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Ronnie McDowell colors Disney's world

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This Ronnie McDowell piece, titled "Last Chance," shows country music legend George Jones after he was stopped on his riding mower and given a DUI. Jones asked McDowell to do the painting. Artwork submitted
Portland, Tenn., is famous for its strawberries and annual strawberry festival as well as native son, entertainer Ronnie McDowell. The country singer and artist has completed 15 historic paintings of his hometown. Artwork submitted
When Ronnie McDowell gave this painting to Dolly Parton, the country music superstar flipped over the sight of herself and Elvis Presley on a picnic. Artwork submitted
Ronnie McDowell looks over "The Journey Begins," his painting of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse as the budding cartoonist begins his journey from Kansas to Hollywood. The hit singer-songwriter, who performs Monday night at the Wilson County Fair, recently signed a five-year contract with the Disney Corporation. This painting, the first in a series, includes 23 "hidden" images of the world's most famous mouse. Photo by Ken Beck
McDowell with his Disney contract at the park.

Singer-songwriter-artist performs at Wilson County Fair

He's a songwriter and a hit singer, who, when he wants to, croons just like Elvis, but these days Sumner County native son Ronnie McDowell gets higher than Peter Pan when he considers his new partnership with Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.

The voice behind the 1977 smash hit, "The King Is Gone," which has sold six million copies, recently signed a five-year contract with the Disney Corporation, and soon, his works will be in Disney art galleries around the globe.

McDowell, 65, who was born and raised in Portland and lives in Hendersonville, performs at 6:45 p.m. Monday at Fiddlers Grove Opry during the Wilson County Fair, a gig he first played 38 years ago.

"When 'The King Is Gone' came out, I played the Wilson County Fair. That has become like the place to perform. This will be my first time back since," said the man behind such hits as "Older Women," "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation," "Watchin' Girls Go By" and "In a New York Minute."

"I'm gonna do like I always do, just entertain the folks, get 'em to laugh, get 'em to sing, get 'em to dance, just have a good time. I'll do a lot of my records, and we'll probably do an hour-and-a-half show,'" said the congenial entertainer about what fair-goers can expect.

Hear Ronnie McDowell

Ronnie McDowell ("The King Is Gone," "Older Women," "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation") performs at 6:45 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17, at Fiddlers Grove Opry during the Wilson County Fair. The fair runs Aug. 14-22 and opens at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, at 10 a.m. Saturday and at noon Sunday. Admission is $8 for ages 13 and older, $6 for ages 6-12 and is free for those 5 and younger. For more info, go online to wilsoncountyfair.net. For more about McDowell, go to ronniemcdowell.com

He's come a mighty long way since his debut performance when sang an Elvis tune during a variety show for his Navy shipmates and had such a bad case of stage fright that he never took his eyes off the floor.

That Elvis song, however, proved a good omen, as McDowell about a decade later provided the vocals for 36 songs in Dick Clark's 1979 "Elvis" TV biopic and followed up in the 1988 TV movie "Elvis and Me" at the request of Priscilla Presley.

But before the music career, McDowell made a big impression as an artist at the age of 6. His Portland Elementary School first-grade teacher Paula Reddick gushed over his painting of a big, red fire engine.

"I found out I could draw. I've been drawing and painting ever since," he said. "The one of Elvis looking in the mirror ('Reflection of a King') when he is a little boy seeing his reflection looking back at himself in the old house he was born in has been the most successful thing I have ever done. And the second is George Jones getting a DUI on his lawn mower ('Last Chance')."

Today, because his daughter Athena pestered him to paint Walt Disney, he's about to launch a series of colorful paintings of Walt and Mickey Mouse as they begin their rise to fame in Hollywood.

McDowell's youngest son Tyler suggested that he paint Disney in1923, just before the cartoonist boards the California Limited at Kansas City's Union Station. McDowell obeyed, and Athena mailed a photograph of the image to Disney Fine Arts.

"They called up within a week and gave me a five-year contract. So I'm on my 22nd painting now," grins the singing artist.

"I just did one of Dolly (Parton) and Elvis on a picnic in Sevierville, and Dolly is singing 'I Will Always Love You' to Elvis. That's been a big seller, too. I gave her the original, and when I took the cover off, she jumped back and said, 'Damn, I wish I looked that good!'

"When I gave George Jones a painting of him getting a DUI on his lawnmower, by the way, George called me and asked me to do that painting, and the moment he asked me I saw the whole thing. These paintings come to me like a song. When I took the cover off, he stared at that painting for 30 minutes.

"So I have fun doing all these paintings, but my first love is songwriting. My second love is singing and entertaining and making records, and third is painting.

He describes his style as photo realism.

"Norman Rockwell is my hero. There's a fellow in Sumner County, David Wright, and he's one of my photo-heroes, too. But I love Norman Rockwell so much. He captured the essence of America, and everything he painted looks like you could step into that painting.

"I love it more than anything when people look at my paintings and they go, 'Well, that looks like a photograph.' I strive for that, and when I paint somebody's face, I don't care whether it's Dolly or Elvis or George, I want it to look so real like they could speak to you, and that's my goal. That's what I do."

