When you think of your favorite band or singer, you generally think of that person in some sort of iconic costume or dress. And that, as much as his or her sound, forms the image you hold of that person?Michael Jackson’s white glove, Elvis Presley’s scarves, Elton John’s duck suit or Dolly Parton’s rhinestone pant suits. The look is as important as the sound. Often the creators of these styles are not remembered, though they are partly responsible for that image you fondly remember. This is the story of one of the people who create images.
Emma Lucy Mitchell came into this world on Sept. 17, 1928, in Lawrence County, Tenn. She is the second of four children and the only girl. Ms. Lucy, or Lulu as her family calls her, took an interest in sewing at an early age. Coming from a family of meager means, she had to take what was given to her, at least as far as clothing went. Around age five, she started learning to sew, so at an early age she had already began what would be a lifelong love for sewing. By 14, she could alter and patch hand-me-down clothing. Lucy’s dad died when she was 9, so it fell to Lucy, her mother and her siblings to support themselves. Lucy started sewing as a means of income and continued to develop her skill.
At age 17, she moved to Birmingham, Ala., and took a job in a tailor shop; it was her first real sewing job. It was there she was first noticed as a talented seamstress. She made a matching dress for a lady and daughter and the local paper ran a photo of the two in their identical outfits. After that, people started coming to Lucy to have clothes custom made.
It was also while she lived in Birmingham that she met and married her husband of 58 years, Herman Adams. They were wed in September 1946 and had three children. In her later years, Ms. Lucy would have to all but give up her sewing to care for her ailing husband, who passed away in July 2004.
The family moved to Nashville in 1959 and for a short while Lucy was a stay-at-home mom. In 1963, she took a job at Bender Manufacturing making sewing patterns, which were displayed in high-end stores in New York. Once the owner discovered that she could also design the patterns, she was promoted and worked there for several more years.
In 1967, she left the pattern-making business and went to work for Ken and Judy Hunt, who owned a custom clothing design shop on Music Row. She started making clothes for country music singers like Little Jimmy Dickens and J.D. Sumpter and the Stamps Quartet (the main back-up singers for Elvis).
In 1969, she received her diploma from the National School of Dress Design.
It was at Ken and Judy’s where she first met a young singer named Dolly Parton. Dolly was trying to make a name for herself in country music and wasn’t completely satisfied with her clothing. After becoming acquainted, Lucy told Dolly she would make an outfit to her specifications and if she didn’t like it, she didn’t owe her anything and if she did like it, she still didn’t owe her anything. Dolly agreed and thus began a lifelong friendship. It wasn’t long before Lulu starting making clothing exclusively for Ms. Parton. Parton first gained celebrity status on The Porter Wagoner Show and Ms. Lucy made many of the outfits worn on the show.
Lucy made the outfits worn by Dolly on the album covers Fairest of Them All, Dolly & Porter, Heartbreaker, I Wish I Felt Like This At Home, Jolene, Just Because I’m a Woman, All I Can Do and several others. When Dolly got her own show, Lucy made the costumes for that show as well. She also made personal clothing for Porter Wagoner, Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker’s family, Conway Twitty’s family, Rex Allen Jr., Stella Parton and others. She was also sought out by many a hopeful beauty queen and made lavish costumes for pageants all over the country.
Of all the people Ms. Lucy sewed for, Dolly was her favorite. Parton and her sisters spent many holidays and Sunday dinners with the Adams family. When there is any discussion with Ms. Lucy, or her family, on the subject of Dolly and her sisters, they are referred to more as the cousins that haven’t been seen in while, rather than a mention of any celebrity status. For Dolly’s 24th birthday, Lulu made her a second coat of many colors, a very elaborate coat, befitting someone who had become a success.
Ms. Lucy told me several humorous stories of those days, including one of Herman Adams smacking the hand of a young Miss Parton who was reaching for something on his plate. Ms. Lucy also has a treasure trove of family pictures including Dolly as an adopted family member opening Christmas presents, enjoying dinners and doing all the things you would expect family and friends to do. She also has many faded pictures taken backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with the likes of Kaye Adams, Roy Clark and others. One of the most striking photos is one of Lulu standing with Lucille Ball. Lulu had made a last-minute costume before a performance at Opryland Hotel. At first, Ball didn’t think the costume would fit her. So Ms. Lucy told her to just try the thing on and if she didn’t like it, she’d find her something else. Well, she did try it on and she liked it. After returning home, Ball sent her a thank you note and a nice payment.
In the early ’80s, Dolly Parton left Nashville and moved to Los Angeles and anyone familiar with her rise to superstardom knows the rest of that story. It became apparent Dolly Parton and Ms. Lucy had reached a parting of ways, but it did not end their friendship. As is often the case, life has a way of pulling you away from those you care about. But in the years to come, it was noticed by the family that ever so often a white limo would stop by Lulu’s home or sometimes just drive by her house. Always respectful of Ms. Parton’s privacy, Lulu would never say much about it. Every Christmas, she receives a package in the mail from East Tennessee, usually an assortment of things from Dollywood. Ms. Lucy would proudly display the presents and just say “Oh Dolly sent that,” like it was nothing more than a phone call from an old friend. There is a section of the museum at Dollywood dedicated to Lucy Adams in which many of her creations are prominently displayed. Several examples of her talent are also on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but they carry no mention of her.
C.J. Jatala, owner of C.J.’s Party Place of Murfreesboro, has 13 shirts and a cape made by Ms. Lucy that he uses in his Karaoke performances. Being a big fan and collector of Dolly Parton memorabilia, he was introduced to Ms. Lucy by a neighbor, who knew she made clothing for her. C.J. and Ms. Lucy became friends and he would often stop by to visit with her. C.J. was Ms. Lucy’s only client in her retirement years.
When I began to write this story, it was about a quiet unassuming elderly lady with a talent for sewing. But after attending a neighborhood block party, complete with karaoke, for her 80th birthday, I realized I was writing about something far more than someone who made clothes for famous people. Everyone in her neighborhood turned out for her party and they didn’t just pay their respects and go home; it was a party. Even with the crook in her back and having to lean on a cane, she was a gracious and energetic host.
Several months later, I sat down with Lulu for an interview. It became obvious age had finally started to catch up to her. We chatted for some time, but I wasn’t able to get much I could use for this article. Lulu started statements and wasn’t able to finish them. You could look in her eyes and tell the meaning was still there, but no longer the words.
I began to wonder if I could tell this story, since I could no longer use her words. But just one walk around her sewing room and seeing the framed magazines and albums of Dolly Parton wearing Ms. Lucy’s designs were enough to tell the story on their own. There were also pictures of a smiling Porter Wagoner and of Kay Adams wearing the feathered Indian stage costume Ms. Lucy made. The rhinestones still scattered across the sewing table and handmade patterns that filled her cabinets were a silent testament to her talent.
On the morning of March 11, 2009, two days after our last conversation, Ms. Lucy arose and made herself a cup of coffee. Before she finished that cup, she had a brain aneurism. Lulu fell into a coma, from which she would not recover. She was buried in Lawrenceburg next to her husband. The rest of Lulu’s life story was told to me by her children and grandchildren.
None of us have a choice when it comes to dying; someday we all will. But we do have a choice in how we live. If anyone can carry the spirit and have such a positive effect on so many lives as Ms. Lucy did, then it will be a life well lived.