Interview with country music legend Donna Fargo, conducted by writer Niles Reddick:
When you were growing up in Mt. Airy, what was that like? Did you know Andy Griffith since he was also from Mt. Airy? Did its Mayberry-like atmosphere influence your songwriting?
Well, we lived about seven miles out of Mt. Airy, so I went to a county school from grades 1-9. My older brother thought I should transfer to Mt. Airy High School my sophomore year and graduate from high school there, so I did. During the youngest years I worked in tobacco and the high school years I worked in clothing stores. Never took a paycheck home. I did not know Any Griffith personally – I knew the name of course. My dad watched his tv show but the tv was in his bedroom. I was busy with school and all the extracurricular activities so I didn’t watch much tv. But I’m sure everybody in our town was proud of Andy – of all that he was accomplishing and especially proud that he was from our Mt. Airy.
As far as the songwriting influences, there were 2 radio stations that played all kinds of music – from country to pop to rock and the Beatles to local gospel. I’m sure my hometown, my home life, and the music I heard on the 2 stations influenced my songwriting later on, even while I was growing up and not aware that this background would become so important to my foundation. People in Mt. Airy are just nice there. They’re friendly. I always felt safe there. Hometowns are very important.
Did you sing when you were young? What was your first experience? Church? Were you nervous or were you a natural?
Besides just singing in the shower or for my father’s fox hunting friends sometimes, my first memory of singing was in church. I’m guessing I was 10 or 12 years old. I was singing “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and in the middle of the song, the most spiritual lady in our community shouted – scared me to death – and I stopped but then just picked back up and continued singing. When I got home, I said, “Daddy, Daddy, Voda Brim shouted when I sang and she didn’t shout for anybody else.” I don’t remember being nervous in the beginning. I think I acquired some nervousness sometime later on. I remember always wanting to be a singer, but I kept it a secret – I was bashful. In grammar school, I would be in talent shows – since I took tap and ballet lessons, the teacher in charge would ask me to do something that would balance everything, like give the whole show some variety. I remember once doing a monologue. Later on, I was to represent my school and I was supposed to sing. My friend who played piano and I had talked about doing some song with the word “river” in the title. I thought she was talking about one song, and she thought I was talking about another, so stupid me didn’t even rehearse and we went to a movie instead. Well, she started playing one song and I started singing another. Duh. OMG. Needless to say, it was embarrassing. Now I’m thankful for that mistake. It gave me a conscience about being overly prepared-forever I hope.
You were the youngest child in the family, and you lost your mom fairly young while you were college-aged. Did that impact your becoming more introspective and influence your songwriting?
Actually I lost my mother after I had moved to California to teach high school English. Her death was very unexpected. She died in her 50s, too young, and I’m sure it caused me to become more introspective and to have a deeper understanding about the value of time with the people you love. We take time for granted and put off discussing or maybe don’t even realize how important it is to talk about the most important things in life. I wrote a song for her after she died called “You Were Always There” and it became my 4th consecutive #1 record. I wrote about some of those things in the song that I regretted not asking – like was she happy and was she glad she gave life to me. It’s way too late after someone is gone. It’s final. I think everything one values influences songwriting or any kind of writing really.
How did you come to move from Mt. Airy (or from High Point Univ.) to California? Why? I think I read your sister had once worked in California.
My brother lived in California but came back for my graduation from High Point. I had decided I wanted to teach there. I felt safe living with my brother. He was a wonderful brother and he really looked after me, and I got a great job teaching there.
I read a comment from someone who was a student who recalled your coming into class and singing “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA.” She wrote that they all sat there like “whatever” and they had no idea they were getting a private performance of one of the soon to be most popular singers in the world. Did you enjoy teaching English? Do you believe that informed your ability to write songs (later books and cards for Blue Mountain)?
That story is absolutely not true. That would have been totally against my principles. I was very serious about teaching. I was also head of the English department. I’m bashful and I did not waste time in the classroom. I worked the students hard. I kept my dream to become a singer very secret. But after the song “Happiest Girl” came out and was getting played a lot, somehow the students found out about it. One of them brought a radio to class one day and suddenly turned up the volume and they were playing “Happiest Girl.” I ran and grabbed the radio and said “You’re gonna’ get me fired! You can pick your radio up after class.” Some of them said, “But we’re proud of you.” I said, “Yeah, and you just wanta’ waste time.” I said, “If you wanta’ talk about this, you can come after school. We are not wasting time in this class talking about anything but English. And oh, yes, I loved teaching English. I thought it was the most important subject to teach. I still hear from some of my students.
