Feel Good Music

Frontwoman keeps the good times rolling at The Ohio Club

Photography by Richard Rasmussen

Photography by Richard Rasmussen

From her current gig as The Ohio Club’s chanteuse to as a girl warbling along with Merle Haggard songs on the radio, Dona Pettey has used music to make people feel better. She plays to audiences that throng The Ohio Club on weekends, kicking out an eclectic playlist of crowd-pleasing covers as the frontwoman for the The Ohio Club Players, but she first worked her charms on her mother.

Left a paraplegic by a car accident when Pettey was 6 months old, Carla Chitwood thrilled to a daughter’s voice that was often the only solace in a life of physical limitation and dependence.

“My mom’s my biggest inspiration,” Pettey said. “We were best friends, and music meant so much to her. Music would help my mother with her mental and physical pain. Merle Haggard was her favorite, so my mom was always putting a hair brush or something in my hand and making me sing along with Merle Haggard.

“So I learned at a very early age that music can help you feel better when you’re in pain and just make you feel good.”

To The Ohio Club patrons, Pettey is at the center of the rollicking good time that radiates from the iconic night spot. Bachelorette, birthday, wedding and anniversary parties orbit her as she works the room on weekends, but she hasn’t always worn the spotlight well.

Pettey shunned it as a child, refusing to face family and friends during impromptu performances at home.

“I was very shy,” she said. “My mom would want me to sing for people, but I had to be around the corner of the house where nobody could see me, because I was so bashful.”

Now she makes the crowd part of the show, invariably divining the selection that will fit its mood and intuiting when it’s already in a lather and when it needs prodding.

“There’s some nights people don’t want to get up and dance, but if you can get them clapping, singing along, there’s times in a song where I’ll let them sing the chorus or certain lines,” she said. “It’s inviting them to be a part of the experience.

“Instead of just playing to them, you’re playing with them. Participation is probably the biggest way to make a relationship with the crowd. We can pack this place we’re they’re just standing every where. Sometimes they just have to stand in front of the stage, because there’s no other place to go. It can be like a mini concert.”

The lineups and venues have changed during the three decades Pettey’s cultivated her loyal following, but it’s the visceral effect her performances give agency to that’s been a constant. The warmth, charisma and showmanship through which she interprets songs give listeners the sense that the music is her own.

“I’ve never been able to really write my own music,” she said. “I’ve just felt that I’m meant for someone else’s words. I like anything that puts chills up and down my arms. That’s what’s magic about music. When you can perform a song and make it come alive and make someone feel that song and see that expression on them. That is so gratifying.”

Pettey said she’s found her niche at the The Ohio Club, which she owns with her husband, Mike. The lineup for the club’s house band has staid relatively static in the ephemeral world of musical acts. Bassist Guido Ciardetti, guitarist/keyboardist Lee Summit and drummer Steve Painter have backed Pettey for several years. Recently, lead guitarist Paul Shuffield has joined the fold.Pettey said she chased the brighter lights of a renown that would reach farther than the local music scene, even working with Arkansas music personality and producer Tommy Riggs on an album in Nashville when Riggs succumbed to a rare form of bowel cancer in the summer of 2000.

But celebrity, acclamation and the wealth they confer are incidental to her connection with the audience. Whether it was with her mother or The Ohio Club patrons, that connection keeps her coming back.

“I reached a point where it was not as important to try to go after a bigger career,” she said. “It came down to why do I love the music, and it’s because of what it makes me feel and what I can try to make the other people feel. If I can make people happy, make them feel good, then I’ve done a good job, and I walk away with such a good feeling inside.”

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