Everybody knows—don’t they?—that in a May-December romance, May is the girl and December is the boy (or more likely, the doddering old man). Of course, there have been exceptions—from Mae West and her young companions to Britt Ekland and her Stray Cat boyfriend, Slim Jim Phantom, 19 years younger—but few seem to be working the switch with the fervor of country singer Dottie West.
To put it delicately, she’s become an expert at dipping into the baby-boom pool and pulling out husbands. Back in 1973 Dottie caused a stir in Nashville circles when, at the age of 41, after shedding a 20-year marriage that had produced four children, she up and wed her 29-year-old drummer, Byron Metcalf. They billed and cooed something fierce in public and made light of the age difference for a few years, then divorced in 1981. Now the sultry redhead, at 50, has started tongues clucking again by getting hitched to her road manager and sound engineer, Alan Winters, who is 28, 22 years her junior and even younger than her oldest son. If the generation gap troubles either of them, they hide it very well. “We never talk about it,” Dottie says. “We don’t even think about it. For years our society has accepted older businessmen marrying much younger women. So why is it that an older businesswoman can’t do the same thing?”
That’s not an easy question to answer, especially in country, where traditional values hang on, but Dottie’s life and career suggest the old ways are fast losing their grip.
They had held her too in 1952, when she married Bill West, a high school friend who was “literally the first boy I ever kissed.” Eighteen years later, she refused to record Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night because, she explained, “the lyrics were too sexy.” Last year the selfsame Dottie released a song with the torrid title She Can’t Get My Love off the Bed
What’s happened to Dottie West?
“I don’t feel my age,” she says simply. “I honestly feel 30ish. It’s the way I feel when I walk, when I get up. Who says I’m supposed to act a certain age? The point is: I should be happy. I toured recently with George Burns, who’s in his 80s. And let me tell you, he likes young girls, really young girls. And he doesn’t make any bones about liking those young girls. I think much of the reason I feel younger is because of my environment. I work around young people, and my children keep me young. I don’t hesitate one minute about doing something because of my age. I think I can do anything that Shelly [her 24-year-old country singer daughter] does. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life.” Of new husband Alan she says, “We’re a perfect match. He’s very mature for his age, and I grew up to be a kid.”
Alan appears just as bubbly about Dottie’s youthfulness as she is. “She’s a very positive person,” he says. “That in and of itself makes her seem younger, because it’s fair to say that most people lose that positiveness as they get older. I think it’s ridiculous to be concerned with age, because here was a person that I was genuinely attracted to. Age has nothing to do with personal happiness.”
Dottie was born Dorothy Marsh in Tennessee, the oldest of 10 children. After her father deserted the family when she was 14, Dottie and her brothers and sisters helped her mother run a “family-style restaurant” in McMinnville. Then she went off to Cookeville to study for a bachelor’s degree in music at Tennessee Tech, married West, a young steel-guitar player, and began her own music career. After their divorce in 1972, young drummer Byron Metcalf moved up from his bachelor quarters in the Wests’ basement to become her husband and bandleader. Her career soared when duets with Kenny Rogers (Every Time Two Fools Collide, All I Ever Need Is You) brought them Country Music Association awards for Vocal Duo of the Year in 1978 and 1979, but her marriage soured. In 1980 she filed for divorce and gave Metcalf a cash settlement of $55,000 plus $10,241 in attorney’s fees. “I work,” she explained. “He doesn’t.”
All this time, Alan Winters, born two years after Dottie’s first wedding, was growing up as “just an old farm boy,” the fourth of six kids on his family’s 100-acre cattle spread in Lancaster, Pa. He studied at an electronics school for a year after finishing high school, then got a job as a sound technician with Clair Brothers Studios, an audio company. Winters spent six years as a sound engineer with such diverse acts as Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Loggins, the Moody Blues and Kiss before meeting Dottie on her 1979 tour with Rogers. “I didn’t even know his last name for a long time,” she recalls. “But on closing night [of the tour] I told him I’d like to see him sometime. I don’t think he would have approached me unless I had given a really strong come-on.”
The come-on and the pay were strong enough for Winters to leave his job playing with the Clair Brothers and sign on for Dottie’s 1980 tour. After a time they began courting discreetly, having room-service dinners to avoid the intrusion of fans in a restaurant, exchanging notes and flowers. “We are both romantics,” Dottie says, “both affectionate people.” They were married three months ago by Alan’s 81-year-old grandfather, an Episcopal minister who himself was wed and widowed four times.
The marriage seems to be an exercise in role reversal much of the time. Alan no longer tours with her. “I traveled with my former husbands and it doesn’t work,” Dottie says. “Twenty-four hours a day is too much for a couple to be together. You don’t have anything new to say to one another.”
Instead, Alan has moved into Dottie’s 12,500-square-foot home on 50 acres west of Nashville, complete with its own bowling alleys and surrounded by groves of peach and apple trees. “One of us has to be here at least part of each day,” he explains. “The garden doesn’t get hoed by itself. I had a talent and I worked very hard. But now I’m tired. I’m very happy being devoted to her. To make this marriage work, I know I can’t compete with her. Instead, I have to be totally supportive.” Aside from keeping watch over the place, he does “a little consulting work on the side for a sound company, and I take a few tourism courses—I’m thinking of opening up an agency for corporate travel.” Since she’s on the road as many as 300 nights a year, Alan jumps on a plane to see her whenever she’s been gone more than two weeks.
Dottie finds his company another boost to her youth campaign: “Alan will be a real incentive to stay young.” To that end, she tries to keep herself in shape by dieting and working out a minimum of 30 minutes every morning (there’s a mirror over the bed at home to, she says, help her exercise).
For now they seem content with their relationship. Dottie says that Alan “has to live with sharing me with thousands of other people.” Alan says he’s happy to stay home and hoe the weeds because “she has a special talent.” And her son, Kerry, 27, says, “We’re happy as long as my mother is happy and Alan makes my mother happy.”
“I live to sing,” Dottie confesses. “I may not want to be on the road 300 days a year when I’m in my 80s, but believe me, I’ll still be singing. I still want to be voted Entertainer of the Year. I feel I’ve got another 50 years left in me. I’m looking to this marriage to carry me through.” For a time she worried about not being able to give Alan children “because this is his first and hopefully only marriage,” but, she concluded, “we can always adopt.” Alan insists he isn’t concerned about that at all. “My older brothers kept saying how much children change a relationship, so I’m content to baby Dottie,” he says. “I want this relationship to stay just like it is.”