Well, knowing how to take apart a sentence certainly helped me know whether I was saying something grammatically correct and all that, but sometimes I would intentionally write it incorrectly if the feel of the song called for it. Sometimes there wasn’t room rhythm-wise to use two syllables instead of one for example. I mean it’s very common for writers to intentionally say something they know to be grammatically incorrect, like for example, you might say “He don’t” instead of “He doesn’t.” I wouldn’t talk that way in everyday language because I know the rules. But I wouldn’t judge someone who does. I wrote a song called “It Do Feel Good.” It’s a light-hearted song and it just works better than “It Does Feel Good.” I always loved diagramming sentences. If it won’t fit on a diagram, there’s some kind of problem. It’s important to know your subject matter.
Can you tell us a little more about meeting and dating Stan and how you knew he was the one for you?
My brother knew I wanted to be a singer, so he found the phone number of a company looking for a girl singer to sing demos. I called the number and it was there that I met Stan. Before I left North Carolina I had made a demo of me singing two songs and I handed the record to Stan. He listened to both songs – which I think were “I’m in the Mood for Love” and some other pop song. After listening, he said, “You’re country.” I said “Okay.” I don’t think at that time I distinguished much between genres. My thinking was I wanted to be a singer and a good song is a good song. So he recorded me on some of the songs he had in his publishing company. Some time later, I said to him, “If I’m not a pain and don’t take too much of your time, will you teach me to play guitar?” I said, “I’d like to try writing my own songs.” He said “Yes,“ and he gave me a guitar and taught me to play it well enough to find the melodies I was hearing with my lyrics. Eventually we fell in love and got married. I not only loved him. I liked him. He was a no-nonsense guy. He could make decisions – I was wishy washy and we kind of balanced each other and completed each other. He was more mature than I was, so he taught me so much. I’d always wanted to be happy. And I knew I was finally happy. I guess it was 1972, could have been 71 – I didn’t keep a journal but during some few days break from school, we flew to Nashville and recorded 3 or 4 songs I’d written, one of which as “Happiest Girl.” He pitched the session and Dot Records signed me to their label. In June of ’72, “Happiest Girl” was already #1 I think, so I turned in my resignation and we went on the road. (I had actually gotten permission to give my exams early and open in Vegas with Roy Clark. I graded the kids’ exams in Las Vegas and called in their grades.) It was exciting and I was nervous. I had very little experience, and I had a lot to learn.
Your love for each other went beyond relationship into your work, but that worked for you two, right, for over fifty years (tough in this business?)
Yeah, we were really a team. There wouldn’t be a Donna Fargo without Stan Silver. We had some ups and downs at first and I guess we learned from each other, but I’m positive I learned more from him than he learned from me. We were so fortunate to be truly in love and we valued our relationship. To me, he was absolutely perfect.
I know you wrote songs that were recorded by other great artists like Tanya Tucker, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Marty Robbins, Dottie West, and others. Did you have a relationship with them all?
I think I felt closer to Tammy. She asked me to write a song for her daughter and I did. But most of us were on the road most of the time. I did the Kitty Wells tribute show and was honored that her team asked me to be on it and contribute to it. I was on the Marty Robbins show – I remember I did my recitation called “That Was Yesterday.” It’s a very serious song, and Marty made funny faces at me while I was doing it. It’s harder to concentrate when you’re doing a recitation than a song. He was cool, always joking around. I loved Dottie West too. She recorded a song I wrote called “Does It Matter?” I had planned to record one of her songs, but it didn’t work out. It’s always an honor when someone records a song you wrote.
Other than Stan, did you have a “best friend” among singers or songwriters?
I would say my best artist friends are Jeannie C. Riley and Margo Smith. I’m friends with songwriter Marty Cooper and his wife Vickie. Vickie actually promoted “Happiest Girl” to pop stations and it went to 5 or 6 on the pop charts. Marty and I’ve co-written a couple of songs together, one of which is on my new cd ALL BECAUSE OF YOU. The song is called “This Is America.” The other one that we co-wrote will probably be on the next cd. But Stan and my best friend in the music business was/is David Briggs who played on all my records except 2, I think. He also played for Elvis and many others. I was friends with my musicians and singers on my show, of course. Robert Thames wrote the “Cricket Song,” which I recorded on my FARGO COUNTRY album. He played lead guitar on our live shows.
