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Pam Daley: Pancakes Pave the Way to the Grand Ole Opry
Oct 12,2009


Photo courtesy of Pam Daley<br />I had a hunch about Pam Daley. Beyond her striking blue eyes, there had to be more to this story of a middle-aged waitress finally realizing her lifelong dream. She was cutting her first solo album.
Photo courtesy of Pam Daley
I had a hunch about Pam Daley. Beyond her striking blue eyes,
there had to be more to this story of a middle-aged waitress finally
realizing her lifelong dream. She was cutting her first solo album.

Alexandria, Virginia - Editor's Note: This is Part Six of a continuing series on Local Kicks chronicling hope and resilience across America by award-winning TV correspondent Andrea McCarren, a visiting lecturer in journalism at Georgetown University.
 
“When I am 80 years old, I did not want to be sitting there, drinking a cup of tea, thinking, ‘Why did you not pursue your dream?’”
                                            
Pam Daley, Nashville, Tennessee
    
In a hip and bustling Nashville neighborhood, the legendary Pancake Pantry draws a line that wraps around the block every day, whether the sun is shining or it’s a torrential downpour. Locals and tourists wait their turn, often for more than an hour, for the lively atmosphere inside: the clatter of plates and silverware, the sweet smell of syrup and the mountainous Southern breakfasts.
   
On a warm spring morning, our family waited in that line, and we found more than pancakes at the end of it.  We discovered Pam Daley, or at least a photograph of her, propped up near the cash register.
    
“She works here,” drawled the man behind the counter, a touch of pride in his voice.
“She’s a waitress.”
   
I had a hunch about Pam Daley. Beyond her striking blue eyes, there had to be more to this story of a middle-aged waitress finally realizing her lifelong dream. She was cutting her first solo album. Since Daley wasn’t working that day, and we were leaving town, I tracked her down through email.
   
Indeed, Daley’s life had played out like the melancholy lyrics of a country song, filled with heartbreak and despair, too much booze and a turbulent home life. But her story takes an upbeat turn and an achievement against all odds, earned through hard work, sheer grit and perseverance.
   
“She only had two choices,” said Judy Lapps, her longtime friend recalling the time

Daley contemplated suicide, but sought help instead. “She decided she wanted to live.”
   
At the time, Lapps says Daley was struggling through the breakdown of her second marriage and had temporarily lost custody of her young son because of her drinking.
   
“What happened with Pam, she couldn’t stand to be with herself,” Lapps remembers.

“There was no place to go.”
   
Daly found help through a twelve-step recovery program and professional counseling. She leaned on friends and family.
   
“It’s not an overnight success story,” says Daley’s sister Diane. “It’s a never give up story.”
   
Pam Daley still has vivid memories of her lowest moments, like driving to out of town grocery stores to use her food stamps, too ashamed to run into someone she knew.
   
This was not the life she’d ever envisioned, growing up in an educated, upper middle class family. Even then, Daley loved music. She’d wrap her hairbrush in tin foil, sing in front of the mirror and dream of breaking into the country music industry.
   
That dream would never stop haunting her.
    
By the time she was 26, Daley was living in New York and juggling a brutal schedule, supporting her young daughters by doing restaurant work, and attending nursing school. One day, she simply packed up her family and drove to Tennessee to start over.
   
“That was the scariest and bravest thing she ever did,” says her sister. “In New York,
she wasn’t financially stable but she had a home and a support system. To give all that up was just astounding to me.  If I had one word to say about Pam, it would be brave.”
   

Photo courtesy of Pam Daley <br>Performing at Nashville’s Grand <br>Ole Opry is the pinnacle of the <br>country music world.  The oldest <br>continuous radio program in the <br>United States, the show is also <br>televised weekly on the Great <br>American Country network.
Photo courtesy of Pam Daley
Performing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is
the pinnacle of the country music world.
The oldest continuous radio program in the
United States, the show is also televised
weekly on the Great American Country
network.

Life in Nashville, however, wasn’t exactly as she’d planned. In fact, after remarrying and having a third child, she didn’t sing a single note for seven years.
 
“I was not a complete human being,” Daley remembers. “I didn’t even listen to music. It hurt. It made my heart ache. I wasn’t being true to myself, but I just couldn’t see where I could fit that into my life. That felt like a luxury pursuit to me and after my divorce, I had to figure out how to make a living.”
   
Daley had three children to help support so she returned to restaurant work. She’d later launch a personal chef business and take on a job working with autistic children.
   
The work was rewarding, but barely enough to make ends meet. Daley’s weekly paycheck was $240.
   
One day, a friend asked if she’d like to be a backup waitress at Nashville’s Pancake Pantry. Daley gave it a try.
   
