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EARLY YEARS & INFLUENCES
Donnie Wright, the last of four children, was born in Bolivar, Missouri into a musical family. His mother, Norma played the guitar and his father, Walter, also a musician, hosted his own country and gospel radio show in Springfield, Missouri in the early 1950’s.
In 1960, Donnie showed his first interest in music by wanting to become a drummer in a school band (but there was no band). His mother encouraged him to play guitar instead, and showed him his first guitar chords. Donnie’s musical aptitude was immediately apparent, so after teaching him all they could, his parents arranged lessons for Donnie with a local musician named Herman Hayes. Mr. Hayes, who was 80 years old at the time, was the founder of “Hootin’ & Hollerin’ Days” in Gainesville, Missouri (still going on today). Mr. Hayes was a great influence on Donnie, and taught him mandolin, guitar and fiddle. He challenged Donnie with very difficult musical pieces – mostly pop songs from the 1920’s. Mr. Hayes gave Donnie a piece of advice that he took to heart, “If you love what you do and you’re good at it, you will always have work.”
A YOUNG TALENT
Donnie started his first public appearances performing in local school houses that were used as community centers. He played his fiddle and mandolin with the local players. At this young age, he also started to give lessons to adults. At 10, Donnie turned “professional” when he was hired to play mandolin and fiddle on the “Farm-arama” show at Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Missouri, which was broadcast on KWTO Radio. The “Farmarma” show featured Nashville performers, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Tom T. Hall and many others.
The Presleys (the first show on 76 Country Blvd. in Branson) began their careers during this same time, performing at the Fantastic Caverns. Donnie was known as “Little Donnie Wright,” and would bring out a milk crate and stand on it to reach the microphone. In later years The Presleys Show became a landmark in the Branson music scene and Donnie worked with them many times throughout the years.
At the age of 11, Donnie was featured on the “Slim Wilson TV Show” from KY-3 TV in Springfield, Missouri. From that appearance Donnie was asked to perform on an “Ozark Jubilee Reunion,” a nationally syndicated television show, where he performed with bluegrass legends Jim & Jesse McReynolds.
Ralph A. Hunt, a politician in Springfield, Missouri, reopened the Jewel Theatre in Springfield (the original home of the Ozark Jubilee) and started the Four Star Opry. Donnie was hired as part of the show, playing fiddle, mandolin and guitar, acting as a comedian, and in his spare time, giving music lessons in the lobby of the theater before and after the shows. In addition to the Four Star Opry, Donnie was part of a Branson show (owned and operated by Mr. Hunt) called, The Ozark Mountain Dewers. While Donnie was with this group, they recorded an album of the same name and were part of a national syndicated television show in Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas that featured Nashville country music stars such as Merle Haggard and Webb Piece.
A LIFETIME OF CONTRIBUTIONS & ACHIEVEMENTS
Between 1972–1973 Jim Weatherly started the fourth country music show in Branson, Missouri on 76 Hwy. called “Ozark Jamboree”. At 18, this was Donnie’s first exposure as band leader/music director of the production.
Donnie was hired by the Presleys to be part of their show on the Branson “76 Hwy. strip”. This was the same family group that started performing at Fantastic Caverns, along with Donnie, in 1964. In addition to performing on the show, Donnie was a private music tutor to the Presley’s children.
In 1976, Donnie was offered a position with country singer Judy Lynn who was one of the first country music stars to regularly appear in Las Vegas. The Presley family encouraged Donnie to take advantage of this opportunity. Judy Lynn was renowned for her flamboyant western wear and traveled with an 8 piece band of which Donnie was a part. Donnie performed on the Judy Lynn Show at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas for three years before returning to the Ozarks.
Donnie returned to the Childress Family show in 1979 and concentrated on teaching until he became music director of the “Ozarks Country Jubilee” which started in Springfield at a theater built specifically for the show. A syndicated television, “Ozarks Country Jubilee Live” (televised in 48 states) was also produced during this time. 26 episodes were made and Donnie was the executive director of the show, being responsible for the song selection, arrangements and comedy. In addition to the theatre schedule and the TV production, the Ozarks Country Jubilee had an extensive road show itinerary during the off season. In 1983 The Ozarks Country Jubilee moved to Branson, Missouri and Donnie remained with the production.
Donnie returned to The Presleys Show in Branson in 1983 as co-producer and continued teaching at the Childress music studio. In 1986, Donnie opened Wright Music Studio in the Branson area, where he averaged 100 students per week. The studio operated through 1998.
Warren Stokes (owner of the Ozarks Country Jubilee) started a new show called “Warren Stokes Country Review” in Eureka Springs, Arkansas in 1986 and he hired Donnie to be the music director of the show. The show consisted of a cast of 20 singers and musicians.
Donnie was hired by his old friend, Dave Drennon in 1990 to play on the Pine Mountain Jamboree in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Donnie also produced a comedy video for Jerol Adams, a.k.a. “Hargus Marcel”, who is one of the premier comics in the Ozarks. Donnie stayed with the Pine Mountain Jamboree for six years. In conjunction with Wright’s Studio, Donnie opened “The Sugar Tree Little Theater” in Galena, Missouri, which was designed as a teaching and performing academy, and taught as many as 100 students per week.
n 1997, while Sugar Tree Little Theatre and the Wright Music Studio were still in operation, Donnie was approached by Jim Steelman, a local entrepreneur, about starting a new show in Cassville, Missouri at a theater he had purchased. The Roaring River Theater show began and Donnie was the music director and manager of the theater. The following year, Donnie served as theatre manager and music director of The Eureka Springs Opry show in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Country Music star, Johnny Lee, of the Urban Cowboy Tour, contacted Donnie in 2000 to work road dates with him. Donnie traveled with the Johnny Lee show throughout the US and performed with Lee on The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee several times. During this time Donnie also recorded with Grand Ole Opry star BoxCar Willie.
Donnie started with a group called, The Hortons in 2001. He appeared on a broadcast of the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH Radio performing on the stage of the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport (the original home of the Louisiana Hayride).
THE BIRTH OF BRANSON ON THE ROAD
2002 to Present - Donnie and his wife, Debbie, co-created and co-produce BRANSON ON THE ROAD, a show that brings the Ozark style of music and production to rural America. BRANSON ON THE ROAD is seen on the RFD-TV show “Midwest Country” on a regular basis. Donnie plays the theme song, “Black Mountain Rag” for this TV show. BRANSON ON THE ROAD plays predominantly in historic theaters throughout America and donates a portion of each ticket sales back to restoration and preservations of the arts in those communities.
SUPPORT IN THE WAKE OF TRAGEDY
Donnie's extraordinary talents, his passion for his craft, along with his charm and wit have endeared him to his peers and audiences everywhere. There’s no better evidence of this than the support provided to Donnie in 2005, after he lost virtually everything he owned in a house fire, including many prized musical instruments and keepsakes from a lifetime of playing and working in the Ozarks. The Branson entertainment community rallied on Donnie’s behalf, having a benefit show for him that helped get him back on his feet.
In between BRANSON ON THE ROAD marketing, promotion and road dates, Donnie performs in Branson and continues to record in his own studio and mentor musicians. Donnie has been nominated for a 2008 Lifetime Honors Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. in recognition of his contributions to the folks arts in the Ozarks.
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