The “Sweetheart of Country Music” is coming to the Parkland as the headline act at this weekend’s Mineral Area Bluegrass Country Gospel Festival being held in Leadwood City Park.
She’s a singer, entertainer and TV show host. She’s also a wife, mother and grandmother.
The energetic brown-eyed blonde-haired singer got her first official start in music as the only female gospel singer in the group The Louisianans. She started singing professionally at age 16.
This dynamic performer with a distinctive voice and a heart of gold is Penny Gilley.
Gilley has deep roots in the South. She was born in 1957 in West Monroe, Louisiana. Her father played guitar, and her mother played piano. Her neighbors were her first audience when the 9-year-old sang while her parents played.
“Country music really picked me,” said Gilley. “It was a calling. I think the good Lord had a plan for me from the time I was 9.”
She loved to sing, especially in the church choir. One day, her dad said, “Okay, little girl, you’re gonna’ do this. You just sing loud and proud and everything will work out.”
So she did, and it’s never stopped.
“Singing is just part of me,” said Gilley.
When Gilley was 15, Ernest Tubb inspired her. It was back when Grand Ole Opry stars traveled around the area to some of the high schools and performed. They visited Gilley’s hometown. One year, she met some of those country singers. During their conversation, she was asked if she wanted to help promote their records with local radio stations, and she agreed.
In the presence of legends
The next year, Ernest Tubb was in the lineup. He called Gilley up to the stage and said, “Young lady, I want you to look out there at this audience and show them what you love, true country music.”
He asked her to sing, and Gilley performed Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” there on the spot.
“Afterward, I was shaking because I was in the presence of those legends,” she said. “Afterward, we were talking, and Ernest told me to never give up on my dream. He told me I had a gift, and he wanted me to always use that gift. And I did.”
During various times in her life, Gilley thought she needed a career, a foundation to make money and something she knew she could steadily count on.
She went to beauty school because her mom was a beautician.
“I liked to cut hair, so I want to beauty school, and I quit,” said Gilley, “so I am a beauty school drop-out. It just wasn’t for me.”
She worked other jobs, including bookkeeping for a trucking company.
“But my passion for music never went away, and I never left it,” she said.
Her love for country music led her to perform at Opry shows all over the South.
Her sweet disposition and down-home charm pair perfectly with her glitz and glamor, which are easily seen when she hosts her own RFD-TV show, “The Penny Gilley Show.” The show debuted in 2007 and is still going strong 16 years later.
“The Penny Gilley Show” was previously recorded in Branson and then Grapevine, Texas. For the past five years, the show has been recorded in Fort Worth, Texas, which allows Gilley and her husband Mike to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren – daughters Daniella and twins Jerilyn and Amanda; grandsons Evan, Garrett, Jackson and Hudson; granddaughter Bailey; and 1-year-old great-granddaughter Leah Rose.
She’s had a huge range of guests on her popular TV show, from icons of the past to current and up-and-coming singers. They’re backed by The Texas All-Star Band featuring fiddler Bonnie Riley. She’s been with Gilley since the very first show in Branson. Gilley also
has her own Penny Gilley Channel on Roku and Amazon Fire featuring On Demand episodes of the show.
Many might recognize Penny Gilley’s last name from that of another well-known country singer, Mickey Gilley. Though people often think he was her husband or father, Gilley was a second cousin through marriage to Mickey.
“But no matter where I was at, Mickey always introduced me as his daughter,” said Gilley. “We were very close, and he was so special to me.”
Sadly, Mickey died in May 2022.
Gilley credits some of the original country greats for her long-time success in music.
She also learned from the best, including Ernest Tubb, to always take time out for her fans, whom she lovingly refers to as “friends.”
Gilley is often the very last person to leave the theater because she stays late to meet fans, signs autographs, and just sits and talks to them.
“It’s all about my fans,” she said. “Whether I’m singing on a stage in Branson, at a honky tonk in Texas, or on a big stage in Las Vegas, when you give them your time, you are giving them a piece of your life, and they truly take that to heart. You have to let your light shine.”
When she was a teenager just getting started in the music industry, Gilley told everyone she was going to be a country singer and travel around the world.
“I’m going to help keep country music alive,” she often said.
People laughed at her, but Gilley knew in her heart that she was destined to make a difference.
“It was never about the money or being a big star,” she said. “It was simply about touching people’s hearts and making a difference in their lives.”
Gilley said that’s the satisfaction she lives with today.
During the last 40 years, Gilley has achieved overwhelming success with her music. She released several singles to radio, with some of those reaching No. 1 on the independent chart. She’s worked with many country stars, including her idols Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn.
Gilley has also performed for soldiers overseas. She was first invited to perform a homecoming concert for more than 120,000 Desert Storm soldiers and their families at Oceanside, Calif., in 1991. She was so moved by the experience that she eagerly signed on to perform for troops around the world for 15 years.
