“Miss Dixie,” as she was universally known in bluegrass circles, died Friday, at 80, after a difficult struggle with brain cancer. She is, by far, the most prolific female songwriter in bluegrass with, by some accounts, more than 500 cuts to her credit.
That alone is worthy of a monument, but the songwriting success that she enjoyed with her husband of 46 years, Tom T. Hall, is only part of this lovely lady’s incredible story.
Miss Dixie also spent years watching over and taking care of stray dogs and bluegrass musicians. She and Tom raised Bassett hounds and countless dollars for the Humane Society and animal rescue projects. And when Dixie hit a big payday with a song that crossed over on the country charts, they built a studio at their Fox Hollow farm in Brentwood, TN. They opened the studio and their home to many musicians along the way.
“I was part of their fold and will forever be grateful,” said Randy Kohrs, who played in Tom’s band and now has his own studio. “Miss Dixie fed me when I was barely getting by.”
Added bluegrass DJ Dennis Jones, “She gave so much back to the community in so many ways.” Another DJ, Katy Daley, nailed it today when she said on Facebook that Miss Dixie was “the best friend our music ever had.”
And Chris Jones, singer, songwriter, Bluegrass Today columnist and good friend to Miss Dixie and Tom T, said, “Most of her musical associations became lasting friendships that have in turn served to bring the bluegrass community closer together. None of what Miss Dixie created and accomplished as a songwriter, producer, publisher, and promoter was ever done for profit or ego gratification. These were acts of pure generosity and love for bluegrass music and its people. We owe her much, and we’ll miss her even more.”.”
Born Iris Lawrence in England during 1934, she remembered writing poetry as a youngster. Her music career started by accident, and flourished after a series of coincidences that sealed her fate.
First came the chance meeting of Tex Ritter on a train in Europe. The conversation started with him asking why she had a Stetson and ended with her agreeing to promote his music in England, even though she had never done such a thing and had no idea how to start.
But she was successful enough to get noticed and be offered a job with Starday Records in Nashville.
On the way to her new career in a new land, she stopped in Virginia, ended up being taken under the wing of Maybelle Carter. They wrote some songs together, with Iris using the pen name Dixie Dean. Johnny Cash, hanging around while dating June Carter, recorded a couple of the songs. One of the songs won an award from BMI and when she went to the banquet to be honored, she was seated at the same table as Tom T. Hall.
Miss Dixie and Tom married in 1964. They raised dogs and she worked on what today would be called animal rights issues. The songwriting stopped until the late 1990s, after Tom stopped touring and retired to the farm. She urged him to write bluegrass for fun. He challenged her to write some herself if she thought it was easy.
The rest, as they say, is history. Her extensive catalog includes Every Day is Mother’s Day, Knoxville Boy, and Waiting For the Sun to Shine. And there’s a whole series of Daughters of Bluegrass projects. Along the way, there were many accolades, including a distinguished achievement award for both of them from IBMA in 2004, and a top songwriting award from SPBGMA.
They started a music company, Good Homegrown Music, and a record label, Blue Circle. Young artists were welcomed, and many used the studio for nothing except a payment to the engineer.
Miss Dixie also spent time as a music journalist.
She only ever recorded one song herself, but it’s an important one. Last October, as her illness was entering it’s final stages, she released Sunnyflower One as a download, with proceeds benefitting Bellyrubs, a rescue group for Bassett Hounds that the Halls support.
With each download came a message from Miss Dixie: “Running out of time here but it’s your earth and your music. Please save it and give generously. God bless you forevermore. I love you.”
The funeral will be private, but a memorial service will be held at a later date.
Miss Dixie would frown at all the attention, but it’s time to pay her back. So make this your day’s work: Sing a song, pet a puppy and be nice to a struggling musician. And do it again tomorrow.