From Minnesota to Arkansas, Judy Olson’s Nashville-level talent might have led to superstardom – but Judy chose country music
on her own terms.
Judy Olson’s first audience was the congregation of Crane Lake Chapel, a church her father pastored near the Canadian border in Minnesota. Someone from the church community had given her a mandolin. “I figured out how to play it and sing along with it,” Judy says. “My parents recognized my musical ability and gave me the opportunity to sing in the church with my mandolin.” Her first public performance outside of church was a grade school event at age 10. She sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Riendeer.” After that, Judy knew she had found her calling.
“I found out that everybody liked it. And I liked it,” Judy says. “This was my spot.”
Young Judy began practicing in the church, which was only yards from their home. “I’d walk over to the church and get up on the podium and sing my heart out.” She didn’t always sing from the hymnal. “I was in love with Elvis Presley, so I’d get up there and sing all my worldly songs, and one day my mom walked in on me playing ‘You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog,” Judy says. “I was so embarrassed. After that, I locked the church door.”
Since those humble beginnings, Judy has enjoyed 40 years of writing, recording, and performing music in the Arkansas River Valley. She’s had brushes with fame and rare opportunities in the Nashville music scene. And all of these amazing accomplishments were done from her home in Yell County, in local recording studios with local musicians, and with the love and encouragement of her family and the River Valley.
But Judy’s adolescence wasn’t filled only with song. There were rough patches, too. “When I was ready to go to high school, Mom and Dad sent me away to a private Christian school,” Judy says. “It was a hard time in my life. I was very lonely there.” The private school was in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, 2,000 miles from her home. “You were supposed to go there and concentrate on your Bible education and not be concerned with boys or anything else,” Judy says. The school handed out detentions for talking to boys. After a certain number of detentions, students were expelled. “I liked boys,” Judy says. “I was up to nine or ten detentions.” To save herself from expulsion, Judy called her dad and told him she just couldn’t take being away anymore. “He listened to my heart,” Judy says, “and let me come home.”
Judy wrote her fist song as she transitioned back into regular high school. She was a preacher’s kid and felt a bit ostracized. “In the ninth grade, I was sitting in class and was supposed to be listening when I wrote ‘Just Us Two.’” Judy says. “I could hear Buddy Holly singing it to me.” When Judy was home that afternoon, she learned to play her new song on her guitar. “And it sounded good,” Judy says. When her classmates found out she could sing and write songs, it opened a new door. “My whole life changed,” Judy says. “I knew the bad part of my life was over. I knew where my confidence was. I had a little niche and I knew what I could do. I loved my high school years.” After her talent was out in the open, Judy’s teenage days were all about music, cheerleading, and boyfriends. “It was a wonderful time,” Judy says.
After high school graduation came St. Paul Bible College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Judy played events at college and sang outside the dorms. That’s where she met Jim, her future husband. “He was also a preacher’s kid,” Judy says. “He was kind of like me. We weren’t bad kids, but a little on the wild side.”
How the young couple was able to see country music artist Connie Smith — Judy’s singing idol — perform at a Minneapolis club is a good example of “a little on the wild side.”
“Jim and I were trying to figure out how two Bible college students, who were underage, could get into the club,” Judy says. “But, Jim was a salesman and talked the man taking IDs into letting us in by promising we wouldn’t drink. We just wanted to hear Connie Smith” Judy and Jim got in and listened to two songs. “I thought , I want to be her someday,” Judy says. “We had to rush back to school before they locked the dorms. We didn’t tell many people about our adventure because we didn’t want our parents or teachers to find out.”
Judy and Jim soon fell in love, left college, and were married. Then, Jim was inducted into the Army. When he was discharged, the couple moved back to St. Paul with their two sons. They bought a house and Judy began playing music with a country band.
The move to Arkansas came as a shock to Judy. While on vacation visiting Jim’s two brothers in Russellville, and with his brother’s encouragement, Jim went house hunting. He came back to Minnesota and told Judy he’d found the perfect house in Dardanelle with acreage, a pond and at a good price. Also, he’d already made an offer. “He told me, ‘honey, you’re going to love it,’” Judy says. “‘We’ll have horses, cattle, ducks, and chickens.’”
In 1967, Judy and Jim and their two sons moved. “I was a big city gal,” Judy says. “Dardanelle? People were friendly, but they were all Southern and I was all northern. I wore hats to the First Baptist Church and found out years later that I was known as the hat lady. I thought you were supposed to dress up for church. People here were more casual. I was trying hard to fit in.”
