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Bermuda singer remembers her Grand Ole Opry performance at age 12

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Joe Dawson (left) with his brother Norman and their niece Valerie Funderburk, after they performed together at BAA in 1960 (Photograph by Roger Gosling)
Former ZBM DJ Dave Cartner (left) with Valerie Funderburk and Grand Ole Opry singer Hank Snow, in Nashville in 1961(Photograph supplied)
Valerie Funderburk and her uncle Norman Dawson at the Grand Ole Opry in 1961(Photograph supplied)
Robert and Valerie Funderburk in Tennessee (Photograph supplied)

At the age of 12 Valerie Funderburk got up on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and sang some of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits.

Having made a name for herself at home in Bermuda, through her performances with her uncles, Norman and Joe Dawson, she was invited to be a part of the weekly country music stage concert by one of its regulars, Hank Snow.

He’d learnt of her talent through an American DJ working at ZBM at the time, Dave Cartner.

In 1961 Mrs Funderburk travelled to the US with her mother Agnes Soares, her sister Judy and her uncle Norman, unaware that she would be performing at “the mother church of country music” where Cline, one of the most successful singers of that time, had herself performed.

“Singing there was incredible,” she said. “When I first walked out on the stage, there were so many bright lights. You couldn’t see the audience. I was very scared. I felt like a tiny dot in the middle of the ocean.”

Today the 72-year-old today makes her home in Cleveland, just two hours’ drive from Ryman Auditorium, the famed home of the Grand Ole Opry until 1974.

Although she gave up singing, she would often make the journey to Nashville with her husband Robert to see country stars perform.

“I love country music,” Mrs Funderburk said. “I like singers like Alan Jackson, but my favourites are still the old-timers like Patsy Cline.”

Her uncles stoked her interest. The Dawsons performed all over Bermuda with popular singers such as Sammy Moniz and Jean Southern, and the Rainbow Valley Boys band.

“They were very talented,” Mrs Funderburk said. “They played multiple instruments. Norman never went anywhere without a guitar in his hand.”

She was 11 the first time she joined them and still remembers how much she loved the frilly dress her mother made her for the concert on the field at BAA.

“There were lots of people and I was very scared,” she said. “You didn’t want to focus on one person. I looked at my mother and my sisters in the crowd, the whole time.”

Despite that she made it through several songs and eventually became known for one of them: Cline’s If You Could See the World Through the Eyes of a Child.

While a student at Dellwood School Mrs Funderburk started singing regularly with Norman at clubs such as Ye Old Anchor in Dockyard.

Eventually she caught the attention of Mr Cartner who released her cover of the Cline hit as a single and, in January 1961, gave her a job as a radio host. The show was pre-recorded and ran at 6.30am on Saturdays.

“I worked with Nell Bassett,” Mrs Funderburk said. “She would help with the speech lessons and stuff like that. She helped me a lot.”

A strong believer in her talent, Mr Cartner then wrote about her to Mr Snow, an Opry regular who was known for 1950s hits I’m Moving On and The Golden Rocket.

At his invitation Mrs Funderburk got up on stage and sang, while Norman played the guitar.

She continued to sing for a while after she returned home but, like most teens, was ultimately more interested in spending time with friends.

“We lived up on Agar’s Island at that time,” she said. “My sister Judy and I would row the boat, fish and swim. We all had our friends come up to camp out at the island. At that time, my friends were more important to me than being a star.”

She married an American serviceman and moved to Florida where she “worked in an office doing accounts receivable for 17 years”. The couple divorced in 1982 and, five years later, she married Mr Funderburk.

“My first husband actually introduced us,” she said. “I never really did any singing after I moved to the United States.”

Eager to try something new she joined Bass Pro Shops, an outdoor sporting company with stores across the United States and Canada.

“I knew firearms,” she said. “I was the ring master at the Great Bass Pro Shop. I taught rifle and archery.”

She also knew quite a bit about fishing thanks to her father, William, who often took out her and her sisters, Jeanette, Judy and Michelle.

“My father had four girls and wanted a boy, so he taught us how to mend nets and make fish pots,” said Mrs Funderburk who has three children Kim, Kelly and Andrew, three grandchildren, three great grandchildren and one great grandchild on the way. “We had a great time growing up doing all of that.”

She hasn’t been back to Bermuda since 1988 when she sang at a family gathering with Norman, who died in 1993.

Her Grand Ole Opry performance is now a part of history courtesy of the Hank Snow Home Town Museum.

“We went in and started talking to the lady there,” said Mrs Funderburk, who came upon it while travelling through Liverpool, Nova Scotia with her husband a few years ago.

“She was really surprised that Hank Snow invited me to the Grand Ole Opry. I told her he wrote letters to me. She asked me to send her that stuff. They put all the stuff in the museum.”

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published April 07, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 08, 2021 at 8:11 am)

Bermuda singer remembers her Grand Ole Opry performance at age 12

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