Duluth woman reminisces about Nashville days
The quick pitch in Hollywood for a biopic on Duluth resident Diana Christian would go something like this:
The translation locally would be something like this: Musically gifted kid from Two Harbors gets airplay on Duluth radio, gets noticed by big shots, is told to try and cut a record in Nashville, succeeds, makes some connections, has some hard luck in love, waffles between home and a career in music, deals with depression, tours with legend Bill Monroe, ends up on the Grand Ole Opry stage at age 45, starts a foundation using music as a way to spread a message of peace and awareness of social issues.
If that’s a mouthful, try spending an afternoon hearing stories from the woman known as Dee Dee Prestige in her Nashville days, Delores Bacon back home on the North Shore, then Diana Rose Butterfly Christian and, more simply, as Diana Christian.
She starts with the Flutterbears, which are teddy bears with wings created from a song she wrote about a bear marrying a butterfly against all odds. She hands the bears out to children at Essentia St. Mary’s Medical Center, where she plays piano in the lobby. It’s a continuation of a practice she began at a care facility in Two Harbors after she came home from Tennessee in 2000 to care for her mother.
As Christian holds court at the Greysolon Plaza apartments in downtown Duluth, fellow residents say hello to “Butterfly.” She speaks in rapid-fire fashion about her life, going back to age 3 in Brainerd, where she was born in 1944. Every story has an aside, every aside has another aside.
Delores Bacon was one of eight children in the home of Al and Josephine Bacon.
“Mom said I clinged to my dad,” Christian said. She was mesmerized by his singing ability and skill playing guitar to classic Americana music. She said he was once asked by a talent scout to go on tour with Gene Autry.
“I was in awe of him,” Christian said of her father.
She recalled that she once went fishing with him in Brainerd, and on the way back her father decided to check out a new tavern. Christian ended up singing atop the bar to the awe of the audience there. Christian thinks the song was “Bell Bottom Trousers,” a reworked folk tune popular during World War II.
The bar patrons were so impressed, they tossed coins toward her. It would be her first paid performance. She spent the money buying popsicles for the family.
After that, “I kept being asked to sing,” she said.
Too young to take piano lessons, she would play while her siblings spent time outside. She recalled being infuriated when an older sister, who called her “birdbrain,” said she couldn’t take lessons because she was too young. Her mother said there was only enough money for the older sisters and besides, her hands were too small.
So, she played when no one was looking. And when she got caught, there was more awe than disdain.
“How do you do that?” her sister asked of what was obviously a natural ability on the piano.
“I didn’t know how it came to me,” she said. But she knew she liked it. “You don’t know why, but you love the attention.”
To the Shore
The family moved to Two Harbors in the early 1950s, where Al Bacon started an automobile dealership.
Christian’s abilities were known here as well, and she sang whenever asked.
She recalled a talent show in high school when she was supposed to perform with her younger brother. The pair of Bacon children took on the name “The Little Sizzlers,” she said. But her brother was held up at grade school and couldn’t make it. Christian was on her own.
“I prayed,” she said. “Dear God, help me.”
She got through it and had her first notion that she might be able to sing for audiences in her future. “I knew I could do it.”
In 1962, in the same month she graduated from Two Harbors High School, she got married and became Dee Dee Prestidge. It would become her stage name, minus the letter “d.”
She was settling in as a mom but was “still being asked to sing.” She was content with her children being her “biggest fans.”
Her father had scheduled a radio promotion for the grand opening of Bacon Sales & Service and asked his daughter to sing a few songs as part of it.
“Little Joe” Laznick, the late night DJ at KDAL, heard the songs and told her she should try and cut a record in Nashville.
“I’m at home with two babies, washing clothes,” she said.
She ended up doing some regular radio shows in Duluth along with some work in a band called The Gamblers that played at Oswald’s Bar & Grill on East Superior Street.
The insistence that she go to Nashville continued, and, in summer 1967, she decided to give it a shot.
