My Side of the Story
For Penny Gilley, itâ€™s all about the fans. Whether sheâ€™s singing in a club in Las Vegas, a packed auditorium in South Dakota, or in front of thousands of GIs in Kuwait, Penny treats her audiences like a second family. Maybe thatâ€™s part of growing up in a place like West Monroe, Louisiana, where her first audience were neighbors sitting in the pews at Southside Assembly of God. Penny, only 9, would sing, while mom, Barbara, played the piano and dad, James, played the guitar. Maybe itâ€™s because her Dad is still her biggest fan â€" he hasnâ€™t missed one of her shows within 250 miles in 15 years. (He comes early to get a seat rnight on the front row!) â€œHeâ€™s a proud Daddy,â€ she says. For sure itâ€™s the reason she loves old-time gospel music and country classics, because it touches hearts and speaks to people. â€œThe fans donâ€™t get to hear the traditional music on the radio any more,â€ she says. â€œPeople are starved for the music they grew up on and love.â€ Thatâ€™s why she is thrilled to be moving to Branson, a family-friendly town that already feels like home. A place where you can really meet your fans up close. â€œI remember when I was a kid, and Ernest Tubb would come through town, heâ€™d take the time to talk to people,â€ she says. â€œIt really made an impression on me and I promised myself that if I ever got a chance to perform, Iâ€™d do the same thing.â€ Penny has kept her promise. Sheâ€™s renowned for staying late to meet fans, sign autographs or just sit and talk. Most nights, sheâ€™s the last person to leave the theater. â€œWhen you give them your time, you are giving them a piece of your life, and they take it to heart,â€ she says. Thatâ€™s why sheâ€™s got some of the most loyal fans in show business. That certainly includes daughters, Daniella, 29, and twins Jerilyn and Amanda, 24, who used to go on the road with her. More recently, the grandkids, Evan, 5, and Garrett, 3, even if they canâ€™t join her in person. But if Penny canâ€™t be home, she tries to create a little bit of Louisiana in the kitchen. She loves to cook up a pot of gumbo or a bowl of chicken and dumplings. And if itâ€™s Thanksgiving, and sheâ€™s in Nashville, more than likely sheâ€™s had a tur-duck-hen flown in for the holidays. That a Louisiana specialty -- a turkey, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a duck, then topped off with crawfish dressing. Pennyâ€™s roots are deep in Louisiana. She started singing professionally as a teenager in West Monroe, as the only female member of a gospel group known as â€œThe Louisianans.â€ Her love of country music led her to perform at Opry shows all over the South including The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. That helped shape the kind of show she puts on today. Penny released several singles to radio, two of which went to #1 on the independent chart. Her popularity spread overseas with more #1s in Europe where her traditional sound led to performances at festivals in Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Penny has worked with many country stars including her idols Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn. She has performed throughout the country and around the world in venues from The Nugget, The Flamingo and Bally's in Las Vegas & Reno to casinos throughout the United States. But with all the glitz and glamour, Penny says that one of the blessings of her professional life has been the privilege of performing for soldiers overseas. After someone sent Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf a copy of her song about Desert Storm (â€œThe Line Drawn In The Sandâ€) he invited Penny to headline at the homecoming for Desert Storm soldiers at Oceanside, Calif. In 1991. She performed for over 120,000 servicemen and women and their family and friends in the biggest military homecoming event ever held in the United States. Penny was so moved by the experience, she eagerly signed on to perform for troops around the world, logging over 300,000 air miles to entertain troops in Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, and Bosnia. For ten years in a row, she went to South Korea to perform for the troops, where she was honored as â€œEntertainer of the Year.â€ Known as the 'Sweetheart of Country Music', this energetic, 5'2' brown-eyed blonde explodes on a stage in Kuwait or South Korea with a show filled with country music and a dazzling wardrobe thatâ€™s become her trademark. Itâ€™s a powerful combination that connects the soldiers, for just a minute, with America. Penny calls it the most rewarding thing sheâ€™s ever done. â€œIt touches your heart because you look in their eyes, they donâ€™t complain about where they are and what they are doing,â€ she says. â€œTheyâ€™re just so proud to be doing what they do.â€ Instead, they like to pull out pictures of their kids and family from their wallet and share it with her. â€œIt is like old home week,â€ says Penny. â€œThey are so starved for something from home.â€ Thatâ€™s all part of Pennyâ€™s key to success, in life or on the stage: â€œIf youâ€™re true to yourself and true to your fans, youâ€™ll do really well.â€ In other words, itâ€™s all about the fans.