Real Life

A glimpse into Dolly Parton tribute artist Karen’s dramatic life

The singer’s tribute act has audiences doing a double take
Photos: Amalia Osborne

Karen Davy is a self-confessed queen of glitz and glamour, who feels most at home on stage, covered in sequins, belting out Dolly Parton or Stevie Nicks anthems for one of her award-winning shows. Talking to the Weekly, Aucklander Karen shares where it all started, what it takes to be a top tribute performer and why she never wants to stop.

From the time I was five, I wanted to be a singer. My mum taught my sister and I how to sing in harmony in the wash house because she wanted to keep an eye on us so we didn’t get into mischief. It turned out to be wonderful for our future in music.

My sister Marian Burns became New Zealand’s top fiddler, taking out Country Entertainer of the Year in 1993. Since then, she has been inducted into the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to music, and has won many awards here and abroad while playing around the globe.

I learned the piano for 10 years from the age of five, and at 11 started learning to play the guitar and writing songs.

Talent runs in the family – Karen’s sister Marian has won awards too.

At 16, I was working part-time at The Tradewinds, a North Shore café-restaurant. I was absolutely useless at it, but one weekend, the Browns Bay Business Association hosted a country and western theme for the local businesses, and we had a cowboy singing outside the shop.

I made a passing comment to my boss John Scarbrough that I could sing better. Half an hour later, he came back with a mic, a guitar and an amp. I sang a few songs and he said, ‘Your waitressing days are over. You sing here at night from now on.’

I only knew 10 songs, 30 minutes’ worth, but each week I’d learn a new song and that was my big start.

Don’t Stop what you’re doing, Karen!

I’ve been performing since 1989 and have been to Australia on several tours, performed at the Norfolk Island Country Music Festival, had seven sell-out shows two years running in Tamworth, sang as Dolly Parton in Las Vegas, been on television show Stars in Their Eyes NZ and performed hundreds of shows around New Zealand.

The first time I sang Dolly was in 1990 for a [cosmetics company] Nutrimetics conference. Then two country music legends, Tracey-Maree Houia and Sally Burgess, were putting on a fundraiser concert, and asked me if I’d perform as Dolly.

I only had two weeks to prepare, so I wrote bullet points for the songs on paper for the floor on stage. When the show was about to start, one of the bands turned on their fan and my papers went flying everywhere. I somehow got through it and afterwards everyone was so encouraging, saying I should do more.

So I learned Dolly’s songs, made proper costumes to fit my figure and started doing shows.

I learned to sew when I was 10 and we had to make a peasant skirt at school. I wasn’t very good at it then. But when I was bringing up my kids, I couldn’t afford to buy new clothes for them. So I began to sew again.

When I started doing shows as Dolly, hiring costumes was too expensive. I was drawn to sequins like a magpie and would spend weeks making beautiful tassels for blouses, taking clothes in to enhance my figure and sat into the wee hours glueing 4500 diamantés onto costumes.

I never really took tribute performances too seriously until 2011, when I was asked by [Kiwi singing royalty] Suzanne Lynch to be on TV show Stars in Their Eyes NZ. Initially I wanted to be Stevie Nicks, but they wanted Dolly. At first, I didn’t think I’d be good enough, but for someone like Suzanne to say I was really good, and put me forward, convinced me.

On Stars in Their Eyes with Suzanne.

On the day of filming, I was in hair and make-up for five hours, then had to go out on stage with host Simon Barnett. I remember one of the crew telling me, ‘Right, climb up the ladder into that little room, smoke will come on, the doors will open and you walk out and sing.’

I didn’t win my heat, but it taught me I’m good enough and can make this really fantastic and professional.

Over the years, I’ve really developed the performance and it has evolved to the New Zealand Dolly Parton Experience. A 90-minute show, with my singing partner Ken Strong from our duo Toucan joining me for four songs as Kenny Rogers, so I can change twice throughout the show.

Every Dolly needs her Kenny!

We perform at retirement villages, festivals, private parties, clubs, RSAs, hotels, corporate events and weddings. We’re so busy, I don’t even know what a weekend is any more!

Every time I think, ‘I can’t do this any more, I’m getting too old,’ and go to hang my hat up, someone has said, ‘Please come and do Dolly for my husband’s 70th or a festival’ and so I just keep going.

My motto is to strive for excellence and make people happy, and I really think we do that.

I make a beeline for the door when I finish a show to shake everyone’s hand and say goodnight, and they all say how much they love it, so we must be doing something right.

I also have a seven-piece live band with sound and lighting, and two crew for our award-winning show Dreams The Fleetwood Mac Experience. In 2016, we were the first tribute band to win Top Group at the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Benny Awards. Fleetwood Mac has been a fantastic influence for me ever since the Rumours album in 1977.

Every time I sang Dreams or Rhiannon, even if it was just at karaoke, people would say, ‘You sound just like Stevie Nicks.’ I love singing and wanted to share that with the world.

Stunning as Stevie.

I’ve always enjoyed getting in the costumes because when you’re on stage doing a tribute, you can lose yourself and become that persona. When you’re up there and for a moment it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop, that’s when you know every single person in the room is in the palm of your hand and really enjoying it.

I think I’ve won 28 awards in all, including for my songwriting. An APRA Silver Scroll Award, The Agnew Award and last year Top Female Vocalist at the VACNZ Benny Awards.

I was so shy at the beginning of my career and now you can’t shut me up! Believing in myself and having others believe in me really has made a difference in me making it.

There were others saying, ‘You’ll never cut the mustard’ or, ‘What a waste’, but those things taught me to strive for excellence.

A personal highlight for me was breaking the Guinness World Record. I did it by singing non-stop in 2009 and raising $27,000 for Kidney Kids.

I sang for 48 hours with a five-minute break every hour to go to the toilet. Also, I had a St John’s medical check every second hour. When I started to lose my voice at 18 hours, I still kept going. I just put a scarf and coat on, had a cup of tea and kept singing.

I have also raised three daughters, Louise, 46, Michelle, 38, and Christie, 34, and been married to my husband Dave for 18 years and have three stepchildren.

With husband Dave.

Dave helps with all the big shows, setting up and getting everyone excited before a performance – and he’s my minder too. He’s six foot three inches [1.8 metres] with a Kojak haircut.

My girls were brought up on country music and they can all sing. Two of them have gone on to do it professionally. Michelle lives in America and has done incredible Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga tributes, and she plays the saxophone.

Christie lives in Whangārei, and sings solo and in bands. She plays the violin and guitar, and the NZVAC Rising Star Award has nominated her three times.

My mum died in December last year and I really miss her. She was so proud of all our achievements, shows and awards.

Making costumes and performing really is my whole life. It’s hard work, but every second is worth it.

Mum was her biggest fan.

For the Fleetwood Mac Experience Dreams show, my van will be packed to the hilt with sparkly costumes, backdrops, stage gear and signage. It’s a five-hour set-up, but then you see the looks on people’s faces. They want to be entertained and I’m the right person to do it.

I’m very lucky to have a wonderful team on board for the bigger shows, but I still do a lot of it myself. I’m currently rehearsing a new show, which is me and a five-piece singing hits from famous ’80s female stars.

It’s hard slog being a musician in New Zealand, but we’re all extremely passionate about our craft. The audience who attend our shows and gigs are what keeps us going. They want to be entertained, and in doing so, we help support the local music industry.”

For concert details, see toucanmusic.co.nz.

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