by Millie Voliva-Wiggs
The death of her superstar husband led her to ponder ‘what now?’
After all, Donna Meade had spent the last 20-plus years as Jimmy Dean’s right hand, his partner in business and in life. She answered his fan mail, traveled the road with him, wrote his autobiography: 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham and set up the promotions for his book signings. Personally, she designed their home with his style in mind and cared for his every need in
his last years.
Dean, 61 and Meade, 36 first met when they both appeared as guest on Ralph Emery’s popular TV show NASHVILLE NOW in June 1989. Soon after, Dean sent the former Miss Richmond Pageant finalist an invitation to visit him on his boat in Palm Beach, Fl.
“We went topside, and we looked at each other,” Meade reveals. “He said, ‘Sit down, I want to know who Donna Meade is.’ I told him first and foremost I was a very spiritual person and that God was at the center of my life and he liked that. I fell in love right there.”
The couple married October 27, 1991 and moved to a 7.5-acre estate in Varina, Virginia. Today that property has expanded to 200 acres and has it's own distinctive story that dates back to the Civil war.
Over the next 20 years, Meade and Dean became the area’s best-known philanthropists, donating to Varina’s public schools, performing for charity events and lending their appearances to local institutions. Meade spent her time on the road with Dean to promote the “Jimmy Dean” sausage business. It was time well spent. Dean sold the company to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1984 for $80 million but remained company spokesman.
The couple remained inseparable till his death on June 13, 2010.
Over the years, Meade had developed a deep love and respect for traditional country music — reflecting her early Virginia roots. The sixth of seven children born to a Virginia builder and his wife, she spent her early years in the family band with her brothers called the Commanders. She learned to play the organ, piano and guitar, and the day after graduating from high school, her family’s band hit the road performing around the country.
She grew up on the stories of the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a radio show broadcast from 1946-’57 on WRVA-AM. Every Saturday the Lyric Theatre was filled to capacity with lines that wrapped around the block to watch the Old Dominion Barn Dance. The shows were heard throughout Virginia, syndicated in 38 states and broadcast worldwide through the Armed Forces network. The Old Dominion Barn Dance helped launch the careers of such artists as Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs and the Carter Sisters.
According to the Associated Press the host of the show, Mary Workman, better known by the stage name Sunshine Sue, was the first woman radio show emcee in the country.
Meade dreamed of being part of a show like that and even had a chance to perform in the ‘73 revival of the Barn Dance.
The singer moved to Nashville in 1981 and success followed. She landed a songwriter's contract with Sony/Tree Publishing and, later, a recording contract with Mercury/Polygram where she released her 1988 critically praised album Love’s Last Stand. Meade went on to headline at Nashville’s number one nightspot, the world famous Stockyard Restaurant. She performed six nights a week for nine years.
1989 turned out to be a big year for Meade.
She went on to receive a nomination as "New Female Vocalist of the Year" from the Academy of Country Music and inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. The same year she met Dean.
After they married, she put her career on ice to devote her time to her marriage and adventures with Dean — where she remained until
his death in 2010.
Since Dean’s death she continues their legacy of creative projects that drive her to new and challenging heights, both as a businesswoman and artist in her own right.
Among her projects is the 2016 opening of the Jimmy Dean Museum.
“The museum is doing exceptionally well, and with its new and innovative curator is expanding its awareness into the surrounding schools,” she remarked. “Dean’s hometown of Plainview where Wayland Baptist University is located was the obvious place for his Museum.”
Her second project was her desire to restore the historic The Old Dominion Barn Dance.
“In 1973, I was invited to be a regular cast member of a revival of the Barn Dance, and at age 19 it was my first introduction to the venerable show,” she recalls. “The revival only lasted for about a year, but it was a great opportunity to perform with stars like Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Jeannie Seely and Bill Anderson. I thought it was a shame it didn't sustain, then there were a couple of other attempts by different promoters to revive the show throughout the years, but they were also unsuccessful.”
