My mum Dot Whelan, affectionately known to her family as ‘Dottie’, celebrated a birthday milestone this week. The Matriarch of the Whelan Family (a title she adores), whose house in Blackpool has served for more than forty years as a session venue, rehearsal room and recording studio for family and friends, is now mumblety years young. I’d tell you the exact figure but, since she’s turned lifelong obfuscation about her age into an art form, she’d probably kill me if I did!
Music was always a big part of Dottie’s life (even though it took until all her four children were in their teens and twenties for her to really strike out on her own and find her true musical niche). Growing up we always had a piano in the house, which Dottie and a variety of visiting relatives would play, and there were always plenty of acoustic guitars and mandolins around. One of my early memories is the whole family singing the Carly Simon hit You’re So Vain in unaccompanied harmony. Then there were the times, from Christmas 1977 onwards, when our family Stylophone sessions had to be experienced to be believed. Or perhaps not…
During the early 1970s, when my brother Kevin was in his rock music phase as a lead guitarist, Dottie was more than happy to have Kevin’s whole rock band practice in her front room, full drum kit, amplifiers and all. I remember all the local kids standing on our front wall, craning their necks to see inside. This was never more the case than the day when the older brother of one of the members of Kevin’s band dropped by to listen to them play. Graham’s brother was Jeff Rawle, an actor who was then well known on TV as Billy Liar, and has since gone on to find fame in Drop the Dead Donkey and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Poor Jeff didn’t know what hit him, because I unashamedly used his presence in my house to give me super-cool points with the rest of the children in the street. Unsurprisingly, he never came back after he was mobbed for autographs by a trillion primary school kids! But the band rehearsals continued, nevertheless, and by some miracle, the neighbours never complained. I’ve often thought that, if we were that disruptive today, we’d probably get served with an Asbo.
We moved house in 1976, to a location where the neighbours were less likely to be bothered by such a noisy family (a semi-detached house between two shops on a main road, rather than a quiet council estate). And in the years since, Dottie has amassed her own impressive P.A. system and recording equipment, so that sessions and rehearsals in her house (both amplified and acoustic) are still a regular occurrence even now.
In the mid-seventies Kevin cast aside rock guitar for Irish fiddle, and over the next couple of years his enthusiasm for traditional music (a legacy of our Irish grandfather Paddy Whelan, who was a tin-whistle and concertina player from Co. Waterford), transferred itself both to me and to our soon-to-be brother-in-law Mike Allen, so that the three of us became totally obsessed by playing jigs and reels. Eventually, in the late seventies, our folk/trad music nights at The Rag began, and musicians came from far and wide to play and sing there, as well as back at our house afterwards for the regular all-night sessions. Needless to say, Dottie was delighted by all of it, and did her best to support us in our traditional music endeavours.
But Dottie, of course, was not to be outdone. She’s a more than a bit of a multi-instrumentalist herself so, utilising her skills on accordion, mandolin, guitar and a vast array of percussion, she set up her own folk group: The Homesteaders Folk Band (named after our house, The Musicians’ Homestead). She also experimented musically with a variety of other local folkies, loving especially to sing in harmony. But soon Dottie got restless, even though she had a great time doing it.
Dottie had bigger visions, it seemed. She saw an opportunity to build on her folk music skills and ability to draw people together to fulfil her dream: singing country music. So over a period of time, and through several painstakingly assembled and disassembled line-ups (until she found a combination and a formula she was happy with), Dottie brought her vision to life.
The band that eventually emerged, with its origins in the Homesteaders Folk Band followed by its successor The Homesteaders Country Band, was the Nashville Cats. Resplendent in blonde wig and with a vast wardrobe of stage dresses (created by Dottie herself from charity shop evening gowns, modified and sown inventively with sequins and sparkly braid), Dottie’s professional stage persona Dolly Denver was born. With Dolly and singer/bass guitarist Dave Fulcher fronting the band, the Nashville Cats toured Northern England for more than a
decade, rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Les Dawson and becoming the darling of working men’s clubs across the region. They even attracted a slightly scary following of costumed re-enactors, known as ‘The Gunslingers’, who line-danced at every Nashville Cats concert before having a mock shoot-out with their replica weapons. They only shot blanks but, for my part, I decided it was safest to never upset them!
As the daughter of Dolly Denver, living in her house, keeping my head down and holding down a full-time job now my wild childhood was o’er, my nights of sleep were frequently broken by the band arriving home from their gigs in the early hours, rowdy and ready for a party. It was like being the parent of a rebellious teenager, except that in this case, she was my mum! My brothers, sister and I, (well aware of Dottie’s admiration for Dolly Parton), secretly called her Dolly Part One, in the usual fond sarcastic way that comes so naturally to my family.
The Nashville Cats morphed gradually, with the increasing inclusion of family members, into the slightly more eclectic ‘The Cats’, renamed to showcase the greater variety of musical genre they now embraced. This newer (and final) iteration of the band had at last become a true family endeavour, as it included Dottie’s sons Kevin on fiddle and Rick on guitar, and grandson Simon on drums (with occasional guest appearances by a certain daughter on flute). And I think it was that final, tighter and more inward-focused version of the band that Dottie liked best, so proud is she of her musical family. It has always pleased her better than anything to sing and perform with her children and grandchildren.
Despite her focus on country music, Dottie has never relinquished her folk music roots. She is a fixture at Fylde Folk Festival every year, where she holds court whilst playing bones in the session in the Wyre Lounge, surrounded by friends and family. And in these latter years, retired from her country music heyday, she plays keyboards with folk band Scuttlebugs. She doesn’t sing so much anymore but maybe, if you ask nicely, she might do a quiet rendition of her favourite song, ‘Maggie’. And if she does, it’ll raise the hairs on your head.
So now, Dottie is mumblety years young, and not as spry as she used to be, but she still plays at more sessions and gigs than me. When I’m mumblety years young too, I want to be just like her.
Happy birthday, mum!