June 11, 2008
She started out as a heartache singer who could wail a lonesome tune with the best of them. She developed into a sultry, showy stage performer. For more than two decades, her presence was felt on the country charts, but her presence was felt even more by the young new artists that she took under her wing.
Dottie West grew up in rural Tennessee, the oldest of ten children. Her family was poor when she was young, so much so that they went without electricity and plumbing, and made their own soap. Her childhood would not be an easy one, as she dealt with a father who was both physically and sexually abusive to her. When she was seventeen, she reported him to the police, and he was sentenced to forty years for his crimes against her.
Music had been a comfort for her while growing up, and in the aftermath of her abuse, she poured herself into music. She joined her high school band and began writing songs. Her talent earned her a college scholarship to study music, and it was there that she met her first husband, musician Bill West. After they had two children, they moved to Ohio. She formed a duo with friend Kathy Dee, and they appeared on a regional television show as the Kay-Dots. Encouraged by their early success, they attempted to secure a record deal in Nashville. In 1959, Starday signed them, but their early singles were not successful.
Undeterred, West moved to Nashville in 1961. Her husband became friends with young songwriters like Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson, and West was able to go backstage at the Opry one night, where she met her idol Patsy Cline. The two became good friends. Meanwhile, West’s songwriting began paying dividends when Jim Reeves cut “Is This Me”, a top five hit in 1963. This gave her the visibility to earn a solo recording contract, and she signed with RCA records.
Her years with that label were defined by Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound, full of strings and sentiment. She sang with a teardrop in her voice, pure heartbreak-induced melancholy. Her first big solo hit, “Here Comes My Baby,” won her the very first Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy in 1965. By that time, she’d already been an Opry member for a year. More weepy hits followed, like “Paper Mansions” and “Would You Hold it Against Me.” She was even joined by her four year old son Dale West on her 1966 hit “Mommy Can I Still Call Him Daddy”, a record so maudlin that it has to be heard to be believed, as she sings to her son, “Now sweetheart, you must forget, ’cause [Daddy] doesn’t love you like before. But knowing that he doesn’t care, just makes Mommy love you more.”
West’s image matched her material, as she dressed conservatively in gingham dresses. She turned down the chance to record “Help Me Make it Through the Night” because she thought its content was too sexual. As the sixties and early seventies rolled by, she was a constant presence on the charts, having decent success with solo singles but flourishing most when duetting with Don Gibson. In 1973, Coca-Cola used her song “Country Sunshine” as a jingle, and the exposure led to her biggest hit to date, as the song went to #2.
But after another top ten with “Last Time I Saw Him,” the hits dried up. Undaunted, she switched to United Artists. Her career got a major boost by chance. West was in the studio recording “Every Time Two Fools Collide”, when Kenny Rogers walked into the recording booth. Instinctively, he began singing the song with her. What was intended as a solo recording became a duet, and the song became a huge hit, West’s first #1. Rogers and West became regular partners over the next few years, scoring #1 hits with “All I Ever Need is You” and “What Are We Doin’ in Love,” and twice winning the CMA award for Vocal Duo.
As country music went uptown, West radically changed her image, wearing skin-tight spandex pants and elaborate Western getups. Her songs became increasingly sassy, particularly her signature 1980 hit “A Lesson in Leavin’,” which Jo Dee Messina would revive in the late nineties. West’s glamorous new look led to film and stage roles as well, as she starred in the films Second Fiddle to an Old Guitar and There’s a Still on the Hill, and headlined a touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
West used her success to help out up and coming artists. She discovered a young Steve Wariner, only seventeen, and convinced him to join her road band. His mother was hesitant about letting him go, until West put an arm around her and said, “I’ll be his mother when you’re not there.” West constantly watched over young singers and songwriters, giving them the same guidance and support that she’d received from her own idol and mentor, Patsy Cline.
When West’s career finally slowed down after twenty years of having hits, she dealt with financial troubles, but she persevered. She remained a popular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry. Tragically, her life was cut short in 1991 when she was in a terrible car crash. She was on her way to the Opry that fateful night. There was an outpouring of grief throughout the country music community, from artists, songwriters and fans alike.
Today, seventeen years after she left this world, she remains an indisputable icon in country music history, a woman who made an impact not only with her singing and songwriting, but by the way she made the industry so much more welcoming to aspiring young artists.
- “Here Comes My Baby,” 1964
- “Rings of Gold” (with Don Gibson), 1969
- “Country Sunshine,” 1973
- “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (with Kenny Rogers), 1978
- “A Lesson in Leavin’,” 1980
- “Are You Happy Baby?,” 1980
- Suffer Time, 1966
- Every Time Two Fools Collide (with Kenny Rogers), 1978
- Special Delivery, 1979
- Wild West, 1981
- CMA Vocal Duo (Dottie West & Kenny Rogers), 1978 & 1979
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Here Comes My Baby”), 1965