Don't ask Donna Cunningham about how thrilling it was to be honored as the 2008 Female Entertainer of the Year by North American Country Music Association International.
She missed it.
"Because of the way all the winners were called out, when it got down to naming the Entertainer of the Year, I thought the winner would have to be someone who had won in another category," said Cunningham."I said, 'Well, I guess I didn't win anything, so I'm going home.'
About 20 miles north of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where the national competition was taking place, Cunningham's cell phone rang. On the other end was the Ohio president of the NACMAI chapter asking Cunningham where she was and to get back to the event.
"You won the whole thing," Cunningham was told.
"So, I went back and picked up my trophy. Everyone was telling me, 'You missed it. It was so nice,'" she said.
In late 2005, Cunningham was introduced to NACMAI by the owner of a local opry where she sang occasionally.
"Since that first year, I have found these nationals to be so enjoyable. It is so fulfilling and great fun," Cunningham said.
All the NACMAI chapters have competitions and send representatives every year to the Pigeon Forge competition.
Cunningham said her first year with the organization, she won the state competition but didn't win anything at the national event. Then, last year she won second- and third-place awards, following up with the Entertainer of the Year Award this year.
Other accomplishments include Southern Ohio Opry Wall of Fame, inducted in 2007, and NACMAI's 2007 Female Vocalist of the Year and Female Vocalist Horizon Award Winner.
Cunningham sings her songs in the style of Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette, with a little Janis Joplin thrown in for good measure. She said she's been singing practically all her life.
As a youngster, she was offered a singing contract while still in high school, "But my parents declined as they wanted to make sure I got a good education," she said.
"So, I went to Ohio University, became an English teacher, got married and raised three great kids," said Cunningham, whose husband, Gary, a local contractor, is one of her biggest supporters.
Along the way, Cunningham said she participated in some local musicals, including the leading role of Julie Jordan in "Carousel," Minnie Faye in "Hello Dolly," and Janet McGregor in "South Pacific."
"With my children grown and time on my hands, I fell back into music and have had a wonderful time with it ever since," she said.
Locally, she has sung with Clyde Fenton and Dewey Howard and one night while singing karaoke at American Legion Post 471, she was asked if she could put a band together. She did, and they stayed together for five years.
"I started Donna C & Fever in 2000 and have hardly missed a weekend singing somewhere since then.
"The band broke up and then my Dad passed away and I didn't feel like doing anything for awhile," Cunningham said. "I've been blessed with a great fan base and met so many folks who are now my friends, all due to music," she said.
Some of her past performances include at Cadillac Ranch in Lucasville, Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Roy Rogers Festival, Ohio University Brown Bag concerts, Greenbo Lake Amphitheater, (Greenbo, Ky.), and many others.
Since November, Cunningham has been performing at Collins Country Club in Ashland, Ky., singing country dance songs and old-time rock 'n' roll. She also sings at the Saturday Night Jamboree in Huntington, W.Va.
"The main thing about singing is that it gives you something to do and something to look forward to and it's something I love," she said.
With a lively singing career, two sons, a daughter and five grandchildren, Cunningham still has something else she has her eye on.
"My husband and I have been talking about trying to find a place in Portsmouth that might be a little different than the other oprys in town," she said. "I'd like to have a good solid band and perform every week. I don't know if that will ever happen, but we've sure been talking about it."
DEBORAH DANIELS can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 234, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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