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Billie Crowell: celebrating 94 years

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 3/4/23

Many have taken piano lessons from her; many have heard her play organ on Sunday mornings. Many in the community know her, and many in the community love her.

Her name is Billie Crowell and …

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Billie Crowell: celebrating 94 years


Many have taken piano lessons from her; many have heard her play organ on Sunday mornings. Many in the community know her, and many in the community love her.

Her name is Billie Crowell and she’ll be turning 94 on March 23.

And over those 94 years, she has met many people in the community, touching them not only with her music but also her infectious laugh and smile. To say the least, she’s seen a lot over the years and says today, “I’ve got so many stories, I don’t even know where to begin.”

Gas stations, The Depression, and a courthouse fire

Billie was born in Murfreesboro in 1929 to Mary Helen Smartt — with two t’s! — and Willie Dickens “Bill” Hayes. “So, you know why I’m Billie,” she said.

There was also Mary Jane, June Helen, W.D. “Buddy” Jr., and Phyllis. Billie was the second eldest. 

Her parents moved to Shelbyville after a family member, Uncle Ben Reeves who was big in the gasoline business, suggested they start a service station in the city. Around 1930, her dad opened up Bill’s Gas and Oil on North Main at the bottom of the Shelbyville Square hill.

Interestingly enough, Billie recalled that one of her earliest memories was when the Courthouse burned in December 1934 after a riot broke out.

“They had the fire truck…While it was burning, they had all these tubes, and I remember playing on them,” she said. “Why do I remember that?” she asked with a laugh.

Billie said that though she grew up poor, her family did fine. The lived in a simple white frame house, located where New Covenant Bookstore now stands, that had big hearths and got heat from coal. All this, of course, matches the atmosphere of the Great Depression.

“Everybody was scraping for food, places to live, getting kids to school,” she said.

Billie went to East Side Elementary where she soared through the first three grades — with the help of her older sister Mary Jane.

Not only was she excelling in school at a young age, but it was also around this time that she began taking piano lessons at the age of nine — something that would impact her for the rest of her life.

“In between, I was so drawn to music, that’s all I wanted to do,” she said. Somehow, in some kind of a deal, her dad got an old, broken-down piano.

“And, oh man, Mary Jane and I took off on it. We loved it,” Billie said.

‘Most talented,’ Coke, and singers ‘n swing

Her talent was easily recognized in high school as she was voted “most talented” when she was a senior graduating in 1946 from Shelbyville Central High School.

She also caught the attention of a young man named Zedric Elmer Crowell. He was a football player and an all-around active student.

His nickname was “Coke,” coming from his notorious act of shaking up a bottle of coke then spraying people with it when he was just six or seven years old.

“I don’t know where he got this in his head,” Billie said with a laugh.

Looking through an old black-and-white yearbook from 1946, Billie points out all of her classmates and teachers. “I can always find myself by my hair,” she said, looking at her large, dark curls. Her dark curls and pretty smile can be found in many of the school’s group photos, like cheerleading, basketball, and student council.

Billie’s talent also caught the ear of a local performer — Chief of Police Ralph Brantley, who had a band and would give piano performances at the school. With Brantley, Billie played singers ‘n swing music at clubs and event halls in Tullahoma and Manchester, songs like “It Had to be You,” a tune she can still play today with a jolly swing.

She said her parents didn’t mind at the time; they were “nice clubs” and she earned $20 every Saturday night (about $250 in today’s money).

To college, children, and teaching

After graduating high school, Billie went to Middle Tennessee State University to study music and psychology.

However, she had to drop out after she and Coke “got too close.” Shortly after, they married and started a family. They had three children together, Jackie, Nancy, and David.

Even while being a mom, Billie got her degree by taking a few hours of classes every few weeks, along with close friend and neighbor Iris Whitney.

While settling in Bedford, Billie began teaching piano for the Bedford County School System with three other teachers. She got paid 10 cents a mile but enjoyed teaching the young prodigies.

In the days before recorded music was readily available, Billie also played piano for Nancy June Brandon’s dance classes in Shelbyville.

When asked what she enjoys the most about piano, Billie replied, “Fur Elise?” as it’s always been the classics, in addition to the hymns, that she’s enjoyed.

Most notably, Billie’s music took her to church. She was raised in the First Baptist Church where she first began playing piano for the Sunday crowds.

She said she played the very first organ that was installed at First Baptist Church. However, since she was a little too short and couldn’t reach the pedals on the floor, Billie played the keys while the man who installed the organ played the pedals for her.

She then played at First United Methodist, since Coke was Methodist, before playing at First Christian for a long time. She eventually moved on to play at First Presbyterian Church where she still serves as organist.

All the while, Coke, who Billie said “couldn’t carry a tune but would sing louder than anybody else,” worked as an engineer at AEDC and still attended church with her. However, he passed away in 2009 from esophageal cancer.

Billie said living on her own has been difficult, but her kids, who live nearby, have been “so good.” Not to mention the many friends and students in the community who get to visit with her.

“That’s what matters, friendship,” Billie said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”  


Today, in the comfort of her home, Billie still plays Amazing Grace on her Kawai piano. On Tuesdays she gives lesson and on Sundays plays the organ at First Presbyterian. This is even after a long bout with Covid last fall that caused her to be unable to give lessons or perform for a couple months.

But through it all, she knows Jesus has always been with her. It’s never too late. In fact, her dad was baptized at the age of 75.

It’s advice she hopes to pass on to the younger generation.

“I know, as I’ve gotten older and older and older, I trust the Lord more — but I had to have back then and known He was right there with me,” she said.