Thankfully, a neighbor helped Judy find out how much fun the country way of life could be. “I got to know all these country ladies and found myself in a home economics club in Gum Springs,” Judy says. “They knew I played guitar and sang and told me about The Valley Jamboree, located in the little red schoolhouse in Chickalah.” The Valley Jamboree was a big thing on Friday and Saturday nights in Chicalah.
“I started playing there and got paid $10 a night. I wore my go-go boots and my little mini-skirt. The place was jam-packed.” And Judy learned what rural folks do for fun. “People here went to church, the movies, the race track, or The Valley Jamboree,” Judy says.
After a few gigs at the Valley Jamboree, Judy started playing with a country group called The Ramblers. “After that,” Judy says, “I was never without a place to play.”
Judy entered a competition for Miss TV Country girl in 1969 and won second place. It earned her a spot in the independent movie The Sound of Country Music where she square danced and then sang original songs in pink, skin-tight, sparkly pants. She saw the movie for the first time when it played in Russellville at the old Ritz Theater.
Wider recognition of Judy’s talent came in 1971 with her first recorded single, “Bobby Jack” by Rainey Recordings in Concord, Arkansas. Through her music contacts, someone knew Faron Young, a famous country music singer/songwriter, and through that relationship Judy was to meet with promotor Ray Kinnamon, who was also Connie Smith’s promoter. “He told me to bring my record to Nashville to Faron Young’s office,” Judy says.
Ray liked the song and then a whirlwind week followed. “He took me to the Ralph Emory’s Radio station, and I was on the air with him as a guest,” Judy says. When he asked where I was playing, I proudly said the little red schoolhouse in Chickalah, Arkansas.” Ray took Judy to RCA Records and introduced her to Roy Clark, Jerry Reed, and other country music legends. “Then, he offered me a contract,” Judy says.
It was a promised recording contract with Ray Kinnamon as her promotor including gigs all over Nashville and beyond with RCA Records. “I wanted to sign the contract, but Jim had cold feet,” Judy says. “I realized I was going to have to have peace with this. I realized that in the music business you’re subject to all kinds of things.” It was Judy’s moment of truth. “I was too naïve for the big city business in Nashville,” Judy says. “I wanted to be a good mother and have the Lord’s approval.”
Judy walked away from the deal. But as she was leaving, Ray told her the offer would still be standing if she changed her mind. Judy said she thought about calling many times, but never did. Instead, she went home and performed at The Valley Jamboree on weekends.
Judy’s song, “Mr. Jones” was inspired by a man she met while doing hospital visitation with members of her church. Judy was so touched by the love he showed his disabled wife, she wrote a song about him. She sang it at a Dardanelle Chamber of Commerce event attended by Governor Bumpers, Bonnie Brown, and Mr. Jones. “After I sang, Mr. Jones stood up and everyone there loved it,” Judy says. “The Governor asked me to play at his next speaking engagement. Bonnie Brown, a famous country singer with The Browns, wanted to produce the record.”
Bonnie took Judy to a Russellville recording studio. “The recording had to be sent away to be pressed into a record,” Judy says. “When she listened to it she advised me not to accept it because it was poor quality.” But Judy didn’t know enough to know better and accepted the record. “That meant it wasn’t good enough for the big radio stations,” Judy says. “Bonnie was trying to make me a star. I completely blew it.”
Judy’s next touch of fame came with her recording of Debbie Hupp’s song, “We Need a Saturday Night” in 1989. It was Cash Box Magazine’s number one single and was ranked number 90 on the Country Music Chart, seven places above Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That.” This success was the result of Judy being asked by Buzz Cason, a well-known producer in Nashville, to sing another writer’s songs.
Familiar to most River Valley residents is Judy’s collaboration with Bill Sparks on the song “The Grand Old Lady” to commemorate Russellville’s railroad history. The song debuted in 2004 at Reunion ‘Round the Rails, then with a new verse added, in 2017 at the 100th-anniversary celebration. Their CD, “Judy Olson and the Two Plus One,” was recorded in 2004.
Judy and Jim have lived a relatively quiet life in Dardanelle where they’ve raised their three sons Tracy, Kerry, and Ryan. Judy still performs, and she and Jim entertain in their well-appointed “music barn” at home. “I am still able to write songs and go out and play music and play it here (at home) and enjoy it” Judy says.
Judy believes her musical talents are a gift from on high. “God gave me the gift of music,” Judy says. “Life is about taking these gifts and sharing them. I’m blessed. I cherish my life here in my little Nashville. I love my family, my musician buddies, and all the friends I’ve made. Mostly, I love being able to share my music.”
Recordings of Judy’s “Nice to Be Home,” in 2010” and “Cowgirl Enough,” in 2018 are offered on CDBaby.com.