Did you have a favorite singer yourself who you really loved and admired? Or maybe favorite songs by others?
Tammy was probably my favorite female country singer. I loved Loretta and really all that she accomplished. Loved Celine Dion. I loved Harry Chapin’s songwriting, and I have sometimes said that one of the greatest songs ever written, was Harry Chapin’s “Better Place to Be.” It’s about 8 minutes long. I just love the artistry of it. He was such a great interpreter. I think Tim McGraw has the best taste in song selection. Also Little Big Town has great taste in their song choices. I love Keith Urban, and Chris Stapleton. Great musicians and artists. LOVE Adele of course. Love Willie so much. He’s just so nice and such a stylist. My earliest musical influences were Elvis and Brenda Lee. I think they were important to my dream.
For me, Ms. Fargo, some of your lyrics seem a bit more philosophical or maybe educated than a lot of “country songs.” For example, in your newer song “One of the Good Guys,” you use words like “realist, optimist” which don’t seem typical. Has anyone ever commented on that? To me, it works well and I love it. In fact, I love that your voice seems to be the same as it did on my mom’s 1970’s album we listened to over and over on our record player.
Well, I majored in English and psychology and minored in philosophy and religion. Those were what my interests were, so I guess it would be natural for my writing to reflect that. Some people have said to me that my songs got them through hard times growing up, and I was honored by their comments. Others have said that they like my songwriting because it’s different. Thank you for your compliment. I appreciate that. And thank you and your mom for listening to my music, Niles. I am so honored.
Were many of your songs autobiographical? Can you give an example or two?
Well, “Happiest Girl” was. I always wanted to be happy, and that dream came true. I even wrote in one of my books, “If you’re not happy, you’re cheating yourself.” I definitely felt like the lyrics I wrote in “Happiest Girl.” So yeah, that was very autobiographical. “Funny Face” was a name Stan would call me sometime, so my second #1 record was autobiographical. “Superman” was the 3rd #1, and I called Stan that when I teased him. “Little Girl Gone” was autobiographical to a point. “You Were Always There” was a song I wrote for my mother after she died. Very autobiographical. Hmmm. That’s interesting. I just checked the titles, and a lot of the #1s were autobiographical. Of course a writer always wants her songs to be very relatable and to have a universal application. I could mention album cuts that are some of my best songs that are not autobiographical, so it just depends I guess. I like for example sometimes to have an idea and to create a totally “made-up” scenario but make it sound real and relatable. I did that with one of my favorite songs I’ve written that was not a single called “Song With No Music.” I wanted to express the idea of emptiness, how some people get caught in doing whatever and not considering the consequences. The creative imagination is such a gift and we all have it.
What was your writing process like? Did they come out suddenly or did you craft them over time?
Both. Sometimes I’ll have an idea just stew around in my head for a day or two or three and if I’m smart I’ll take notes of my thoughts so I don’t lose the context, and other times I’ll just start playing and something will come out and I’ll go with it. Songs almost have a mind of their own, like they insist on being written, and you have to do it their way. I love that. So I just let those kind lead me. I’m almost always working on several songs at the same time or several pieces if I’m writing greeting cards or a book and, it’s kinda’ like where does this fit in the puzzle at times.
I think I put the finishing touches on “Happiest Girl” in about 3 days. Because I was a brand new writer and was learning how to teach myself I wrote 16 verses to “Funny Face.” I know that sounds crazy, but I kept trying to complicate it and it wouldn’t cooperate. It’s like it was saying, “Leave me alone. I’m simple and there’s nothing wrong with ‘simple’.” I worked on “It Would Have Been Just Perfect” on and off for 3 years. With a title like that, I guess I wanted it to be perfect. I trust my instincts most of the time and work on something until I’m happy with it. And I would always want Stan’s approval and comments. If we both liked something, I would have more confidence in it.
