musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Dora Mae Wagers -- 3. Onto The Stage


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Dora Mae played everywhere she had a chance to, remembered her daughter. “You’d play music a lot, you know, just around home,” she said. “If we’d come down, to go eat dinner, we’d end up on the porch, picking.”
She played on her porch; she played at local square dances. She played on stages. Her daughter Evelyn remembers coming across pictures of her mother as a young girl, instrument in hand, at talent shows and competitions in Kentucky and around Cincinnati. She would go on to play a number of different local radio and TV programs, stages at many a bluegrass and old time festival, and that of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, in Mt. Vernon.
She began playing on the radio, WCCT in Corbin, Kentucky in the 1940s, with the “Happy Holler Boys and Girls.” They would broadcast live shows, and take their act on the road, to play in local communities within the listening area. They’d open up for larger acts that came through; Dora Mae remembered opening for Molly O’Day, when she came to London. “Twenty-five cent shows, believe it or not,” she said, of those shows, the audience packed into the courthouse to hear banjos and country songs.
She never played out a great deal, especially with young children, her daughter Evelyn said. “She would play around home more than anything, because of… with five children, it’s hard to play around anywhere else.” Somehow, though, she found the time.
Evelyn remembered being a young girl, waking up early before school started, to turn on the TV and watch her mother perform on Cas Walker’s Knoxville-based TV show (the same show which gave Dolly Parton, among others, a start). “She played down there for many years,” Evelyn said. “You’d have to get up at like four in the morning, to be down there by the time it came on the air…. I would get up before daylight, so I could watch her on TV.” Dora Mae played banjo, and sung songs; backed up by her cousin Forster Young, who performed, dashingly, using the name Hank Darrell.
Dora Mae played for a number of years at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, as well. The barn dance, in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, was a performance venue and tourist attraction created in the 1940s by John Lair, in the style of the Grand Old Opry, with weekly radio broadcasts and live barndance variety shows. Dora Mae played, sometimes as a solo act, and in various combinations with the other members of the cast. She played with the Baker Brothers, and with the Coon Creek Girls, the Barn Dance’s all-girl band, a band formed in the late 1920s by Lily May and Rosie Ledford, who still played the barndance, under Lair’s guidance. “You did what old man John Lair told you to do,” Dora Mae said. “And since he died, I do what I want to do.”
Later, like many of the Barn Dance’s performers, she began to play across the street from the original venue at the newly built Red Barn, a similar music venue run by Joe Haney. Most of the old-timer entertainers went across the street, she said; the show there, she said, was more traditional. She played on the Cumberland Highlanders television program on the London RFD-TV (Rural Free Delivery) station, a localized rural television network.
Later in life, she performed with her daughter Evelyn and son in law Moses; she played at small local festivals, at the Berea College Traditional Music Festival, and other such heritage music events, and at many a nursing home and senior center.
Her mother, on stage with her banjo was “the happiest I’ve ever seen her,” said Evelyn.  “When she went to go play, it wasn’t a job, it was an enjoyment, and she put her whole self in it.”
For all her happiness on the stages she graced, the Dora Mae that Evelyn described, through the course of our interview, was a woman who seemed motivated, simply, by the pleasure of playing and sharing music—in any context. She didn’t play music “to make a big name,” said Evelyn. “She did it because she loved her music… it’s the type of music you want to keep alive.”
Evelyn remembered, one time when she had to perform in front of a big crowd; she got nervous. Dora Mae told her, “’Now don’t get scared. Just play how you feel. And when you get up there, just think, you might never see these people again, as long as you live.’ And it worked.” It was something her mother would often say: “’Play like you feel. And if you don’t feel it, she said, you shouldn’t be up there in the first place! But you know…  when she went to play, she played everything she felt. You can tell it in her soul, that that music was there. She just enjoyed it. She enjoyed life. She had a good time, with life. “