“This was a chance to do something,” she said.
Her husband “was nuts about country music” and obliged her mission of 10 days to record. Her sister-in-law agreed to take care of the kids.
She met the president of Gold Standard Records and cut two songs, “Empty Arms, Broken Hearted” and “All of Nothing.” But she knew nothing of promoting a record that created buzz in her local newspaper and was played on Two Harbors jukeboxes and Duluth radio. She basked in the local celebrity, but not much happened in Nashville.
Christian would return to Nashville over the years to record covers and songs she wrote. It wasn’t until 1973 that she had a minor hit with “Sing the Blues to Mama.”
It was an age when producers were looking for the “next great voice,” she said, like that of Tammy Wynette, who emerged about the same time Christian began traveling to Nashville.
“They said I had to record that one,” she said of “Sing the Blues to Mama.” People were telling her she was about to be that great next voice.
But there were five children at home. There was no skyrocketing to fame.
“I can’t stop crying,” she later told a doctor in Two Harbors. She had a “beautiful home, a healthy family” but was sad all of the time.
The doctor asked her what she did for fun.
“Well, I sing,” she replied.
“Then, get busy and sing,” she recalled him saying.
She got a band together, the Travelers, and once again, she toured the region.
In 1976, she made another trek to Nashville, promising that if she broke through, “Daddy would get a new John Deere, and the kids would go to Disneyland.”
She left with $60, most of that going toward a bus ticket.
She got a job right away with a recording company but soon had to return to Minnesota. Her husband had filed for divorce and received custody of the children. She didn’t fight despite feeling that she had been wronged. She wanted to keep things civil for the children, she said.
Bewildered, she continued to sing locally and recorded more albums in Nashville, eventually moving there in 1979. The highlight was work she did with the Hank Williams backup band, Drifting Cowboys, and her first LP, “Country With Love.”
The legend and the legacy
Christian met Bill Monroe in 1983 and soon went on tour with the bluegrass legend across the country and world. She also took acting and modeling classes.
Monroe wanted her on the Grand Ole Opry, but without a hit record, Christian knew she wasn’t qualified.
She wrote four songs, got signed by RCA, and produced Christmas and gospel songs.
It was a “big deal” when Monroe said he was impressed with the songs. It got her onto the famed stage.
“I feel like I’m flying,” she recalled from the night of May 4, 1990. She was waiting in the wings at the Opry.
“I was just happy,” she said.
The best news came from home, where children and grandchildren listened on the radio.
“That’s one of my sweetest memories,” she said.
Knowing how music helped her stay buoyant in life and how children are also inspired by it, Christian began the LOVE Foundation in 1987 in Tennessee. The initials stand for “Loving Others Via Entertainment” with a goal of spreading peace and providing plenty for all, she said. Part of that effort is the Flutterbears and their story via her song that she provides at the hospital.
“Music and art are so universal,” Christian said. “It’s a universal language.”
“It’s important for me to let people know my goal is to help humanity,” she said.
She started the foundation shortly after offering her lyrics and voice to a song for “Feed His Children,” which fights to end world hunger.
She was inspired to start the foundation. When asked what the mission would be, she was direct.
“To use the arts to raise awareness,” she said.
Christian’s life story mirrors the first line of that charity song urging people to help feed hungry children.
“In this world of more than plenty,” she said reciting the lines.
Keeping that film biography less than two hours long will be a gargantuan task for any screenwriter.
Ask Jeff Jarvinen, a local music historian and preservationist through a group called Northland Legends. He has compiled Christian’s music and is working on an oral history.
Of the many asides in telling her story, one speaks to her career. She told Bill Monroe that she was concerned she
wouldn’t be accepted in country and bluegrass music because she came from the north country.
She said Monroe scowled and offered her some advice.
“It’s not where you’re from,” she recalled him saying, pointing to his heart.
“It’s where you sing from.”