It depended often on deadlines too, especially if we were in the middle of completing an album. I like variety, and I tried to write something for everybody. The inspired songs that come when you’re working on something else – if you take advantage of that creative urge and write until you feel like stopping – that’s the best usually. I sometimes have a vision or an outline of how I think the songs should progress – then it’s just a matter of finding the right words to meet my goal. But it’s not “formulized.” I remember writing “Hot Diggity Dog” on a plane trip to West Virginia and the air was off on the plane. That’s called turning a challenge into an opportunity maybe. It was hot. But it was like the heat inspired the title, and the circumstances somehow inspired the song and maybe my positive attitude took over.
Can you tell me about being diagnosed with MS and what you went through? Is that why your singing/performing changed course a bit since for many years you didn’t record?
I had had symptoms of m.s. since 1976, but I had my first major attack in 1978 when I was diagnosed after the numbness went into paralysis from my neck down on both sides of my body. I could not feed myself, write clearly, or walk without assistance. It was scary. Body misery and loss of normalcy are fierce opponents, and they are a fight against one’s faith. The whole experience taught me so much…how much we take our health and life for granted. I started to self-educate by reading everything I could about health and about recovery. I instinctively started studying about the spirit, mind, and body. I was surprised that I helped myself the most with my spiritual development. I wrote in at least one of my books that if you don’t develop yourself spiritually you’re working with only 2/3 of your potential. I knew I was in for a fight for my life and normalcy. There was no medicine then except one and the hospital doctors did not recommend this at that time, and I thanked them for being honest about it. So I knew my getting better, if it was possible, depended on my own choices. I learned all I could in the 4 months I was “down,” but then I started back to work. Performing on the road and making records were very important to me. It’s so important to do what you love to do and to keep on keeping on.
Early on, I decided that my attitude would be…Okay, so I have m.s., but I am not going to let it “have” me. I studied about diet and made some changes, like getting off so much junk food, being more diligent about doing basic things like drinking more water, eating about 70% fresh fruits and veggies, and eliminating red meat for the most part and eat chicken, fish, and turkey for protein. (I go into more detail in my TEN GOLDEN RULES FOR LIVING IN THIS CRAZY, MIXED-UP WORLD book.) I had majored in psychology as well as English since California required 5 years of college to get a general secondary credential to teach high school. So I knew to avoid stress as much as possible and to process properly serious issues in life. I analyzed where I thought I was in life. I had accomplished my goal to become a teacher. I loved teaching. I was even head of the English department at a progressive school in southern California. Because Stan had taught me to play the guitar, I became a writer to become a singer. My dream had come true after I quit smoking. I was truly happy with the love of my life, who was also my husband and producer. So why did I have this stuff? My father and brother died of strokes and my mother died of a heart attack. Did I inherit a weak central nervous system from my father? I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help myself since they had said there is no cure. I studied THE NEW TESTAMENT, tried to walk in God’s perfect will for my life while physically I was miserable. One of the most important things I learned was to not give up. I think that every positive thing you do for yourself helps your immune system to fight for your survival. As far as the music goes, my first Warner Bros. album called ON THE MOVE was released in 1976; then the FARGO COUNTRY and SHAME ON ME albums dated 1977 had 2 #1s -“That Was Yesterday” and “Do I Love You.” My tv show called THE DONNA FARGO SHOW premiered on September 15, 1978, according to the stats. When I was released from the hospital, one of the doctors said, “Do all you can in the next 5 years ‘cause you don’t know what will happen.”
So, I did a few things after that – the DARK-EYED LADY album we did in 1978. JUST FOR YOU was released in 1979. FARGO was out in 1980. We recorded the BROTHERLY LOVE album for Songbird in 1981. I recorded the RCA album called DONNA in 1983, the ENCORE album in 1984. In 1986, I recorded the WINNERS album for Mercury Polygram. And now I have a new CD called ALL BECAUSE OF YOU – all songs I wrote myself. So I didn’t exactly roll over and play dead. My work consumes me. A creative spirit is so healthy and inspiring.
15. Can you talk a bit about your writing with Blue Mountain?
At some time in the past I said to Stan I think I could write greeting cards and I like a company called Blue Mountain Arts. He did the rest. So I started writing for them – mid 90s (I think it was 1995). I’ve written 8 books and I’m working on another now. I’ve co-written 6 books with the owner of the company, Susan Polis Schultz, my favorite poet from way back when I used to buy her greeting cards and books and still do. Writing is really good for me because I like to share what I’ve learned to help others. I like to imagine what people would like to say to others, and that’s what I write about in the greeting cards. My books are all about what I think is most important to make dreams come true and to inspire people not to give up when they’re challenged on different problems in life. Several of my books lean toward the spiritual since I think the spirit is the real “us.” It’s so important to educate ourselves spiritually by reading THE NEW TESTAMENT.
