When my new life started, it was snowing. It was East Tennessee after all, and we lived on the Cumberland Plateau. The Great Smokey Mountains were not far away and in my hometown of Crossville, we were well above the valleys below and finding the most recent New Year’s Eve to be cold and snowy. In the Tennessee Mountains during winter, the trees are bare—apart from the evergreens—and the skies are mostly grey and depressing. This however did not stop the New Year’s Eve festivities at the Holiday Hills Resort and Hotel.
The job at Holiday Hills that was only for the Christmas season was winding down and my position as a bartender was beginning to look as bleak as the rest of winter on the old rocky top plateau. For the last night of the year and for the last night of my bartending career, however, there were big surprises and big changes on the way.
The first part of the big surprises came upon arriving at Holliday Hills for work and discovering a full-size touring bus parked in the falling snow. There was also a bustling crew unloading band equipment from the belly of the big greyhound. Upon gaining entrance to the ballroom by the bus and stomping off the snowflakes, I discovered a portable bar had been set up facing a newly built stage with massive speakers on each side. After walking through another bustle of tables and chairs being organized, I found the owner of the resort and his beautiful Australian wife who was the manageress waiting in the adjacent restaurant and bar.
“Hello there, Tommy.” The owner’s greeting was jovial. “We have someone we would like you to meet.”
At this point, everyone stood from the table and a beautiful woman with big perfect hair and a showy dress stepped forward. She offered her hand in greeting and announced with a velvet soft voice that can only come from years of singing, “Hello, Tommy, I understand that you are the most important person here tonight because you’re the bartender!” The gracious lady smiled as she spoke with the cultured voice and it was at once obvious she was special. “My name is Dottie West and I’m sure pleased to meet you!”
She smiled again and said, “Now if there’s anything I can do for you tonight you be sure and let me know.”
I must have responded with some type of acknowledgment, but I was starstruck. Anyone growing up in Tennessee knew the top five women in country music and Dottie West was right up there with her friends Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn.
After Dottie and her managers and the hotel owner sat down again to finish their meal, Shelia the manageress led me back out to the ballroom and helped set up the bar.
When Dottie came on later, the big and polished sound of her and her band was beyond impressive. Throughout the evening, the packed audience in the limited venue was memorized and everyone knew they were part of a special experience.
During one of the breaks in Dottie’s show, Shelia came up and said she would cover for me as I had a long-distance telephone call waiting on the line from Florida.
When I picked up the receiver, it was Mike Burger on the phone from Naples. “Hey, man,” he began, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you. We’re putting a band together to play in Naples and Marco Island for the busy winter season. I need you to find CW—the best drummer any of our little band of musicians we had ever met—and I need you two to get down here for rehearsal as soon as possible. I’ve already got jobs lined up with hotels to stay in and all we need is you and CW. The money is really good because this will be the best band ever!”
During the previous year, CW and I had played with Burger in Tennessee in a band that broke up after the singer joined another band that was opening for the Rolling Stones. CW was indeed the best drummer ever, Burger was a monster guitarist, and I played electric bass and tried to keep up with a covey of master musicians that were much better, older, and more experienced.
Burger on the phone on that cold snowy New Year’s Eve night, with Dottie West singing and playing the venue next door was enough to make a decision. When Dottie was finished with the show and the band was stowing away guitars and amplifiers, I approached and asked if she would like something to drink.
She smiled again and said, “No, honey, I’ve got everything I need.” Then she paused and gave me her full attention. “How was your night? Even from the stage, I could see that you were as busy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
I must have smiled back because her smile lit up the room again and then I told her about Burger, the phone call, and the offer of a job in a band in Florida. After listening with seemingly infinite patience, Dottie placed her hands on her hips and winked. “If you don’t get that drummer and go, you’ll never know what might have happened. Besides, travel is a good education and you won’t get that if you stay here.”
Before I could respond, one of her managers was over and leading her away. Before she turned away, she offered, “Take care, Tommy, and good night and God bless.”
I later learned that Dottie West insisted upon being introduced to everyone that worked at Holiday Hills. She spent a few minutes with every person who was working long enough to make everyone feel special.
The following day, I rounded up CW, and we loaded his Volkswagen van with every bit of drums, speakers, and amplifiers we owned. The ride down to Florida was filled with excitement as the mountains receded and the air became warmer. After two weeks of rehearsal, we played in venues around Naples during the winter season. For our final engagement in Florida, we were asked to play at the joined Lely and Naples high school prom at the Marco Beach Hotel and Villas.
We played for the high school kids in the ballroom at the Marco Beach Hotel and then traveled onward to play venues in George, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
After a year on the road and the Pennsylvania venue was over, I made the announcement to my bandmates, “I’m done. I resign. I’m going back to Marco Island. It’s the best place I have ever seen. Living like a musical vampire is not the life for me.”
Tom Williams is a Marco islander. He is the author of two books, “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.