Born Dorothy Marie Marsh outside McMinnville, Tennessee, she was the oldest of 10 children of Hollis and Pelina Marsh. The family soon moved to a bigger, better house, but like many rural families at the time, the family was still so poor they lacked electricity and indoor plumbing and had to make their own soap out of hog grease and lye. To make ends meet, Pelina eventually opened up her own restaurant soon after, where Dottie often helped her. Her childhood was marred by a dysfunctional relationship with her father, an alcoholic who abused her both physically and sexually. The abuse continued until she was 17, when she finally reported him to the local sheriff. She testified against her father in court, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. After a brief stint living with the sheriff, she moved to McMinnville with her mother and siblings. She also joined her high school band, “The Cookskins,” where she sang and played guitar. With the help of her mother’s business and a local entrepreneur, she attained a music scholarship to attend college at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee in 1951. There she met her first husband, a steel guitarist named Bill West, with whom she had four children.. Two of Dottie’s children are Shelly West and Mo West. Dottie had four grandchildren, Aaron, May, Cody, and Skye West, with Daughter-in-law Jan West. Mo and Jan were married for 30 years until Mo’s death in 2010.
After graduation, Dottie West moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, where she began appearing on the television program Landmark Jamboree as one half of a country pop vocal duo called the “Kay-Dots” alongside partner Kathy Dee. At the same time, West made numerous trips to Nashville in the hopes of landing a recording deal. In 1959, she and Bill auditioned for producer Don Pierce at Starday, and were immediately offered a contract. The resulting singles West cut for the label proved unsuccessful, but she nonetheless moved to Nashville two years later. There, she and her husband fell in with a group of aspiring songwriters, including Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, and Harlan Howard. West often played hostess to these struggling songwriters, offering them a place to stay and eat. In return, they taught West about the structure of songwriting. During this time, she also became a close friend of groundbreaking female country singer Patsy Cline and her husband Charlie Dick. West and Cline met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and became friends; Cline would become one of West’s biggest career inspirations. As West related to Ellis Nassour in the 1980 book Patsy Cline, the greatest advice Cline ever gave her was, “When you’re onstage sing to the audience with all of your heart and mean it. Then cast a spell over them. If you can’t do it with feeling, then don’t.” In those early days in Nashville, West and her family would often not have enough to pay the rent or buy the week’s groceries, so Cline would hire her to help with her wardrobe and West’s husband Bill to play in her band. Cline even offered to help pay West’s rent or buy groceries when she and Bill were struggling to stay in Nashville. When Cline got into a car accident in June 1961, West was one of the first people to arrive on the scene, picking out a piece of glass from Cline’s hair. Shortly before her death, Cline gave West her scrapbook, filled with clippings and photos from over the course of her career. (West later gave the scrapbook to Cline’s daughter, Julie.) On March 5, 1963, Cline died in a plane crash along with Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and her pilot and manager Randy Hughes on her way home from a benefit in Kansas City, at Memorial Hall, a benefit West also attended. West begged Cline to leave with her and Bill in the car, but Cline, anxious to get back home to her children, opted to fly instead. In 1963, Jim Reeves recorded a selection of West’s authorship and composition, “Is This Me,” which became a No. 3 hit that year. As a result, Reeves helped West secure a recording contract with RCA Victor the same year.
West earned her first Top 40 hit in 1963 with “Let Me Off at the Corner,” followed a year later by the Top Ten duet with Jim Reeves “Love Is No Excuse”. Also in 1964, she auditioned for producer Chet Atkins, the architect of the Nashville sound, who agreed to produce her composition “Here Comes My Baby”. The single made Dottie the first female country artist to win a Grammy Award (Best Female Country Vocal Performance), leading to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. “Here Comes My Baby” reached No. 10 on Billboard Magazine’s Country charts in 1964. After releasing the Here Comes My Baby LP in 1965, Dottie and producer Chet Atkins reunited the following year for Suffer Time, which generated her biggest hit yet in “Would You Hold It Against Me.” In 1967, the West/Atkins pairing issued three separate albums: With All My Heart and Soul (featuring the No. 8 smash “Paper Mansions”), Dottie West Sings Sacred Ballads, and I’ll Help You Forget Her. During the same period, she also appeared in a pair of films, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar and There’s a Still on the Hill. Dottie continued to have success as a solo artist during the late 1960s with such songs as “What’s Come Over My Baby,” and “Country Girl” which garnered her an offer to write a commercial based on it for Coca-Cola in 1970. The soft drink company liked the result so much that it signed her to a lifetime contract as a jingle writer. After the 1968 LP Country Girl, West teamed with Don Gibson for a record of duets, Dottie and Don, featuring the number two hit “Rings of Gold” released in 1969. The album was her last with Atkins, and she followed it in 1970 with two releases, Forever Yours and Country Boy and Country Girl, a collection of pairings with Jimmy Dean. Around the time of Have You Heard Dottie West, released in 1971, she left her husband Bill and, in 1972, married drummer Byron Metcalf, who was 12 years her junior. Due possibly in part to her recent stratospheric success with duets, her solo career suffered between 1969 and 1972. Most of her singles released at the time had failed even to peak in the Top 40, and her album sales were declining. In 1973 West provided Coca-Cola with another ad, featuring a song called “Country Sunshine.” The popularity of the commercial prompted her to release the song as a single, and it became one of her biggest hits, reaching No. 2 on the country charts and No. 49 on the Pop charts. The ad itself also netted a Clio Award for commercial of the year and she became the first country artist ever to win that particular honor. “Country Sunshine” proved to be a solid comeback as she was nominated for two Grammys for the song, Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance a year later. After the release of House of Love in 1974, West notched a number of Top 40 hits including the Top 10 “Last Time I Saw Him,” “House of Love,” and “Lay Back Lover.” Before signing with United Artists Records in 1976, her final album for RCA, Carolina Cousins, was released in 1975.
