Meeting people—and making new friendships—is one of the rewards of my writing career. In late spring 2010 while doing research for my newest book, The Heart of Branson, I had the privilege of sitting down one morning with Sheila Dutton, matriarch of the performing Duttons. Although Sheila is on stage with her musical family both in Branson, Missouri, and Mesa, Arizona, she never set out to be an entertainer—and certainly not the CEO of her family’s music show.
Dean Dutton, who taught economics at the university level while their family grew, sought something to teach their children self-discipline and a strong work ethic. Sheila thought… farm chores. However, living on a farm was not compatible with the university towns where Dean taught. Instead, the Dutton kids traded the possibility of early morning milking for practice sessions on the classical violin. Soon the youngsters learned bluegrass and expanded their talents to other instruments. Home, church, and the community at large served as their first stages.
In 1986, the family accepted an invitation to the International Children’s Folk Festival in France. Suddenly, everything changed. Sheila, with no musical background, learned to play an upright bass. Dean brushed up on his guitar. When they returned from France, he took a temporary leave from his teaching profession and the family went on a nine-month USA tour in which they played 111 shows. The road shows clarified music as their family’s lifestyle. Dean gave up his economics career to support his children in the entertainment industry.
With 15 people and their fiddles, banjos, mandolins and an upright bass packed into a converted van, the family traveled over a million miles in the United States, Canada, and Europe, often with Mom Sheila at the wheel while Dad Dutton tended to ending his university classes. In addition to features on PBS and NBC, television introduced the family to audiences in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and China.
Timothy, the oldest son, recalls that as youngsters, they were an instrumental group. “We’ve worked hard over the years at singing, stage presence, and movements,” he says.
Benjamin channeled his energy into dance. Amy picked up world champion fiddling awards and performances with symphonies. Jonathan turned into the show’s comedian. Joshua added drums and harmonica and Timothy’s wife, Judith, brought her singing voice and keyboard talent to the stage. Abigail broadened her proficiency on fiddle to the strings of a banjo. Along the way, their act became known as the Duttons.
In 1997, the group chose Branson as a central—and more permanent—location. Ultimately, they purchased the Box Car Willie Theater, which came with a motel and restaurant. All six performing Duttons married, and the family grows with 21 grandchildren, ages 13 and under, who take their turns on the family’s stage.
In 2007, the Duttons Family competed against 100,000 acts to earn a top ten-finalist slot on America‘s Got Talent. In addition to adeptly performing numerous instruments and brightening shows with vocals and dance, each family member fills a specific role in producing the show and keeping the family business running at a high-energy pace even behind the scenes.
Since starting their musical profession, the Duttons have not looked back. Although they toured the world, they embrace Branson as their home. Yet in mid-December, the entire family hits the road for Arizona, but not necessarily to bask in the desert sun. The children enroll in Arizona schools, and the group performs their classic shows in a Mesa location.
In Sheila Dutton’s office on that sunny spring day, she traced her family’s journey from a hobby to a profession. Speaking as one mother and grandmother to another, we shared the joys and triumphs, as well as the exasperations and the responsibilities, of raising a family. Sheila said, “We never meant to make music a full-time lifestyle. But we are living the adventure of a lifetime!”
For a 2011 schedule of the Duttons’ perfomances go to www.theduttons.com.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com