As a teenager, Dottie West rode a Greyhound 75 miles from her little town of McMinnville, Tenn., three times a year to sit in the audience of the Grand Ole Opry. There, in the darkness of the famed Ryman Auditorium, she slipped away into a glamorous fantasy of leaving her life on the farm. ”I cried to be on that stage,” she said years later. Earlier this month she died to be on that stage, of injuries sustained in an auto accident while rushing to perform at the Opry.
With a versatile voice whose husky vulnerability was a soulful conveyer of tenderness and pain, West performed in public for nearly 30 years. Her emergence in the early 1960s — she was the first female country singer to win a Grammy, in 1964, for the self-penned ”Here Comes My Baby” — helped to pave the way for a host of women, though other newcomers of that era, including Loretta Lynn, eventually overshadowed her.
In the course of her 52 albums, however, West demonstrated a surprising stylistic flexibility. While her earlier repertoire, including ”Paper Mansions” (1967) and ”Country Sunshine” (1973), addressed more traditional country themes, West’s vocal stylings were always more akin to pop music than they were to honky-tonk.
That pop quality brought the singer her largest measure of fame in the late 1970s as the countrypolitan duet partner of Kenny Rogers (”Every Time Two Fools Collide,” ”All I Ever Need Is You”). At the same time, she enjoyed new solo success (the country-funk of 1980’s ”A Lesson in Leavin”’), and a reported annual income of $1 million to $2 million before her music fell out of commercial favor in the mid-1980s.
Despite the recent downturn in West’s career, few women in country enjoyed the scope of her success, which included writing some 400 songs and more than 15 commercials for Coca-Cola. (The company offered her a lifetime contract in 1972, after she beat out 32,000 other would-be jingle writers.) The auto accident — her second in a month — came at the end of a streak of bad luck. Last year West declared bankruptcy. She lost her house, and the IRS auctioned off her property to fans in June. At the time of her death, she was hoping to revitalize her career and write a book. ”We are without one of our sisters tonight,” mourned country talk show host Ralph Emery. And one of Nashville’s great ladies.