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EARLY YEARS AND INFLUENCES
Debbie Horton, co-host of BRANSON ON THE ROAD, was born in Newport News, Virginia to Johnny and Maggie Burr. Debbie has one younger sister, Vickie. Johnny owned several barber shops in the tidewater area and Maggie was a stay at home mom. In later years, Johnny became an ordained Southern Baptist minister and pastored several churches in Virginia.
It was evident early on that Debbie had an interest in show business. Her dad played an old Kay guitar and would entertain the family after a long day at work. When Debbie was around 5 years old her parents bought a piano and arranged for her to take lessons. This was the first formal training she received.
In the summer of 1969 Debbie saw a gentleman on television that was to have a profound influence on her life. "The Johnny Cash Show" debuted on ABC-TV and the music and unique Cash sound demanded her attention as a young child. She asked her dad to show her a few chords on his old Kay guitar and in a short time she mastered three basic chords and began putting together songs. Debbie's biggest musical influences were Johnny Cash, Luther Perkins and Mother Maybelle Carter & The Carter Sisters (from Virginia as well), and her style of playing was a combination of them all.
Debbie and Vickie began singing together at the ages of 11 and 9 at the New Light Baptist Church in Newport News, Virginia, and it wasn't long before the Burr Sisters were performing for church singings, gospel revivals and private family gatherings wherever they could. A small country music venue in Mathews, Virginia called The Donk's Theatre was their first exposure to a country music audience, and Debbie's mom made her and Vickie matching outfits with sequins and fringe to wear for their performances.
A FRIENDSHIP WITH JOHNNY CASH
Debbie was named the Virginia Representative of the Johnny & June Cash International Fan Club and whenever The Johnny Cash Show was within a few hundred miles of their home in Virginia, they would go see them. Over the years, Debbie went to numerous Cash concerts and had gotten to know them personally. When she graduated high school, she was invited to have lunch with the Cash's at their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Debbie also holds the distinction of being the only woman to have ever played lead guitar for Johnny Cash. During a concert near Baltimore, Maryland Johnny Cash invited Debbie to play lead guitar for him on stage. Debbie was 19 years old and Cash arranged for her to receive a recording of the entire performance. (Read more about Debbie's relationship with Johnny Cash on the JOHNNY CASH page on this site.)
BEHIND THE MIC
Shortly after Debbie's graduation from high school, the family moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia where her dad was pastor of the Cape Charles Baptist Church. Debbie's heart's desire was to work in country music, but she didn't know where to begin. She came to find out it would be no farther than her radio dial.
WCMS AM-FM in Norfolk, Virginia was the powerhouse country music radio station serving Delaware to the Carolina's, and the #1 station in the area. One morning they were running a contest called, "DJ for a Day", where listeners were encouraged to call in to introduce a song, etc. Debbie called in and won the contest which was your own radio show for an hour. Even though it was her first time in a radio station, Debbie's announcing won over the listeners so much that the station owners offered her a job the next day! Debbie was the 6:00pm to midnight DJ for about 2 years, which exposed her to other opportunities that included being an MC at concerts for Kenny Rogers, The Oak Ridge Boys, Hank Williams, Jr. and interviewing Buck Owens and actor Dennis Weaver. She was the first female radio announcer at WCMS and in the tidewater (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg) area.
A marriage and a move to Pennsylvania put all of Debbie's music aspirations on hold. She worked for several major corporations including Nabisco, Ernst & Young, and 10 years with Unisys Corporation Headquarters, in which she was involved with sales, marketing, promotions, multi-million dollar budget planning and also acted as the right hand person for a Vice President. During this time she traveled quite a bit, visiting Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska, as well as attended college at night focusing on a degree in Business Administration. Her positions with these companies exposed her to the upper echelons of corporate America and what she gained in a business education proved to be invaluable.
PURSUING HER PASSION
As a result of a position relocation, Unisys moved Debbie from Philadelphia to Austin, Texas in the mid-90's, and it was in Texas that the opportunity to pursue a musical career presented itself once again. Throughout Texas there were many Grand Ole Opry style theatres and Debbie auditioned and became a part of that scene. She traveled all over the state playing the "Opry Circuit" and was named Entertainer of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year numerous times at many of these venues. She recorded her first album of songs she had written and received airplay throughout Texas. Her song "Before the Last Teardrop Dries" received the most airplay and got the attention of legendary Tulsa, Oklahoma DJ, Larry Scott at KVOO who said it was one of the best country songs he'd ever heard (in later years this song was recorded by Grand Ole Opry star, Norma Jean). Debbie also performed in Nashville at the famous Nashville Palace and toured in Texas with the gospel quartet, The Florida Boys and the beloved country comedian, Jerry Clower.