In the late ’70s, West’s image underwent a huge metamorphosis; the woman who had once performed outfitted in conservative gingham dresses, and had originally refused to record Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” because it was “too sexy,” began appearing in spandex-sequined Bob Mackie designs. (She had relented in late 1970 and recorded “Help Me Make It Through The Night” on the album Careless Hands, which was released in 1971.) As the sexual revolution peaked, so did West’s career. Under United Artists, West material changed from traditional country to up-tempo and slow-tempo Adult Contemporary-styled music. In 1977, West released her first album under United Artists, When It’s Just You and Me. The title track peaked at No. 19 on the country charts. In 1977, she was recording the song “Every Time Two Fools Collide” when, according to legend, Kenny Rogers suddenly entered the studio and began singing along. Released as a duet, the single hit number one, West’s first; the duo’s 1979 “All I Ever Need Is You” and 1981 “What Are We Doin’ in Love” topped the charts as well, and a 1979 duets album titled Classics also proved successful. The duo proved popular enough to be booked in some of the biggest venues in the United States and other countries. In 1978 and 1979 they won the Country Music Association’s “Vocal Duo of the Year” award, one of West’s few major awards.
During the 1980s, West continued to generate solo hits, most notably “A Lesson in Leavin’.” Her popularity as a featured performer on the Grand Ole Opry endured as well. “A Lesson in Leavin'” was West’s first No. 1 solo hit. It also peaked at No. 73 on the pop charts. A week before “A Lesson in Leavin'” reached the No. 1 spot, it was part of a historic Top 5 in country music, when all women held the Top 5 spots. The album that included this song, Special Delivery, included two other Top 15 Country hits from 1980, “You Pick Me Up (And Put Me Down)” and “Leavin’s for Unbelievers”. In 1981, West had a pair of back-to-back No. 1 hits, “Are You Happy Baby” and “What Are We Doin’ in Love” with Kenny Rogers. “What Are We Doin’ in Love” was West’s only Top 40 hit on the pop charts, reaching No. 14, becoming a major crossover hit in mid-1981. Her 1981 album Wild West was one of her biggest sellers.
As the 1980s progressed, West’s popularity began to slip. However, she did introduce herself to younger audiences as she lent her voice to Melissa Raccoon in the film The Raccoons and the Lost Star in 1983, a precursor to the later series produced by Kevin Gillis, The Raccoons. West’s 1982 album High Time spawned her last Top 20 hit, “It’s High Time,” which reached No. 16. The album’s other single, “You’re Not Easy to Forget,” only peaked at No. 26. West’s next two albums under Liberty Records, Full Circle and New Horizons, were both commercial failures. West’s last Top 40 hit was 1983’s “Tulsa Ballroom.” In 1984, West departed from her label and switched to the independent label Permian. In 1981, West’s daughter Shelly also made a career in country music; she is best known for her hit duet with David Frizzell, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” which hit No. 1 that year. As a solo artist, Shelly notched her own No. 1 in 1983 entitled “Jose Cuervo.” During the early and mid ’80s, Shelly notched several more hits, including Top 10 solo hits “Flight 309 to Tennessee” and “Another Motel Memory.” After getting married in the late 1980s, Shelly left the music business. In 1980, Dottie West filed for divorce against Byron Metcalf, citing his drinking and infidelity. In 1982, she was asked to play the lead role in the stage production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. That summer, she toured for four weeks in the stage production, performing across the country. She also had her own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that year. She also posed for a revealing photo in the men’s magazine Oui. In 1983, she married her soundman, Al Winters, 22 years her junior. In 1984, she appeared in the play Bring it on Home. In 1986, she made her screen debut in the science fiction film The Aurora Encounter. In 1984, West released her final studio album, Just Dottie. This album was not very successful; all three of the singles that it contained failed to chart in the Top 40. Her last chart hit, “We Know Better Now”, reached only number 53 in 1985.
