Among the most recognizable names of the many entertainers from eastern Kentucky is that of the inimitable Marlow Tackett of Dorton.
How many times in a career does one get to sit in the presence of a legend and chat like next door neighbors or brothers? I recently had that honor when Marlow graciously gave me an interview and impromptu concert in the Jenkins city park. I was there working on the stage in preparation for the upcoming Jenkins Homecoming Days Festival August 21- 23.
We sat for three hours while I hurriedly took notes as he talked about his life and career. Several times we paused when the memories he shared brought tears to our eyes. His friendly blue eyes gleamed with pride as he related how he rose from very humble beginnings to the national stage. Several times the conversation would remind him of a special event that inspired him to write one of more than 100 songs he has written about his life experiences. He would sing a few lines then we would continue the interview. He was in no hurry nor was I.
Those three hours could easily have become three days as the conversation flowed so freely. We became instant friends.
Marlow was the 12th of 16 children born to Toy and Frona Tackett. The family also had two adopted children. The family lived in a small house on a hillside farm and lived from paycheck to paycheck. Toy never complained about having to work two jobs to keep the family fed. Their home was always filled with music, happiness and lots of love.
Toy was a coal miner and worked as a cutting machine operator. He worked the day shift in one coal mine then came home for supper before going to the second job. Marlow recalls seeing his dad come home from work and lie down on the front porch and sleep until Frona would say ‘supper is ready, Toy.’ After supper, Marlow’s older brother, Obie, would saddle his dad’s horse and he rode through the Flat Woods Mountain to Allegheny to work the night shift in another coal mine.
All of the family shared the responsibilities for scratching out a meager living. They farmed and kept livestock to supplement the coal miner’s paycheck. Marlow recalls one of his duties each evening was to bring home the cow from the hillside pasture to be milked.
“I had this little pup I named Elvis because at that time I idolized Elvis Presley’s music. Someone had set the pup out on the side of the road and he followed me home. I took Elvis to the pasture with me to help bring home the cow. After a few trips Elvis knew how to herd the cow by himself. The cow would hide in the edge of the woods and try to avoid Elvis. Sooner or later the cow would move and the cowbell around her neck would tinkle and Elvis would take off like greased lightning to bring her in. Because I didn’t have to go get the cow anymore I stayed at the bottom of the hill and strummed on the barbed wire fence and sang Elvis Presley’s songs literally until the cow came home. Even on a cold, gray, wintery evening with dusk coming fast I stayed warm as I dreamed of some day getting a guitar and becoming a rock and roll singer like Elvis Presley. When I wasn’t strumming on the barbed wire fence I was beating on a broom, a can or anything trying to make music.
“When I was about nine years old I won first prize in a talent show at Dorton Elementary School. My older sister, Audrey, took Maybelline and painted me some sideburns. Then she took some white shoe polish and blue cake coloring and painted my shoes blue. I didn’t have a guitar but oh! how I wanted one. I tried to imitate Elvis’s body gyrations by pretending that I was itching all over and didn’t have enough hands to scratch. I sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and won $2.50 and a box of Milky Way candy bars. The same year I won the countywide 4-H talent contest. The winner was to get to perform at the Liberty Theater in Pikeville. Our family didn’t have a car so my parents didn’t get to go see me perform. I didn’t have any dress clothes so Reo Johns, a schoolteacher at Dorton, bought me a pair of pants, shirt and jacket and took me to Pikeville to perform.
“One night my dad woke me at 1:30 in the morning when he got home from work. He got me out of bed and took me into the kitchen. There set the prettiest thing I ever laid two eyes on in my life. He had bought me a Montgomery Ward Harmony guitar at Brack Little’s store in the head of Caney Creek. He taught me a few basic chords then I learned the rest on my own. My career was launched. Dad always encouraged me. When company would come Dad would say ‘Git your guitar, Bub, and sing for these folks’.”
Marlow and his guitar became inseparable. He took it everywhere he went and played and sang all day. He took it to school with him every day. While other kids were playing ball, he was singing and playing guitar. When the playing became a nuisance to the teacher, he had to leave the guitar in the principal’s office until time to go home. Having to be isolated from his guitar all day made him love it even more. Sometimes he could be found with a songbook tucked inside his history book as he was learning lyrics to a new song. He even played the guitar while riding on the school bus.
“The principal gave me a warning that if I didn’t quit playing my guitar on the school bus, I would not be allowed to ride anymore,” said Marlow. “Well, to make a long story short, I ended up walking and hitchhiking to school but I still took my guitar. I still carry that same guitar with me everywhere I go. If I’m driving down the road and lyrics come into my head, I pull off the road and get out my old guitar and put the words to music. I keep a portable cassette recorder in my truck and I sit there along the side of the road and record my new song.”
Marlow turned on his cassette player. “This is something I wrote while I was driving up here today,” he said. It was a reflection of his hardscrabble upbringing which provides much material for his many original songs. As we listened he beamed with pride of his ability to capture a snippet of mountain life with which many a mountain person can identify. When Marlow sings his ballads the listener is thinking, ‘He has found the words to say what I feel’.
Marlow stayed in school and sang at the drop of a hat for anyone who would listen. He recalled growing up and we laughed at some of the stories he told. He had a mule, Old Joe, that he rode around the farm and up and down the hollows. He didn’t even use a saddle or bridle. Old Joe knew where he wanted to go. When he was riding out of the hollow to go to the post office, neighbors would yell, “Bring my mail too, Marlow”. He still kept his omnipresent guitar as he rode Old Joe. Truth be known, Old Joe enjoyed being serenaded.
“One time I was riding Old Joe and playing my guitar,” recalled Marlow. “I threw one leg up over the mule’s back to rest my guitar. I don’t know what happened; I must have hit a sour note or something. Next thing I knew Old Joe had thrown me off his back and there I sat flat on my behind in the dirt road. I loved that old mule. We made many a dollar plowing the neighbors’ fields and gardens together.”
One moment we were laughing and the next moment Marlow’s eyes welled with tears and he would stop mid-sentence to compose himself. “When I was age 16 my dad got sick and was not able to work like he had before,” recalled Marlow. “I knew the family was struggling financially. I figured if I left home and got a job there would be one less mouth to feed and besides, I was getting impatient about following my dream of becoming a professional singer. I went to Fort Wayne, Ind., where my older brother, Obie, lived. I didn’t even look for a job doing manual labor. I got gigs singing at various theaters, schools, bar rooms or any place I could. I was actually making a living doing what I wanted to do. I continued honing my skills then I auditioned at the Brooklyn Inn Theater and Night Club. I sang there three nights a week for a year.
“One of the people who came to my show often was the owner of the Piano Club in downtown Fort Wayne. He said, ‘I don’t know what you are making here but I will pay you double if you will come and work for me.’ I took the job and was living my dream. I performed all over the country then went to Nashville, Tenn., and played some gigs there. After 3 1/ 2 years I had seen enough of the bright lights of the cities and I was ready to come home to Kentucky.”
One of his first shows back home was at the mouth of Beefhide where he sang from the bed of a flatbed truck. The more he played and sang the more the word spread and people came from far and near to hear this talented young entertainer. Soon winter was coming and he had to find an indoor venue to continue his shows. He bought some land and built a facility from rough, sawmill lumber. He called it ‘The Country Corral.’ It had a small stage, wooden benches and dirt floor covered with sawdust. People flocked to hear him sing and enjoy the ambiance of the rustic theater. He soon outgrew the tiny theater so he began looking elsewhere. He rented several other facilities throughout the county before he found a place in Pikeville close to the Floyd County line. It was there he opened and operated Marlow’s Country Palace beginning in 1975. His career flourished there for 30 years.
“I had four shows each week, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” said Marlow. “I made sure I had good variety so my patrons would continue coming to my theater. Quite often I brought in some big name musicians and they filled up the place. When a George Jones, Percy Sledge or Gary Stewart played I had to fill up the dance floor with chairs. At one George Jones show I seated 1,190 fans.
“Even though I was doing well as a businessman I still wanted to continue growing musically,” said Marlow. “I got a big break quite by accident about 1977. I did a show in Lexington, Kentucky and Ralph Emory was the M.C. The program was broadcast live nationwide on 120 radio stations. That opened the door for me. Ralph got me on his early morning radio show which was broadcast throughout the southeastern United States. He then booked me on his ‘Pop Goes the Country’ TV show. That led to a couple appearances on the “Porter Wagoner Show” That chain of events got me national exposure and a RCA recording contract. I was on the “Grand Ol’ Opry” when I signed with RCA. At one time I had four songs on the Billboard Magazine charts before RCA signed me. After three years with RCA I decided not to renew my contract. I had The Country Palace and three or four other successful businesses going here at home. Sometimes I look back and wonder if that was the right decision. Sometimes people just have to follow their heart. Not only was the best money here at home but my heart was here in the mountains with people I love.”