While playing, writing songs, and singing as much as she could, Debbie was still working for Unisys. Although this filled many of the desires she had for music, it still lacked the total commitment she wanted to make. After careful consideration and a lot of prayer, Debbie left Unisys and moved to the live music capital of the world, Branson, Missouri, to take her music career to the next level.
MAKING IT BIG IN BRANSON
Debbie came to Branson and hosted her own show at the old BoxCar Willie Theatre in Branson. Debbie was a guest on many shows in Branson and performed at the Jim Stafford Theatre, Moe Bandy Theatre, The Grand Country Music Hall, The Little Opry Theatre at the IMAX, Shepherd of the Hills, and at Branson Fest (just to name a few). She worked with the Korean War Veterans groups in Branson performing for them whenever she could. Debbie hosted another show in Cassville, Missouri at the Roaring River Theatre and worked many fairs and road dates stretching from Canada to California to Florida in the midst of her Branson show commitments.
During this time Debbie was invited to appear on the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree in Nashville, Tennessee (which she has several times) and was part of a special Louisiana Hayride Reunion along with Kitty Wells, Norma Jean, Hank Locklin, Billy Walker, Hank Thompson and many others. The reunion was broadcast live over radio station KWKH in Shreveport as the Louisiana Hayride was many years ago.
In 2005, Debbie started her own music publishing company through BMI called Mitzi May Music (named after a nickname her dad gave to her sister, Vickie). In 2006 Grand Ole Opry star, "Pretty Miss" Norma Jean and legendary rockabilly queen, Wanda Jackson, both recorded songs "Before the Last Teardrop Dries" and a biographical song titled "Pretty Miss Norma Jean" written by Debbie. Both songs appeared on the album, "The Loneliest Star in Texas" by Norma Jean with special guests, Wanda Jackson and Buck Trent.
THE BIRTH OF BRANSON ON THE ROAD
Although many opportunities for housed theatre shows continued to present themselves to Debbie in Branson, Debbie developed a new show concept in 2004 and called it BRANSON ON THE ROAD. Long time friend and fellow musician, Donnie Wright, helped Debbie with the idea of bringing a Branson show directly to people who may never have a chance to visit the city. BRANSON ON THE ROAD was a hit from its debut show and continued to gain momentum quickly. BRANSON ON THE ROAD became a registered Trademark in 2006 and the name was approved by the City of Branson, Missouri and acknowledged by the Branson Chamber of Commerce as "traveling ambassadors" for Branson.
Donnie and Debbie performed in Austria in 2005 and 2010, being seen by millions on Austrian national television. They appear regularly on the RFD-TV show "Midwest Country," seen in over 130 million homes on Dish and Direct TV. Debbie acted as host of "Midwest Country" in the summer of 2005.
BRANSON ON THE ROAD has been such a blessing for Debbie and Donnie because it enables them to continue to perform in Branson on a regular basis and also to travel with their show; the best of both worlds. BRANSON ON THE ROAD plays predominantly in historic theaters, performing arts centers and dinner playhouses throughout America and have donated many dollars of ticket sale revenues back to restoration and preservations of the arts in those communities.
In July 2007 Debbie was invited by Bill Miller to be interviewed on the second broadcast of the new Johnny Cash Radio (www.JohnnyCash.com Radio - also available on iTunes) and her performance with Johnny Cash was aired for the first time. This has resulted in a onslaught of mail and interview requests from all over the world regarding her association with Johnny Cash. It was truly an honor to be a part of this show and to share that special performance. BRANSON ON THE ROAD was also part of the entertainment for the Johnny Cash 80th Birthday Celebration Cruise in February 2011 with Jack Clement, Johnny Western, W.S. "Fluke" Holland, Joanne Cash and others. In addition, Branson On The Road was the headline performers for the opening of the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee in May 2013.
Debbie made her GRAND OLE OPRY debut in Nashville, Tennessee on May 27, 2016. This was a lifelong dream and, as they say in the music business, once you play the GRAND OLE OPRY, you've made it!
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Donnie and Debbie were married in November 2005 and share a home and a small farm in the Branson area. They continue to perform in Branson and travel throughout the country with BRANSON ON THE ROAD. Debbie and her sister, Vickie, still sing together every chance they get. Vickie obtained a Masters of Divinity Degree, was ordained, and pastors the Gethsemane United Methodist church in Muncie, Indiana (The Star Press, Muncie, IN feature story). She and her husband have two girls. Debbie's dad passed away in 1997 and her mother lives in Indiana near Vickie.
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Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.
Debbie Horton & Johnny Counterfit
THE GRAND OLE OPRY, Nashville, Tennessee
May 27, 2016