“I’ve been able to travel to 33 countries and bring a little piece of country music to the soldiers,” said Gilley.
She added that people asked her why she was performing for the soldiers and wasn’t singing in Nashville.
“I was doing what the good Lord wanted me to do,” she said, “making a difference in people’s lives.”
After years of performing for the military, she considered retiring, but one door always seemed to open as another door closed.
Gilley said that’s when God sent her to Branson to do her own TV show, which she’s now done for nearly two decades.
For her show, Gilley doesn’t just host or sing. She’s hands-on in all aspects of “The Penny Gilley Show.” She answers phone calls and takes merchandise orders, and her fans are always shocked when they hear her voice live on the other end of the phone.
“It’s because of my friends [fans] that I get to do what I love,” she said. “I’ve always been a people person, and I love to talk to them. People call me and say they heard me sing a song or my singing touched their heart. They cry when they tell me stories. They say I inspire them and give them hope. Those things are what really matter to me.”
‘An old soul’
Gilley said she’s “an old soul.” She has always loved traditional country music and loved what her parents loved.
“I’ve always loved and appreciated the older generations,” she said. “I dearly loved and respected my parents and grandparents.”
Her parents inspired her to begin her music career many years ago. She sang gospel music for three years before she ventured into the country music industry.
“I love the old southern gospel music,” she said.
In the early days of her music career, she sang gospel music and then performed country music at hayrides and other local events.
With all of the albums she’s released, Gilley’s No. 1 best seller continues to be her “Gospel Favorites’ album.
“I recorded the songs that were most precious to me and that have always touched people,” she said. “I know I poured my heart and soul into those 10 songs. They’re my very best.”
Some of those songs include “I’ll Fly Away,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and “God on the Mountain,” among others.
Throughout her career, Gilley has written two songs. One of them is “A Mother’s Love.” It’s the story of when she was sitting in the dentist’s office and suddenly heard someone crying. It was a grandfather whose granddaughter had just been killed in a car accident.
“I just broke down when I heard that,” she said.
At the time, Gilley’s three daughters were young. She couldn’t fathom the grief that grandfather was feeling. So she got a piece of paper and wrote the lyrics for “A Mother’s Love.”
She is also co-writer of the song “The Line Drawn in the Sand.”
During her career, Gilley has performed many duets. Perhaps the most meaningful ones are those she sang with Mickey Gilley. She had a strong and special connection with him.
“If there were 2,000 people, Mickey would sign autographs until the last person left,” she said. “The bigger stars get on their bus and leave, but not Mickey Gilley. He always put the fans first, and I’ve tried to do the same thing.”
An unplanned duet Gilley performed was with Charlie Pride. He was a guest on her show, and while they were hanging out on stage, he broke out singing “Silver Wings,” and she chimed in.
“With both of these great singers gone, those were really special times for me,” she said.
Gilley’s love for old-fashioned country music and old-time gospel classics is obvious in her performances.
“I’m just a real southern girl,” she said. “I love people. I love music. It’s just my passion, and I like to give back to the people.”
She said that might mean she sings a song for someone who hasn’t heard it in a long time to take them back to a place to reminisce. Sometimes it makes her fans get up, move around and clap their hands.
“I just like touching people’s hearts and making them feel good and entertained,” she said. “I always want them to leave my show and say, ‘Wow, that was so much fun. I really enjoyed listening to Penny Gilley. She’s the real deal.’”
God has blessed
Even though being in the music business is a roller coaster with highs and lows, Gilley said God has blessed her with the gift of singing and performing. She’s always kept her faith and focused on her fans.
“Barbara Mandrell told me when I was 23 years old that God gave me a gift, and it was my gift to him to show him how I could use it.”
After performing in Leadwood, Gilley will be in Branson on Nov. 10 and 11 at 3 p.m. at the Pierce Arrow Theater, 3069 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Tickets can be purchased at https://tickets.piercearrow.com/.
Gilley is excited and anxiously anticipating her headlining performance at Saturday’s Mineral Area Bluegrass Country Gospel Festival in Leadwood City Park. She said John Hartley Sr. reached out to her because he faithfully watches her TV show and knows how passionate she is about her music. When he asked if she would perform at this year’s festival, which includes bluegrass, country and gospel music, she immediately agreed.
“I have a lot of ‘friends’ in Missouri, so we’re all excited,” she said.
She’s looking forward to the variety of music and the excitement of an outdoor music festival. She’s also planning to use her dad’s advice yet again: “Penny, you’ve got two ways to get your fans. Get them in the heart or get them in the feet so they’re up dancing.”
Gilley said there are many great singers in the music industry, but there are also plenty of great entertainers. She’s always considered herself an entertainer.
“I’m so blessed to just still be able to do what I love to do and live my passion,” she said. “I’ll keep doing this as long as my friends [fans] come to see me and love the old country music.”
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal.