09/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
EVEN AFTER GIVING UP HER HOME AND auctioning her possessions last year to pay off $2.5 million in debts and taxes, country singer Dottie West still talked as tough as the farm girl she'd once been in McMinnville, Tenn. "I'm a survivor," she proclaimed. "You can knock me down, but you better have a big rock to keep me there."
Last week, however, West's stubborn durability met its match. The 58-year-old singer died Sept. 4 during surgery at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Five days earlier, the car in which she was riding had gone out of control on a Nashville parkway's elevated exit ramp and crashed nose down onto the roadway below. Doctors had already operated on West twice, removing her spleen and trying to repair her ruptured liver, but said her heart failed due to massive blood loss during the third operation on the liver. "She just ran out of physical reserve," said Dr. John Morris, director of the hospital's trauma unit.
West had been on her way to perform at the Grand Ole Opry when the accident occurred shortly after 8 P.M. Her own car—a Chrysler New Yorker that singer Kenny Rogers had given her following her money woes last year—had stalled, so she had accepted a ride from neighbor George Thackston, 80. Reportedly police say Thackston's late-model Plymouth Reliant was traveling at approximately 50 mph when it took the 25 mph exit ramp to the Opry. (Thackston was later listed in critical but stable condition with unspecified injuries.)
Throughout the ordeal, West's daughter, Shelly, 33, also a country singer (she teamed with David Frizzell for "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" in 1980), and Dottie's sons, Morris, 37, Kerry, 35, and Dale, 30, stood vigil at the hospital. Afterward they withdrew into seclusion, as West's country-music colleagues began to face their own shock and sadness. "We're much poorer for her loss," said Country Music Hall of Famer Chet Atkins. "She was one of the greatest singers around. She could do all kinds of things with the melody of a song, and I've always felt that she was one of the nicest persons I've ever known." Said onetime duet partner John Schneider, the former Dukes of Hazzard star turned singer: "We lost a wonderful woman and an incredible writer, and I lost a good friend."
West had been one of country music's favorite personalities since the early '60s, when she was one of a mere handful of female songwriters working in Nashville. Her pals included other then-unknowns like Roger Miller and Willie Nelson. "They would hang out at my house—I think they liked my cooking," she once recalled. "And I would watch them write songs."
She first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1962 and within two years had become the first female country artist to win a Grammy (for her single "Here Comes My Baby"). Over the next two decades, West appeared regularly on the country charts with such hits as "Paper Mansions," "A Lesson in Leavin' " and "Country Sunshine," which West had originally written for a Coca-Cola commercial—and which later became her nickname.
Divorced in 1972 from steel-guitar player Bill West, her college sweetheart at Tennessee Tech whom she had married 20 years earlier, West moved on to an eight-year marriage to drummer Byron Metcalf, 12 years her junior. In 1983 she wed her road manager and sound engineer, Alan Winters, who was 22 years younger than she. "I don't feel my age," she explained after her third trip to the altar.
Her most successful partnership, though, was probably with her friend Kenny Rogers, with whom she recorded such hits as "Every Time Two Fools Collide" and "What Are We Doin' in Love." "While some people sang words, she sang emotions," Rogers said last week in a prepared statement following her death. Said Roger Miller: "It's like losing a member of the family. She was the sister we all loved."
The past two years hadn't been kind to West. She divorced Winters in January 1990 and soon after filed for bankruptcy. In June she was forced to give up her spacious Brentwood, Tenn., home in favor of a Nashville apartment. Thanks to an IRS debt of more than $1 million, she had most of her possessions—even her stage costumes—confiscated by the government. Just two months ago, West was involved in another traffic accident while exiting the driveway to her apartment complex and was hospitalized for several days. "She had endured a lot of hardships, but she somehow found the strength to keep going," says Hal Durham, general manager of the Grand Ole Opry and a friend for 40 years. "All of us here admired her courage."
JANE SANDERSON in Memphis