Any woman with a voice so pure and so perfectly country that Hank Williams got his first writing gig just to craft songs for her is someone who deserves a listen. Molly O’Day had such a voice. She sang country music in the style of her native eastern Kentucky, but she cannot and should not be pigeonholed simply as old-time or country, as she fused the two so deftly.
She had an undistilled old-time mountain voice with the timbre, depth, slides, and sobs that defy easy categorization or description. A “female Roy Acuff” is perhaps the most common description of O’Day in histories of country music and it is a term that crops up in interviews with her contemporaries and friends. Her Dobro player, George “Speedy” Krise says, “She was a great woman too—the female Roy Acuff.” Colin Escott wrote that, “She sang in Roy Acuff’s emotional, full-throated jubilee style.” O’Day sang in the realm of Patsy Montana and Rose Maddox, although she sounded like neither, and she prefigured the singing and songs of Wilma Lee Cooper, Kitty Wells, and Julia Mainer, as well as others. The great Mac Wiseman, who played bass and sang for O’Day in 1946 on her classic sides for Columbia called her “the female Hank Williams, with that kind of presence on stage and a plain, simple sincerity.” West Virginia old-time musician John Morris believes she was “the greatest female vocalist ever” because she “put more power in a song than anyone.”
That power of O’Day’s voice can be heard on her recordings of “Poor Ellen Smith” and “I Wish I was a Single Girl Again,” and in signature songs like “Tramp on the Street,” “When God Comes to Gather His Jewels,” and “Six More Miles.” She was likewise a master of sentimental songs such as “Drunken Driver” (for which she once received 4000 requests in a single day) or “Please Don’t Sell Daddy Any More Whiskey” (bizarrely accompanied by a crying infant). Most centrally, Molly was a singer of the old-time gospel on many fine songs such as her standard "Matthew Twenty-Four," as well as on masterpieces like “If You See My Savior,” “When the Angels Rolled the Stone Away,” or “Deeper Than the Stains Have Gone.”
She was also an excellent, driving banjo player. Molly frailed in the powerful style of Lily May Ledford of the Coon Creek Girls. She recorded several banjo numbers between 1947 and 1952, including “Higher in My Prayers” and “Traveling the Highway Home,” and always included her banjo playing in her live shows. But it was singing that truly distinguished Molly O’Day.
Molly O’Day has not disappeared from view, but her music and songs remain oddly unknown to many old-time musicians today. This is especially striking, because she was largely influential and popular in her day and is revered by many fans of early country music. The outline of her life and work is well known thanks to the detailed and vital work of John Morris and Ivan Tribe. Her music is readily available on a two-disc set from Bear Family, and Morris’ Old Homestead Records has released various collections of all of her commercial releases, her 1960s era gospel music, and rare home recordings. Yet O’Day deserves still greater attention from contemporary old-time musicians.