mississippi, to strict but loving parents (“Daddy said, ‘Keep your name good, earn your own bread, and don’t take gifts from men'”), Nelle, Ruth, and three other siblings lived in a log cabin and picked and hoed cotton on the family’s 80-acre farm. There was only one problem.
“I didn’t want to pick cotton all my life. That’s the reason we learned to play music — and got on the Opry.”
It started when Ruth was about 11, and Nelle was 13. They’d heard a song in church, “Hallelujah, Thine the Glory,” and thought they’d try it. “Ruth said, ‘Why don’t you sing this part?’ It was harmony. I said, ‘Keep singin’ it,’ and she did, and I finally got that harmony. That’s how we learned to sing.”
They copied themselves not after a female duo, but after the Delmore Brothers, who featured harmony singing, too. When she heard one of their songs on the radio, she said, “I’d grab a paper sack and jump out of bed, and I’d write it down, because I’d taken shorthand in school. And by the next day, me and Ruth’d be singin’ that song.”
“Daddy said I could not sing without Ruth. And we followed our dad’s instruction.”
After high school, Nelle Yandell moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to work as a radio inspector for General Electric. Ruth soon followed, and the young women backed their singing with guitar (Nelle) and mandolin (Ruth). They sang over local radio, and toured New England entertaining the military forces, even appearing at New York’s famed Stage Door Canteen.
Then, in 1944, they returned to Mississippi, and soon boarded a bus to Nashville to audition for the Opry in front of George D. Hay, who founded the program in 1925. The sisters sang one of Nelle’s songs, “We’re in the Army, Too,” which she had written about her brothers and their friends who had gone off to war. The “Solemn Old Judge,” as Hay was known for a character he portrayed, liked their sound and made them members — but he told them to lose their cowgirl outfits.
“You’re two farm girls from Mississippi,” he reminded them, “so wear costumes that look like what farm girls would wear.”
Hay eventually took the sisters on his tent show, and later in ’44 arranged for them to join Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, playing fairs in the South and up into Pennsylvania for $100 a week. They traveled in a limousine by themselves, with Tubb in another. Judge Hay, Yandell remembers, “was like a daddy to us. Oh, my, he just thought the world of us.”
Ernest Tubb, too, liked the sisters, and was disappointed when they quit in November 1945, with Ruth announcing she would marry the next year. Yet the girls came back to the Opry for a few months in 1946, quitting again that August when the schedule became too much of a threat to Ruth’s engagement. Nelle was told she could stay, but as she remembers, “Daddy said I could not sing without Ruth. And we followed our dad’s instruction.”
After that, Nelle moved to Ansonia, Connecticut — “the Lord must have opened a way for me” — where she met Jack Yandell, son of a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, in a record store. They both wanted the same Roy Acuff record — and they married 2.5 months later, in late 1946. Between rearing four children, Nelle worked as a church secretary, taught in the church nursery, and assisted with the children’s groups. Upon Jack’s retirement from Raybestos, the automotive brake company that also made a gasket for Alan Shepard’s spacecraft in 1961, the couple moved to Jack’s home state of Arkansas. He died in 1994.
By then, Nelle had long switched her religious affiliation to Methodist. She takes her faith seriously.
“Faith is the most important thing in the world,” she said. “I couldn’t do one thing without Jesus. One of my friends is almost blind, and says to me, ‘How do you keep going? You’re seven years older than me.’ And I say, ‘My faith means that I might live another day. Jesus can help you today just like when He was on earth.'”
She still attends church and prays on behalf of her friends. Said John Rumble, the historian, “She’s a powerful prayer warrior. Several times when I’ve had severe bronchial problems or had to face major surgery, I’ve called Nelle and asked her to talk to the Lord on my behalf. It’s worked every time — so she’s a great team member to have on your side.”
Her own health — she’s had congestive heart failure for decades, and suffers from glaucoma and osteoporosis — might slow others down. But Yandell still fishes on a pond on her 10-acre property (she credits eating trout twice a week to living so long). She walks 100 feet to the mailbox, drives her own car, and goes to the grocery store by herself, even though she uses a wheelbarrow to get the groceries inside her home. Her son, Jim, a long-distance truck driver, comes to see her on weekends and brings her puzzle books to help keep her mind agile.
“When people ask me why I’m still here on this earth at age 94, I tell them, ‘Because I believe.'”
She is also diligent about writing in journals. But she has another weapon against aging that she swears really works.
“I dye my hair,” she declares with a laugh. “That way I don’t realize how old I am. I was 39 when Jim [her son] was born. I went to the doctor, and somebody said, ‘How nice! The grandmother’s bringing the baby to the doctor!’ I went out and bought me some hair color, and I’ve been coloring it ever since.”
Not long ago, however, she let her hair go all the way gray.
“Every time I’d go to the store, everybody wanted to help me. I went to the store [recently], and didn’t nobody want to help me,” she said.
“After I colored my hair, I saw a difference in how people treat me. I tell most people I’m 39. I go to the doctor on Tuesday, and he’s going to say, ‘How old are you?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I might be 60.'”
She still misses the Grand Ole Opry, she said, which for two years — 2012 through 2014 — put her guitar and Ruth’s mandolin on display at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. She and her sister received several awards in the early 2000s — yet the highlight of her career, she insists, was the first time she and Ruth appeared on the Opry and their parents got to hear them sing. (A compilation of some of their Opry appearances is available on a German LP, “The Poe Sisters: Early Stars of the Grand Ole Opry”).
Today, she listens to Eddie Stubbs’ old-time music radio program on WSM out of Nashville in the evenings — and tries to keep up with modern country music. But mostly, she reads books and magazines about faith.
“Whenever people ask me why I’m still here on this earth at age 94, I tell them, ‘Because I believe.’ I don’t think about dying,” she added. “I think about living.”
Alanna Nash, an award-winning journalist, is the author of seven books, including four on Elvis Presley.