That's the Spirit: Susie Rae - Narromine NSW
The spirit of community is embedded in Susie Rae’s DNA, but it took a brush with death to fan the flames of a long dormant idea for an event to bring hope, fun and an injection of economic activity to her much-loved patch of central west NSW. The Narromine farmer and artist leads the charge for the region’s inaugural Dolly Parton Festival, and says there’s a fitting similarity between the country music superstar’s resilience and that of her own small regional community. JEN COWLEY sat down with Susie for a chat about all things Narromine…and Dolly.
Jen: You’re the coordinator of the inaugural Dolly Parton festival, to be held right here at Narromine?
Susie: Yes – it’s the first of its kind in Australia. Apparently, there was another one in the deep dark south of America but this one is going to be in the dusty old central west of NSW, Australia. I’ve always loved Dolly Parton.
Jen: What’s not to love?
Susie: She was the very first person I ever saw that had fantastic hot pink fake fingernails. I don’t know what the attraction was beyond that… I was young and I just fell in love with her. I just loved everything about her. Her music, her story - everything about her – her life’s journey from desperate hardship to being the most caring loving person.
Jen: Talk about resilience…
Susie: You bet. Just look at what she has given and what she’s still giving, not just in terms of her music but her philanthropic work. She’s 74 and she’s the whole package, she is just an amazing person.
Jen: Tell me about how the festival came to be.
Susie Rae, Narromine NSW
Susie: Like every good idea, it started with alcohol.
Jen: Well, no good idea ever started over a salad.
Susie: Exactly. I was at a girlfriend’s place and we were sitting on her back lawn on a very balmy, stinky hot afternoon, and I just said, “You know what? I really want to have a Dolly Parton festival. That’s what I want.”
Jen: And she said, “Here, have another wine.”
Susie: Ha! Pretty much. This would be 15 years ago – the idea has been marinating for that long. But back then, the children were young and so I was consumed with all of that and there just wasn’t the brain space to expand on the idea.
Jen: You’re a farmer as well, aren’t you?
Susie: Yes, so you can imagine, there’s no space to create when your children are younger. And I’m really creative, I always have something on the go. You name it, I do it, but it just wasn’t the right time to start a major event, but the idea never left me. And then Dolly came to Australia six years ago.
Jen: Did you go to see her?
Susie: Yes. And I said to my husband, “Please can we get VIP tickets? I just want to be right up in that front row as close as I can to get to her.” So, we were in about the fifth row…
Jen: So, you sold a kidney?
Susie: Yeah, pretty much. We shouted the kids for Christmas, but they had the 99th-back row. They reckon they could hear me screeching and screaming even from back there. They still laugh about it.
It was just the best night – a dream come true.
Jen: And this re-ignited the festival flame?
Susie: I’ve always been very involved in the community and passionate about rallying everyone together, both when things are and aren’t good. I’m extremely social. I need people. I can’t be stuck on a farm on my own.
Then I had a phone call from (Narromine Shire) council and they said “Susie, would you be interested in going on the Economic Development Growth Committee for council?”
I had a little think about it and when they said, “You’ve done so much with the children’s art classes in Narromine and helping the kids and we think you may have something that Narromine needs culturally and for tourism”, I thought, oh, yeah – my goodness me, I sure do have an idea for something!
I had to sell the idea of a Dolly Parton Festival to the committee, so I went to the very first meeting and there’s little old me, from out on the farm in there playing with the big flies.
I was put on the cultural sub-committee. The next meeting, they asked me what I had up my sleeve and I said I could really see Narromine having an art weekend and having the shops open – blah blah blah – oh, and I also have an idea for a Dolly Parton Festival…
Jen: What was the reaction?
Susie: It was very, very mixed. “Why Dolly Parton? Why Dolly Parton?” Anyway, we put it out there, and after a little while council said “Yes, we think we can work with this”.
We had a public meeting and more than 20 people turned up – that’s unheard of in Narromine – so we just sat and chewed the fat with that group ad I told them what I had in mind. I told them I thought it could be an annual event and that no-one else was doing Dolly, and the fact is that not only is her music great, you can add a dress up element and you can really have fun.
Jen: What happened then?
Susie: I’ll take you back a bit. I went to the ABBA festival at Trundle in May 2018, and while I was there I had a life changing experience there with my health. I went into tachycardia (an episode that causes the heart to race uncontrollably) while I was dancing to (the ABBA song) Dancing Queen. It was the last song.
I’d never had anything like it before, and I was in a critical condition. I was stuck at Trundle Hospital for two hours while they tried to organise an ambulance and get me to Parkes. Then I got to Parkes and they had to stop my heart. It was terribly serious. Anyway, that experience, that moment was really life changing for me.
Susie Rae, Narromine NSW
Jen: In what way?
Susie: It has changed my life. To start with, I was grieving, big time. I was grieving the loss of my health and having to be in that situation. When I was actually on the bed, when they were stopping my heart, they actually said, “Do you have any messages for your family, for your children?”