“One super busy day at The Pantry, I made in a day what I was bringing home in a week!”
   
She still marvels over the fact that pancakes changed her life.
   
“It’s the most lucrative job I’ve ever had. It really changed things for me financially. And you would never think that because how humbling is it to be… a waitress? ”
   
One week at a time, after all the bills were paid, Daley stashed a few dollars into a tattered envelope with the words ‘Music Money’ scrawled on the front.  
“When I’d get a clump of money together,” says Daley, “I would go into the studio and record.”
   
She wanted to produce an album of her own songs, but she didn’t want to sink into debt and return to the life she’d worked so hard to escape.
    
“I knew that I did not want to take on debt. I did not want to use credit cards. I did not want to take out a large loan from a bank. “
   
So she did it the old-fashioned way, with a strong work ethic and a fighting attitude.  One song at a time.
 
“I just told myself, you’ll get there. I was like the little engine that could. You’ll get there. You’ll get there. Keep going. Keep going.”
   
Just when her dream looked within reach, Daley and her third husband started sinking financially. The ‘music money’ had to be used to pay for car repairs and utility bills. The album was put on hold.
   
Daley plays her unique brand of acoustic country/bluegrass music every regularly at a small  club south of Nashville. And every week, one man was always in the audience.

“He was a fan,” she explains. “He would ask me every time that we played, ‘When’s that album gonna be done?’”
   
One week, her answer was uncharacteristically pessimistic.
   
“I said, buddy, I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s gonna get done.  I can’t really talk about it.” Even today, retelling this story is hard.
    
“And he said, what’s the deal? And I said, ‘Money.’”
   
“He says, ‘What will it take?’”
   
“I just threw out a figure,” says Daley. “And he said, ‘How ‘bout an interest-free loan?’”
   
“I just started crying. I said, ‘You would do that for me?’”
   
“And he said, ‘Absolutely, you need to be heard.’”
   
The stranger wrote her a personal check. No strings attached.
   
In November of 2007, Daley received a phone call from a longtime friend.

“What are you doing this Saturday night?,” he asked.

“‘I don’t have any plans,’ I said.”

“‘Well, Nanci Griffith wants to know if you’ll sing harmony with her on the Opry.’ “ “‘I just about passed out!’”
   
It’s a story Daley still loves to tell. Griffith is a Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter. And performing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is the pinnacle of the country music world.  The oldest continuous radio program in the United States, the show is also televised weekly on the Great American Country network.
 
“That’s how quickly it happened. I got the call Monday night. I was on the stage Saturday night.”
   
Daley still remembers what she wore on the Opry stage: a new pair of black cowgirl boots she’d picked up at T.J. Maxx for $10, a form-fitting black skirt and her favorite turquoise earrings. But mostly, she remembers wearing what she calls ‘the biggest smile ever.’
   
Today, Daley is curled up on her overstuffed brown couch in suburban Nashville. She’s kicked off her red suede cowgirl boots and is jotting down the lyrics she dreamed about the night before.
   
The morning sunlight streams through the window. The music of her idol, Emmylou Harris, plays in the background. At the age of 46, Pam Daley is finally at peace. And despite all the ups and downs, she seems to have succeeded as a mother too.
   
“Her kids have turned out to be astounding children,” says Diane Daley, their aunt. “I really thought the instability and moves would have a negative effect on them. But just seeing their Mom having a passion and going for it, they are so proud of her.”
    
Pam Daley’s first album, ‘Someone Like You,’ will be released this fall. She still waits tables at the Pancake Pantry.

Daley’s tips for bouncing back:

  • You’ve got to believe in yourself. Whether other people believe in you or not, you’ve    –got- to believe in yourself, even if it’s the smallest little voice inside of you that says you need to do this, you’re worth it. Go for it.
  • I never gave up on myself and I accepted help. That’s a hard thing to do, but I believed that those people who offered me help believed in me too.
  • Have a plan and just work at it within the most realistic way that you can, even if it’s just a few dollars a week.  
  • When you feel something undeniable inside of yourself… how many women ignore that? Because of their marriage or their children or whatever? They think oh I can’t do that, when they have talent, whether it’s working with children with special needs or painting or dancing. We only get one shot at this.

Bounce Back Extra:

You can listen to Pam’s music and preview the upcoming stories of inspiring Americans at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FMJpaibbp8

Daley’s music can be heard at: http://www.pamdaleymusic.com

Andrea McCarren is a former television reporter who recently returned from a 21-state journey with her family in an RV. Details of her trip can be found at www.ProjectBounceBack.com. She may be reached at andreamccarren@gmail.com.

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