McDowell takes great delight in his work, often painting real people in the background or to the side in his Disney artwork. His second Walt and Mickey painting, "The Arrival," shows the pair in Hollywood, and McDowell has planted himself in the drawing (a la what Alfred Hitchcock did in his films). His first painting of the cartoonist and his mouse has 23 "hidden" images of Mickey's mug scattered across the landscape.

While his Disney art has yet to be released, McDowell sells prints of his other artwork at his shows and from his website.

In the meantime, the singer says he "still loves performing. I love entertaining people. I've got a hectic schedule coming up, but during the week I paint, I write songs and I record, and on the weekends I go out and perform."

McDowell was born and raised in Portland, the seventh child of 11. His mother Georgia Williams was 13 when she wed Howard McDowell, an entrepreneur who hauled fruit from North Carolina and Florida and peddled it from a little clapboard store on the corner across from the Portland train depot.

His father, a master carpenter and contractor, later built more than 3,000 homes in Portland and the Franklin, Kentucky, area. He also opened two Dixie Discount stores, one on 31 West and the other on Highway 109.

A teenage McDowell taught himself to play the guitar, and after graduating from Portland High School in 1968, he joined the Navy where he wound up becoming a barber on his ship while stationed near Saigon during the Vietnam War. He also formed a band and played weekends in the officers' and enlisted men's clubs.

After his naval career, McDowell became a sign painter and songwriter while playing clubs with a band doing five shows a night, six nights a week. When he saw his first song recorded by Gene Shenandoah, it was a dream come true, but it got even better when "Opry" star Roy Drusky cut his tune "Deep in the Heart of Dixie" in 1976. Soon he had songs recorded by such country stars as The Wilburn Brothers, Billy Walker, Jean Shepard and Porter Wagoner.

His career game-changer came on Aug. 16, 1977, when 42-year-old Elvis Presley died at his Graceland home. McDowell was driving through Nashville when at 2:22 that afternoon he heard a deejay on the radio say, "It's official. Elvis has passed away."

Before he got to Rivergate the tunesmith in McDowell had composed a tribute to Elvis, titled "The King Is Gone." He wrote down the words and kept the tune in his head.

At 4 the next morning he drove to Memphis. He recollects, "I was going to see Elvis one way or the other. I never laid eyes on him. I stood in line from 8:30 till 5... It went for miles, and I got within about 20 feet of the gate, and they shut it and I didn't get in.'

He hopped back in his car and burned the asphalt back to Nashville where he ran into a friend, Lee Morgan, who suggested they do a tribute to Elvis.

"I thought he meant wear a jumpsuit and jet black sideburns, and I told him, 'I don't want no part of that.' He said, 'Naw, man, listen to this song I've written.' So after I listened to his, I said, 'Listen to what I wrote,' and we just put my talking part on the front and his singing part and combined them together, and the next night we went in the studio and recorded it."

Fortuitously, one of the musicians suggested that McDowell sing the song with an attitude similar to "Are You Lonesome Tonight," and Morgan told him to sing it like Elvis.

"Had it not been for his suggestion I don't think it would have affected people. Because everybody thought it was Elvis singing about himself," noted McDowell in retrospect.

The next day, with eight acetate recordings of the song, he popped into several Music City radio stations, and the deejays gave the record a spin. The reaction from listeners was instantaneous, as each deejay told McDowell that he had a smash on his hands.

"And that was it. That thing exploded," said McDowell of his six-million-selling single.

But his good fortune had only just begun. After befriending Miss Teenage America Jessica James, aka Kathy Twitty, daughter of Conway Twitty, on a concert tour, he told he how much he would love to meet her father. She invited him to stop by her dad's office in Hendersonville.

"I walked in, and Conway stood up and said, 'How would you like to open up my show?' I said, 'Twist my arm,' and for the next six or seven years I did, and Conway became like my second dad and definitely my mentor," said McDowell.

"He finally talked me into moving down to Hendersonville. He said, 'Son, you need to be closer to your work.' So I moved down here in '88, and I ain't never left. I love it here. I got kinfolks up in Portland I go up and visit constantly."

Another plum from his Elvis tribute tune came in the form of an invitation from Dick Clark to perform the hit on "American Bandstand." A month later McDowell recorded his debut album and, as a favor to Mae Axton, recorded her song, "Heartbreak Hotel," which was Elvis' first big hit.

Two year down the road, when Dick Clark began plans to produce an Elvis TV movie, he told one of his partners, Jim Ritz, "We need a voice for this Kirk Russell movie we're doing." Ritz responded, "The only voice you need is Ronnie McDowell. Listen to this version of 'Heartbreak Hotel.'"

Clark said, "Get him."

A couple of years later, Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley decided to produce a TV movie based on her best-selling memoir, "Elvis and Me." They needed a singer to provide the voice. Once Priscilla heard McDowell's voice, she told people, "We don't want nobody but Ronnie."

"When I met Priscilla, she said, 'Do you have any idea what you've done for Elvis Presley?' I said, 'Priscilla, do you have any idea what Elvis Presley's done for Ronnie McDowell?'"

"I'm the only man standing on this planet who got to be Elvis's voice, and I never wore a jump suit," smiled the happy singer-songwriter, who, with his brush and brains, continues to paint a wonderful world of color.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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