Fast forward nearly a decade-and-a-half, and the Virginia born native has brought a “world of music experience to a full circle moment” with the restoration of the Old Dominion Barn Dance at the Beacon Theater in Hopewell, Virginia.
While vacationing in Virginia Beach with a few of her closest friends, the Barn Dance idea became the topic of conversation.
“A few years after my husband Jimmy passed away, my friends Lynne Colacone and Lynne Carnes and I were visiting at my home in Virginia Beach,” as she tells it. “Lynne Colacone suggested that Lynne Carnes and I do a show together at the newly-renovated Beacon Theater in Hopewell — and I liked the idea. It sort of snowballed into more than just one show, and it dawned on me to check to see if the Old Dominion Barn Dance name was available. Luckily it was, so I secured the trademark and decided to revive it myself.”
With a little help from her friends and music contacts, the Barn Dance was reborn and Meade started producing shows at the Henrico Theater on February 21, 2015 with their first music headliner being the legendary Marty Stuart.
Citing five shows a year, the Barn Dance moved to the Beacon Theater in Hopewell, VA, in 2017.
This time around, her drive, determination and a passion for music clearly made a distinctive path for her as an artist and a successful businesswoman.
Her own experience in music and business as well as lessons learned as a partner with Dean has given her considerable perspectives in making decisions and creative thoughts to a successful outcome.
Donna Meade at the Old Dominion Barn Dance
Upon a recent visit to the Old Dominion Barn show, her creative circle introduces us to a wonderful aggregation of talent. A cross between Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and the highly rated TV show HEE HAW — it is totally entertaining.
The capacity crowd at the Beacon Theater that day enjoyed a variety show featuring country music and humor at its best. It is a session of excellent performances from the already accomplished to up-and-coming talents — all under the musical direction of Virginia Hall of Famer Ryland Tinnell.
Along with that up and coming talent is none other than Tony Jackson. Meade happened upon a YouTube video of Jackson singing a cover of the George Jones song titled
“The Grand Tour.”
Instantly she decided she wanted Jackson to perform it on the Old Dominion Barn Dance — for which he received a standing ovation. She offered to co-manage and co-produce him with noted talent manager Jim Della Croce. He has since gone on to accomplish a country singers’ dream — appearing on the Grand Ole Opry.
In addition to her successful re-launch of the Barn Dance, her story of love also continues with a fairytale story of two loves (three counting her first love — music).
In late 2012, Meade married her childhood sweetheart Jayson Stevens. Over the years, she has written and performed television commercials for Richmond tourism and Christian Children’s Fund, and has continued to use her talents to entertain gratis for community events. Together she and Stevens have contributed over $200,000 to education in honor of Jimmy Dean through their charitable Dean Foundation.
Meade’s wisdom and versatile talents has brought her full circle in the history of country music and her place in Virginia music. Her passion for music and writing has always been her center force of survival and through the obstacles of life music has cleared the way to a road of success.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Meade still has a few bullets on her bucket list. She would like to collaborate on a song with Kris Kristofferson along with a few others things:
“I would like to win a Dove Award for my song “Well Done,” a Country Music Award as co-producer of Tony Jackson, and a Grammy Award for anything!” she reveals.
Writing her song “Well Done” she tells us, helped her cope in the celebrity world of her late husband Jimmy Dean.
From runway lights to honky-tonk nights, from a solo career to the driving force behind a superstar — Meade is a proven leader.
Surprisingly, her method is simple.
“I always work intuitively and go with my gut,” she tells us. “If it feels good — do it! And I absolutely love it when it feels like I'm going
with the flow.”
There's no doubt that her intuitive thinking will offer fans five great shows in 2020 and a few other surprises along the way.
You may also hear some new songs.
“I've been a songwriter since age 14 and would like to devote more time to it in the near future,” she expressed. “Producing and performing on all of my demos in my home studio is something I enjoy as well.”
Blame it all on her roots, she grew up with boots, guitars and stage lights. Country artist, Donna Meade, is enjoying an extraordinary journey that is playing out like a real life country song.
… and the beat goes on.