When you and Stan got COVID, and then you lost Stan, I know that was an incredibly difficult time for you. What helped you get by?
I couldn’t have gotten by without God. As I look back now, it was almost like I’ve been guided from dealing with m.s. to develop my faith and all. That helped me, but I was beyond devastated. And things happened that really saved me.
I read an article where you talked about asking God for a sign and then seeing Stan’s lamp on his side of the bed on that hadn’t been on in months. How reassuring are signs like that for you?
Yes, I said to God one day, I can’t go on like this, God. Just give me some kind of sign that Stan is okay, that he’s in heaven. If you can’t help me, just take me on. As I walked from the kitchen to the bedroom, the light on his side of the bed was on. Hadn’t been turned on in months. I said “God, I didn’t turn that light on.” He said, “Well, you did ask me for a sign.” The other thing was after the light was turned on supernaturally I was walking through the hall and my hand opened a cabinet door for no reason. It wasn’t related to my mind or for any reason. My hand reached in the cabinet and pulled out a bag with cds in it. Also, no relationship mentally. I didn’t direct it. Wasn’t looking for anything. I had no music in me at that time. Wasn’t even aware really of what I was doing. I listened to the cds perfectly mixed and we had recorded these songs as I had written them a few years back and at different times. After I heard them, I knew I was supposed to put them out. It seemed like the decision was made for me. Everything about this. It seemed like Stan and God had gotten together to direct me. And they did. Those 2 supernatural experiences really saved my life. God is so good. So good. We serve a mighty God. I cannot put into words how much these supernatural experiences helped me and drew me closer to God and I’m so thankful.
I know you’re going back to Mt. Airy for the mural unveiling and a luncheon this summer, and I know you have a permanent exhibit in the museum there. Do you think you’ll have a flood of memories. Do you still have family there?
That will be exciting. I do have nieces and nephews there and cousins, and many fans are coming from lots of places around the US. It will be fun. I’m sure there will be some tears with all the memories. I’ll be excited to meet the muralist. I’ve seen the 6 pictures of me that he will be painting on a big wall, so that will be fun to see. I love my hometown. I’ll also get to take flowers to my mother and dad’s and brother and sister’s graves. And I’ll also be doing a book signing of my latest book Everything Is Possible With God and the latest cd ALL BECAUSE OF YOU.
I admire that you’ve released this new CD “All Because of You” and love it. What’s next for Donna Fargo?
Thank you, Niles; we plan to put out another cd of previously unreleased material that will take more effort than the one that’s out now did. I plan to continue writing cards and books for Blue Mountain Arts, and I’m working on a new book and songs of course.
You have had a remarkable career and have been the recipient of so many awards and honors (Academy of Country Music, BMI Award, Grammy Award, etc.). Was there anything that you would have liked to have achieved that you haven’t? Do you have regrets or something you would have done differently.
I would like for someone else to have major hits on some of my songs. I would like for 2 of my favorite songs I’ve ever written (which will be in the next cd) to be hits. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t keep a journal. It would make writing my autobiography a whole lot easier. If I had to do it over again, I would structure my live show with a songwriting section in it. My philosophy then I think was for a more entertaining type show. I focused on the “good time,” up-tempo – Tom Jones type show, but I could have included a section to focus on songwriting. I think a lot of the songs on the albums should have been singles that got lost just from time restraints, like if 2 songs had been singles, it felt like it was time for a new album. But all in all, I appreciate what Stan and I accomplished together. There wouldn’t be a Donna Fargo without Stan Silver. Most of all, we experienced true love – the greatest gift and the biggest reward. I am so blessed.
Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed for the magazine, and is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Thank you, Niles, for your time to interview me. I don’t do many interviews. I’m a hermit basically. I would like to share that I believe the greatest lesson I learned after being diagnosed with m.s. and after having 2 strokes was that developing my spirit was the greatest benefit, and the most important lesson in my life has been to have a relationship with God.