Although she remained a popular touring act, West’s financial problems mounted, and in 1990, after divorcing Winters, she declared bankruptcy, culminating in the foreclosure of her Nashville mansion. West and Winters filed for divorce in 1990, and he sued her for $7,500. By this time, extravagant spending and a string of bad investments by her investors had left her nearly broke. In March, her Los Angeles manager sued her for $130,000. Her former manager sued her for $110,295. Her bank foreclosed her mansion outside of Nashville, and sent West an eviction notice on August 1, 1990. At this time, West owed the IRS $1.3 million and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; she later switched to Chapter 7, which allowed her to liquidate her assets. West’s fan-club president, Sandy Orwig, told TNN in a 1995 interview that West told her that the “IRS would show at her door anytime of the day or night, taking her possessions. They even separated and took apart her award plaques, throwing half in one box and the other in another.” After a car accident in her Corvette and a public auction of her mansion and possessions, she began making plans for a comeback, including an album of duets and autobiography. The album was to feature friends Kenny Rogers, Roger Miller, Tanya Tucker, and Tammy Wynette. However, the album never materialized. She recorded her last song in July 1991 called “As For Me,” a duet with Norwegian country singer Arne Benoni.
On August 30, 1991, West was scheduled to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Shortly after leaving her apartment at Nashville’s Wessex Towers, West’s car, a Chrysler New Yorker that Kenny Rogers had given her following the loss of her possessions at the IRS auction, stalled in front of the old Belle Meade theater on Harding Road. West’s 81-year-old neighbor, George Thackston, spotted her on the side of the road and offered to drive her to the Opry for her scheduled appearance. Frantic about getting to the Opry on time, she had urged the man to speed.
He lost control of his vehicle while exiting at the Opryland exit on Briley Parkway at a speed of 55 miles per hour. The exit ramp was posted for 25 miles per hour. The car left the ramp, went airborne and struck the central division. West did not believe she was injured as badly as her neighbor had been and reportedly did not seem harmed to officers who responded to the scene. She insisted he be treated first. West, though she thought she was unharmed, suffered severe internal injuries and proved to have suffered both a ruptured spleen and a lacerated liver. Her spleen was removed that Friday and, the following Monday, she underwent two more surgeries to stop her liver from bleeding; these ultimately failed in that effort. Doctors said that West knew the extent of her injuries and even visited with Kenny Rogers shortly before her last operation. On September 4, 1991, during her third operation, West died on the operating table at 9:43 a.m., at the age of 58.
Her funeral was held at Christ Church on Old Hickory Boulevard. There were 600 friends and family attendees, including Emmylou Harris, Connie Smith, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and Larry Gatlin. Her friend and fellow artist, Steve Wariner, whom she had helped make it to Nashville as a young man, sang “Amazing Grace”. A couple of weeks later, President George H.W. Bush, a longtime fan for whom she had performed at the White House, expressed his condolences at the CMA Awards. Her hometown of McMinnville, Tennessee dedicated Highway 56 to her memory, naming it the Dottie West Memorial Highway. Family Feud dedicated a week of shows in the fall of 1991 with the stars of the Grand Ole Opry in her memory. George Thackston pleaded no contest to a charge of reckless endangerment arising out of the fatal accident. On March 26, 1992, a judge sentenced him to 11 months and 29 days of probation, and also ordered him to complete an alcohol treatment program. A blood alcohol test performed after the crash found that Thackston had a blood alcohol level of .08, which was not enough for him to be deemed intoxicated under Tennessee law. In 1995, actress Michele Lee, with the help of West’s daughter Shelly, produced and starred in the made-for-TV biopic Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story that premiered on CBS. Lee starred with Kenny Rogers, wore all of West’s original clothes, including her famed Bob Mackie outfits, and even sang West’s hits for the movie. It proved to be one of the most successful TV movies in CBS history. That same year, a biography book called Country Sunshine: The Dottie West Story was released, written by Judy Berryhill and Francis Meeker. In 1999, country music singer Jo Dee Messina covered West’s biggest solo hit, “A Lesson in Leavin'” for her album, I’m Alright. The song stayed at No. 2 for seven weeks on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart that year, and was one of the year’s biggest songs. In 2000, West was also honored with the BMI Golden Voice Awards with the “Female Golden Legacy Award.” She was the second woman to win this type of BMI award, the first being her friend and mentor Patsy Cline. Today, her hometown of McMinnville, Tennessee holds a “Dottie West Music Festival” each year in October. West was ranked No. 23 in Country Music Television’s 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002.
- October, 11, 1932
- McMinnville, Tennessee
- September, 04, 1991
- Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death
- Heart Failure during liver surgery
- Mount View Cemetery
- McMinnville, Tennessee