King for a night: dream comes true

Published 12:20 am Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CHOCOWINITY — Comedian W.C. Fields was fond of saying, “Never work with animals or children,” but country music artist Ronnie McDowell ignored that advice and brought a local youngster onstage Saturday night during a concert at the Tar Heel Variety Theater.

Six-year-old Walker Hill was dancing in an aisle of the theater when he was whisked onstage by McDowell, who joined the youngster in singing and dancing to an Elvis Presley standard.

“That just made my night,” McDowell told the crowd as Hill left the stage.

Judging from the enthusiastic applause and cheering, Hill’s impromptu performance was equally enjoyed by the audience.

“It was cool,” Walker said after the show.

Six-year-old Chocowinity resident Walker Hill (left) dances and sings with country music artist Ronnie McDowell during Saturday night’s performance at the Tar Heel Variety Theater. (WDN Photo/Kevin Scott Cutler)

The son of Chris and Jan Hill, he is a first-grade student at Chocowinity Primary School.

Walker inherited his love of Presley’s music from his father, according to Jan Hill. Chris Hill was about his son’s age when Elvis died in 1977, and he remembers being devastated. But he quickly became a fan of McDowell, who gained worldwide fame when his musical tribute, “The King Is Gone,” was released shortly after Presley’s death.

“Ronnie McDowell came to the VIP Club in Chocowinity when I was in first grade, but they wouldn’t let me in because I was so young,” Chris Hill recalled. “I was going to his show in Vanceboro, but it was cancelled. … I was so heartbroken. But they invited me on his tour bus, and he gave me a necklace. Since then, anytime he is performing in eastern North Carolina, I try to go see him.”

The elder Hill also took his love of Elvis to the stage, appearing as the king of rock ’n’ roll during talent shows held in Beaufort County and at Greenville’s Carolina East Mall. Wearing a homemade jumpsuit as a costume, he performed some of Presley’s best-known songs, including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear,” “My Way” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.”

Some of those same hits were part of McDowell’s two-night concert series in Chocowinity. McDowell became known virtually overnight as an Elvis-tribute artist, and he recalled during the concert that his versions of Presley’s songs have been used in a number of entertainment projects, including made-for-TV movies and commercials. He also provided Elvis’ vocals in a “duet” with Dolly Parton.

A combat veteran with three tours of Vietnam to his credit, McDowell also proved that he is an entertainer with a heart of gold during his visit to Chocowinity, according to Tar Heel Variety Theater co-owner Angie Lewis. Her husband, also named Ronnie, was injured in a fall last year, and McDowell offered to donate the proceeds of his Friday-night performance at the theater to help the Lewis family with medical bills.

“He is just wonderful,” Angie Lewis said of McDowell.

Although McDowell got his foot in the music industry’s door with his Elvis tribute, he has gone on to make a name for himself with his own original recordings. He’s had two No. 1-hit songs and several that made the top 10 charts, including “Older Women,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation” and “Watchin’ Girls Go By.” In addition, he has been on tour and performed with such country-music legends as Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

McDowell’s performances were just part of a packed schedule of events to be hosted by the Tar Heel Variety Theater between now and the end of the year, Lewis noted. Upcoming concerts include appearances by Gene Watson, Jeff and Sheri Easter, Little Roy Lewis and Lizzy Long, Michael Combs and Rhonda Vincent.

For show dates and other information, visit or call 252-975-2117.

More about the Tar Heel Variety Theater, Chocowinity’s version of the Grand Ole Opry, will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Daily News.