January 1, 2014

The Queen of Swing

Onstage and off, cowgirl entertainer Devon Dawson embodies the joy she has long felt from sharing her music.

She lets the dog in, yanks off those big turquoise earrings, pulls off her boots, wiggles her toes, grabs a Dr Pepper from the fridge and plops down, a happy heap on a sectional sofa that almost fills two sides of the cozy living room.

She has spent the morning doing what she loves best: singing. And now she’s ready — even eager — to talk about her life’s journey, how she hung on to the most precious thing her father ever gave her and what she believes is her most important work.

Devon Dawson, 56, has long been one of Fort Worth’s favorite cowgirl entertainers. She’s famous for being the singing voice of the Toy Story 2 character Jessie, the yodeling cowgirl, on the Grammy-winning children’s album Woody’s Roundup featuring Riders in the Sky.

Called “Miss Devon” by everyone, she is approachable and animated, wrapped in an almost incandescent aura of fun-loving confidence. Her life seems full, her regrets few. Oh, she did want a horse once, took riding lessons and then imagined being pitched, breaking an arm, unable to play rhythm guitar.

Trade her music for riding? No way. “I’ll take the music,” she says.

Born with a sunny disposition, she is the younger of two sisters. Her father, Phil Osborne, was a sometimes-barber who really made his way in the world as the lead guitarist and singer in combos he put together — musicians bouncing from one town to the next, playing where they could.

Devon’s mother was Osborne’s third wife, but when Devon was only 6 months old, her mother bailed out of the marriage.

“She ran off to Spain with a movie director,” says Devon. Wrinkling her nose and shaking her head, she makes it clear that she cannot imagine anyone deserting her father.

Osborne kept the girls and eventually married Olive, a supportive and loving woman who embraced his daughters as her own and let him follow his musical dream even as it hopscotched the family across the West.

“I went to about three schools a year,” says Devon. “I got really good at geography.”

It was something of a rambling life to be sure, but Devon says she felt secure and loved. She thought her family close, interesting, their lives filled with excitement.

“It was always fun to go adventuring,” she says.

She played guitar by 9 and, at 12, she and her sister, Tracy, were performing with their dad. Osborne’s stage name was Phil Ryan, so the trio was called The Ryan Sisters + One.

They played at places such as Sportsman’s Paradise in Arizona, George’s Steakhouse in Hobbs, N.M., the Fountain Steakhouse in Carlsbad, The River Queen in Lubbock, the Lubbock Country Club . . .

Once when she was 15, they were booked in Holbrook, Ariz., when her father fell ill. He was rushed to Winslow for an emergency appendectomy, leaving Devon to hold the show together and find a lead guitarist to stand in for him.

“I was scared to death, but we found a guy and the show went on,” she says.

Chance meeting

Every other year, the family moved to Corpus Christi, where the trio played at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor while Olive watched. One night, Chuck Dawson, a good-looking Navy ensign who was in jet training at the Naval Air Station Kingsville, about 45 miles from Corpus, showed up.

While he waited for the Oldsmobile dealer to finish a few adjustments on his brand-new Delta 88, he stepped across the street for pizza and beer, never guessing that simple supper would so change his life.

The Ryan Trio was playing old standards such as San Antonio Rose, Under the Double Eagle and Down Yonder. Chuck, a Fort Worth native who didn’t go for the Beatles, felt right at home.

“I grew up with the old country songs. I never liked the more modern music,” he says.

During intermission, 14-year-old Devon and her sister went around to all the tables and took requests. “They did a follow-the-bouncing-ball thing and everyone sang along. I had a good time, and so I came back the next night,” says Chuck.

In fact, he came so often that he became friends with Olive and Phil Osborne and began to have dinner with the entire family. When a hurricane hit Corpus, leaving the Osbornes without water or electricity, Dawson took a full ice chest to the family each day, easily negotiating the barricades because he was in uniform.

The friendship deepened. “Devon was so young about 14 years old. I wasn’t chasing her, but after a while I was attracted to her sister. Then Devon grew up and I saw how sharp she is, so smart with just the kindest heart. Things changed,” he says.

Chuck and Devon married at Fort Worth’s First Methodist Church in 1975. She was 18. He was 30. In a couple of years, they built the house they live in now and soon had twin sons: Ryan and Marty, now 34.

“I’d moved around my whole life. I hadn’t minded it, but I wanted to put my roots deep into this soil,” says Devon.

“When the boys were little, she was 100 percent stay-at-home mother,” says Chuck.

She sang in the church choir — still does — joined the PTA, directed school plays. She also made time for her music, performing once a month at a nursing home, but she didn’t travel.

“I had received this gift of music from my father’s hands and I wasn’t about to lose it,” she says.

By the time her boys were in high school, she was volunteering with the Cowtown Opry, musically mentoring adults and children, singing with the Texas Trailhands and keeping alive the old-time music that her father had taught her to love.

When she traveled, Chuck, a pilot who now plays banjo and harmonica with the Cowtown Opry, went along. “It just always worked out that way. God is in charge of my schedule,” she says.

Two important Jessies

One day Devon learned that the famous singing group Riders in the Sky would be at an Oklahoma festival, and she was determined to go. Never mind that the Trailhands weren’t excited about the idea. She bought everyone a ticket and insisted they hit the road as soon as they’d finished their gig at the State Fair of Texas.

“Every time I thought about it, my heart beat faster,” she says. “I knew that I knew that I knew I had to be there.”

When the Riders in the Sky pulled into the festival grounds, Devon was already jamming with country singer Judy Coder, singing I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart. A crowd had gathered.

“She’d do a verse. I’d do a verse. She’d yodel and then I’d yodel. . . . We were having fun,” says Devon.

The rest of the day passed without incident, and tired but happy, they headed home.

A few weeks later, while she was at home washing dishes, the phone rang. It was Joey Miskulin, from the Riders. “We think you’re the singing voice of Jessie,” he said. “Can you yodel in E flat?”

Well, you bet she could.

“Being Jessie gave a certain recognition to the work. It was such a blessing,” she says.

But it’s not the singing, not the strong rhythm guitar that she plays or even the ability to write songs that she counts as her biggest talent.

“My biggest gift is that I’m an encourager,” she says. “God draws people to me and sometimes they need encouraging. I love to encourage people’s hearts.”

Her singing partner, Jessie Robertson, known as “The Outlaw,” agrees.

“People follow her around. After a show she can’t leave. Everyone crowds around wants to talk to her. She lifts people up. I’ll tell you, she and her husband saved my life,” he says.

Partnership is born

Robertson takes a deep breath remembering those dark days before he met Devon and Chuck Dawson. “I’d gotten into a bad depression,” he says.

His wife had died. His health failed: a tumor in the chest, surgery, blindness in one eye, more surgery, pneumonia, a collapsed lung, cancer, chemo, a fall, a blood clot, short-term disability.

Nothing to live for, but such a long fight to live. “I felt guilty if I smiled or laughed because my wife wasn’t there to enjoy it with me,” he says.

One day he heard a voice. “Jessie, make up your mind: live or die. Right now you’re choosing to die.”

“Lord,” he remembers saying, “I want to live.”

And then he met Devon.

He saw her first at the Fort Worth Rodeo when she performed with some Western poets and singers. His cousin had insisted that he attend. For the first time in a long time, Robertson enjoyed himself, but that happy feeling had wings and before he got to the car, it was gone.

The following Sunday, that cousin made him go to the Cowtown Opry’s free Sunday afternoon performance in the Stockyards. Again, Robertson felt energized. The old music, the gentle family show lifted his spirits like nothing else. Soon he began to think about singing with the group.

Devon is the Opry’s talent coordinator and so one Sunday he approached her about joining the troupe. “I guess I’ll have to learn to play the guitar so I can perform with y’all,” he remembers saying.

But Devon, never one to put off the joy music can bring, didn’t hesitate. “You don’t have to learn to play guitar. Sing something,” she said.

And so Jessie sang. “She acted like it was great,” he says.

The next Sunday she spotted him in the audience and called him onstage. “I sang Tumbling Tumbleweeds like I’d been singing it all my life,” he says. “And when I finished she said, ‘Why is a singer like you not singing?’ ’’

From that moment on they were friends and soon enough singing partners. “Devon and Chuck are like my family now,” he says.

In November, Miss Devon and the Outlaw received the Western Music Association’s Duo of the Year Award. They had also teamed with Kristyn Harris, 19, to win the Harmony Trio Award.

Harris is only one of a number of young people Devon has mentored over the years. “I was about 14 when we met,” says Harris. “I wouldn’t be doing musically what I’m doing without her help.”

Devon calls Harris “the daughter of our heart” and reminds her to never be afraid of the audience “because you’re doing what you love.”

“That’s why we do music,” says Devon. “I learned a long time ago that the lead really appreciates a strong rhythm guitar. I lay down a foundation for them and they appreciate it. It’s like encouraging them,” she says.

Ever trusting in a higher power, Devon is content — even driven — to let others shine. And after all these years championing Western music, she is a captivating mix of child-like optimism and seasoned musician.

“I’m not a performer,” she says. “I’m an entertainer. I play the music and the audience sees what I love, and some of them start loving it, too. Love is the key.”

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