Not only has Marlow Tackett become famous as an entertainer, he is just as well known for his humanitarian work. In addition to keeping The Country Palace going, Marlow finds time to play and sing at schools, churches and political gatherings. He is a very generous man who tries to accommodate anyone with a worthwhile cause. While playing at one school he met a little girl who wrote him a letter asking if he could help her family with Christmas gifts. That letter was the budding of The Christmas Program for the Needy Children in Pike and surrounding counties. He helped one family that year and since that time the program for which he has gained national acclaim has grown astronomically. With his organizational skills and the cooperation of numerous businesses, churches and civic organizations, the program now reaches from 7,000 to 8,000 families each year since that first Christmas in 1975. One of Marlow’s greatest honors is being named ‘The Mountain Santa.’
He has always managed to help those in need, whether it be helping those who had been flooded or had lost their homes. He has done many benefit shows to raise money for those who are sick or destitute. Marlow also made it a mission to take food and clothing to schools for the needy children throughout Pike County. Recently, he was honored for this deed. He was presented with a nice plaque designating him as an honorary school superintendent. The person who presented the plaque to him was Pike County School Superintendent Reo Johns. Yes, the same Reo Johns who had recognized and nurtured the career of a talented 9-year old lad years before at Dorton Grade School.
Throughout his career, Marlow has met many dignitaries from senators to representatives to vice presidents to presidents and has performed for many as well, yet he has never forgotten his roots which are buried deep in the rocky, hillside soil of eastern Kentucky. Part of U.S. Route 23 highway in Pike County is named ‘The Marlow Tackett Highway’ in his honor.
A couple of years ago a series of events led Marlow to close the Country Palace. Since that time he is staying busy doing more than 100 shows a year throughout the region and surrounding states. In his career he has recorded 12 to 14 albums featuring every genre of music from country to rock and roll to blues and gospel.
“I’m doing a lot more songwriting now and singing more gospel music. I don’t have time to look back at any mistakes I may have made. I have cut a new gospel CD to be released soon and I will be busy promoting it nationwide.” Ten of the 12 songs are original Marlow Tackett songs. The title of the new CD is ‘A New Set of Wings’.
Marlow picked up his guitar and gave this grateful listener a private performance of the title cut of his new album:
‘They broke the ice in the river when they baptized Grandpa.
‘He was old and crippled and barely could walk.
‘As they raised him from the water it was a heavenly scene;
‘He shouted ‘I’m bound for glory, I’ve got a new set of wings.’
‘I’ve got a new set of wings and some day I’ll fly,
‘To be with my Jesus in my new home in the sky.
‘I’ll be with my loved ones who have gone on before,
‘And the troubles of this world will be never more.
‘My Grandpa’s in Heaven; he’s waiting for me,
‘And since he went home my soul’s been set free.
‘I can’t forget the hours on that glorious day;
‘It still echoes in my mind
‘The words I heard Grandpa say.
‘I’m bound for glory; I’ve got a new set of wings.’
Marlow has always been family oriented and has many times provided employment for family members. All are very talented. His daughter, Wendy Shennell, sang with him when he operated The Country Palace. His son, Keith, plays drums in the band and his son, David, is the sound engineer. His daughters, Marlea Paige and Autumn, also sing.
Dan Huff of Big Appal Studios produced Marlow’s latest CD. He summed up Marlow’s music and his life with these words: “Marlow Tackett has one of those voices that when you hear it you can tell every word he is singing is coming straight from his heart.”
Will someone in Dorton please turn out the lights when you leave? Marlow will be performing at the Jenkins City Park Thursday, August 21. This concert begins at 9 p.m. and has no ending time. This promises to be one of the most memorable events of the year.
The Jenkins Homecoming Days Festival Committee invites everyone to come early for ‘Rockin’ Thursday Night’. Festivities begin at 4:00 with Chuck Johnson singing followed by Children’s Dress-up Contest at 5:00; Triple Shot Band at 6:00; Legacy Band at 7:00; Midlife Crisis Band at 8:00 and Mr. Entertainment himself, Marlow Tackett from 9 o’clock ’til you drop.