Many of the songs that are meaningful to Christians were born out of human adversity. That would be an understatement concerning the writing of the song “One Day at a Time.” Its author, Marijohn Wilkin, went from one mountaintop of joy and success to another, but between those peaks were valleys filled with excruciating mental suffering.
Ernest and Karla Melson were blessed with just one child, Marijohn, born to them in Kemp, Texas, in 1920. Ernest played violin, piano, or led the singing at First Baptist Church of Sanger, Texas, and Marijohn quickly followed in her father’s musical footsteps. By age five, she could play the piano by ear, and one year later, when her hands had grown a little larger, she could immediately repeat the songs she heard her father play.
A straight-A student, by age fourteen Marijohn was thrust into the family business, Melson’s Veribest Bread, when Ernest was stricken with cancer. She did a variety of tasks, from store deliveries to working in the plant. Before his death three years later, which was a devastating blow to Marijohn, Ernest secured a twofold promise from her that she would go on to college to study music, and that she would take care of her mother.
Though she spent long hours in the bakery, Marijohn graduated as salutatorian of her high school class. This, coupled with her tremendous musical ability, earned her a scholarship offer from Baylor University. She attended Baylor for a short time before opting for a smaller school, Hardin-Simmons University, where she also was granted a full scholarship. At Hardin-Simmons, she was invited to join the University Cowboy Band as the only female member ever. She excelled in college as a musician and a singer, and was given numerous unusual opportunities to travel and perform with the Cowboy Band.
Three years after she graduated from college, Marijohn’s husband, Bedford Russell, whom she had married two months after commencement, was killed during World War II in South Africa, where he was a pilot. Rising above the sorrow, Marijohn continued as a schoolteacher and sang as an alto soloist in her church choir. She also made an attempt to write songs but thought so little of her efforts that she didn’t keep the manuscripts.
By age thirty-seven, she had moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she became one of the leading songwriters in the country music industry and founded Buckhorn Music Publishers. By this time, she had remarried and had a young son named John Buck. She wrote more than four hundred country songs, and many of them rose to the top of the charts. She was associated with such stars as Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Patti Page, Charlie Pride, Patsy Cline, Glen Campbell, and many others. One of her writers at Buckhorn Music was Kris Kristofferson. She published more than seventy-five of his songs.
Amid the acclaim, money, and success she enjoyed as a country music songwriter, Marijohn stopped attending church and eventually became addicted to alcohol. On more than one occasion, she attempted suicide. But God, in His merciful grace, spared her life.
At age fifty-three, Marijohn wrote her most famous song, “One Day at a Time.” Here’s the story behind the song, just as she told it to me:
“I really could not understand why I was having so much success in the country music field. Although I had enjoyed quite a rush as a country writer, I had reached the end of my rope. I truly felt that I had been called to be a gospel writer, but I couldn’t seem to get there. I was in the music scene up to my ears in Nashville. Wherever it was ‘happening,’ I was there, helping to make it happen. Yet I became frustrated! I’d had it!
“I stopped by a small church and asked a young minister if I could talk with him. I found out later that I was the first person he had counseled. I drove up in my new, midnight blue Cadillac, dressed in a full-length mink coat with sparkling jewelry and my cowboy boots. I said, ‘I have all kinds of problems.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You look like you don’t have any financial problems.’ I answered, ‘No, I don’t.’ He said, ‘You look pretty healthy.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I am.’ He then asked, ‘What is your main problem?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He didn’t seem to know what more to say to me.
“At that point in our conversation, he said a funny thing, but it was okay, because it worked. He asked, ‘Did you ever think about thanking God for your problems?’ (Ephesians 5:20). I left his office and drove back home.
“When I reached the house, I found it was empty, and I was glad. I sat down at the piano and began to play and sing—out loud—the entire chorus to ‘One Day at a Time.’ ‘That’s all I’m asking from You. Just give me the strength to do every day, what I have to do.’ It just dropped into my heart. And when I had finished singing, my ‘Nashville mind’ said, ‘That’s a hit!’ That was the first thing that popped into my head. I then recognized that the song was a prayer—and I got some relief.
“I wrote the chorus on the back of an envelope as fast as I could write. I then continued to sing, ‘Do You remember when You walked among men? Well, Jesus, You know, if You’re looking below, it’s worse now than then.’ I wasn’t quite sure the Lord knew where I was. I’d never quit believing in Him, but I was in Nashville and God was in heaven, and never the twain shall meet. I really didn’t know if God actually knew where I was. I realize that some don’t believe that, but that was where I was at the time.
“The following morning, my mind went back to the song. I had the second verse and the chorus, but somehow I couldn’t get the song started properly. Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, who were married at the time, were in town. They had just had a huge hit, ‘Why Me, Lord?’ written by Kris. Their recording had won a Dove Award for them. I called Kris and asked him to help me with the first verse. He had written songs for my company, Buckhorn Music, and we’d had some pretty big hits as a publisher.
“When I showed him how I started the song, ‘I’m just a mortal . . .’ he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you say, “I’m only human, I’m just a man . . .” I said, ‘That’s good! That’s what I need.’ We finished the first verse in about twenty minutes. The lines just flew out from each of us.”
The song, first recorded by Marilyn Sellers, rose to become the number one song in several categories. In this country, it was first a hit on the country charts and then it crossed over to the pop charts. It was the number one pop song in England, the number one country song in Ireland, and among the top ten in two other countries. Each recording has been by a different artist in that particular country. It has long since passed the six hundred mark in artist recordings and has crossed over into the Southern Gospel Music genre.
Marijohn Wilkin, as a singer, went on to record four fabulous albums for Word Music. “One Day at a Time” was on the first album, which she titled I Have Returned. It was Marijohn’s way of letting America know that she had come back to the Lord. She is now a happy, alcohol-free Christian and has written approximately three hundred gospel songs. In 1975, she was once again honored, this time with a Dove Award. She shared the platform with other winners, including Brock Speer and James Blackwood, both of Southern Gospel Music fame. She continues to make her home in Nashville.
Though each day of our lives can bring seemingly insurmountable challenges, always keep in mind that God has stated He will never leave us or forsake us. Be at peace in His presence today.