They said, “Normally, your heart will start but if it doesn’t we’ll have to use the paddles.” During that process when they give you an injection that stops your heart and you go into total blackness and then they restart your heart.
I was fortunate because it just started again after they stopped it. Thank God.
I was down and out for a couple of months and I had to really rest. I had to have an operation in Sydney and it turned out that it was just a random nerve event, triggered by dancing to Dancing Queen. Whenever I hear that song I want to vomit.
Jen: It would be a very powerful mnemonic.
Susie: It really is. But then I went from shortly after that health scare to being on this (Narromine Shire Council) committee, and I figured life is short and I really want to give it my all. I thought, I’d stared down the barrel pretty much and I wanted to give everything a crack.
I’m okay, health wise – I have to be very aware and I can feel it fluttering sometimes; it means that if I’m having a drink with the girlfriends or whatever, there is no dancing on the dance floor…
Jen: So, you have to dance sober?
Susie: Yeah – which is always a bit tricky!
Jen: The upshot is that you’ve been working with the committee to get the Dolly Parton Festival up and running?
Susie: Yes – two years fairly solidly. Narromine Shire Council has been really supportive. A few councillors sat in on the first few meetings and then they just could see I was 100 per cent confident with what I was doing…well 110 per cent, actually (laughs)! And they just slipped away from the meetings and let us form our own committee. The support from council has been amazing. We’ve had a few stumbling blocks, mostly drought and the resulting impact on finances, but we know we can’t walk around and expect everyone to give us money for sponsorship. Council jumped on board and helped with that because the economic climate has been a bit tight. No one has deep pockets at the moment. So, but we are hoping that what we’re doing with this everyone’s going to see some sunshine.
Jen: It’s not just about celebrating Dolly is it?
Susie: It’s about what we can give back to the community. I also think when you live in a rural community there is a lot of emphasis on the farmers, and everyone kind of forgets about the small businesses. For me that’s been something I’m very passionate about. We can’t lose our little shops. I really don’t like it when you go to a little town and there’s empty shops up the street. It’s terrible and it’s really hard to get businesses to reopen.
Jen: Tell me about some of the other things you do.
Susie: I’ve been involved for a long time with the Mungery Hall committee, as well as with the Mungery Picnic Races.
Jen: Why is community involvement so important to you?
Susie: I don’t know. I put it down to my Mum. Her very first posting after teachers’ college in Armidale was here to Narromine. She was a Grafton girl and had absolutely no idea about the country. She drove all the way here in her VB beetle when she was 20 years old and started a job at the Narromine Public School as primary teacher, Miss White. People saw her qualities and within a week she was the President of the Young CWA in Narromine.
Jen: Community service is kind of in your DNA, then?
Susie: Yes, and in my children. The girls are all on their local committees and are very community minded.
Jen: Why do you think that’s important?
Susie: Because every bus needs a driver and if you are not prepared to get in and get your hands dirty then nothing gets done.
Jen: Why do you love where you live?
Susie: I do, I love it so much. Why do I love it? Why do I love Narromine? Why do I love Mungery? I just love being a part of a bigger family than my own and it is like a family. How many people in Sydney can walk down the street or go into the supermarket and stop and talk to five different people about five different things, and know those people’s parents and grandparents? It’s the village that I love.
And we have some amazing cafes and shops – I think that’s one of the misconceptions, that we don’t have access to nice things. When my kids were away at school in Sydney, people would often comment on what I was wearing when we went to various things. They’d go, “Where did you find that?” and I’d say “I went boutique shopping in Narromine, you should try it, it’s phenomenal!” Our little towns have all that stuff. Just because we live in the bush doesn’t mean we don’t like nice things, or that we’re not intelligent.
We’re part of a global village. I feel that, maybe because of our isolation, we’ve had to become so inventive and creative here in our small communities and we’re really, really good at it. We have so much to give in terms of innovation and creativity.
There’s an element of having to do things for ourselves because no-one else is going to – it’s the same with creativity.
Isolation is a huge driver for creativity. It’s either sink or swim. You really do have to pull your socks up.
Jen: So, going back to the Dolly Parton Festival – tell me a little bit about the synergy between Dolly’s resilience and the resilience you see not only in yourself but in the communities?
Susie: Who doesn’t admire a strong woman? Out here though, it’s sometimes a bit threatening for men and I tell you there’s been a lot of knockers. When I first announced I wanted to do this, going to dinner parties and BBQs people just went “Yeah, good luck with that – good luck getting everyone on board.”
Well, say that to me and look out. It’s like a red flag to a bull.
But Dolly’s resilience – that journey from hardship to super stardom despite the humble beginnings – there’s definitely some similarity there with our small communities.
Note: Our interview was conducted in February 2020. Unfortunately, the Dolly Parton Festival, set down for April 2020, was among the casualties of social distancing measures imposed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, Susie and her team remain committed to forging ahead with the festival following the lifting of restrictions, and the spirit of community with which they are all imbued is as strong and as valuable as ever.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Susie Rae, Narromine NSW