By Rita Mitchell
Willie and Waylon may have cautioned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, but for S. L. Pemberton, the cowboy life couldn’t have been better.
Pemberton (Martin ’96) has made a career of riding, roping, and entertaining, and he’s recently parlayed his talent into a position as production manager at the original Dixie Stampede, a modern-day Wild West show owned by Dolly Parton and located just outside her theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Pemberton came to Dixie Stampede in 1996 as a performer, but he had already had years of experience. “When I was about 10, I started performing Roman riding—which is standing on two horses—and trick roping, and that’s pretty much been my career path all along. That’s how I paid my way through college.”
He became manager about a year and a half ago. “If you come to Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, I’m responsible for anything you see entertainment-wise from the time you walk into the building until you leave—all the performers, costuming, the horses, the lights.” He says his biggest challenge is dealing with performers and keeping them happy. That includes about 60 people and 45 horses. “Every day, everybody [people and horses] comes in in a different mood.”
His favorite part is showing up for work “and never knowing what you’re getting into.” It might be a performer who calls in sick or an equipment breakdown. “I know that would probably drive some people nuts, but I really enjoy it.” He stages more than 600 shows a year.
Through the years, he has met a host of well-known entertainers—not the least of whom is Parton. “You don’t have to talk to her; she’ll just start talking to you. If she’s in a group of people, she’ll make a point to speak to everybody. She genuinely cares about people. She’s a good lady and has done a lot for this area.”
Performing was Pemberton’s strong suit, but now he steps under the lights at Dixie Stampede only if he’s needed. “Every once in a while if we’re short-handed, I’ll jump in an act or two. I just turned forty, and it seems to get a little harder on my body. I still trick rope a lot, [but] that’s about it.”
This from a man who has a true showman’s spirit; in his early years he perfected some death-defying acts. “There was one trick I used to do where, as the horse jumped over a jump, I did a complete flip and landed back up in the saddle. There was probably a seventy-five percent rate of return on that. So that was going to be a big wreck. I tried to put my level of tricks up where, if I did have a mishap, it was still going to be a good show either way.”
Early on, Pemberton also jumped a car with a team of horses as part of his act. “I’d get thrown off or dragged. When I was in my twenties, I took a pretty rough toll on my body just trying different tricks.” He’s been run over and trampled but has never had any traumatic injuries. “I had a couple of knee surgeries—just little things like that.”
Thanks to his career, he met a cowgirl—Loretta, a trick rider—who was performing at a Boston rodeo in the early 1990s. The two married in 1996.
Loretta comes from a rodeo family in rural New York. Her father and brothers were bull riders and bareback riders, and her sister was a barrel-racer. Loretta still performs at Dixie Stampede. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to trick ride,” she says. “It really depends on my body. And who would want to see an old lady hanging off the side of a horse?”
The Pembertons have two cowboys of their own—Cy, 12, and Seth, 9—who seem to have inherited their parents’ talents. Pemberton says Cy is naturally talented. “In two or three aspects—the roping, the guns and whips—he can pick it up and be very entertaining and the crowd really loves him.” But, dad laments, Cy isn’t interested in practicing. Seth, on the other hand, is “really into it all the time. You’ll catch him around the house just spinning a rope or out in the yard playing with his whip.”
Pemberton contracts for shows away from Dixie Stampede so the family can travel and perform together. The boys do trick riding, as well as shooting, gun-spinning, and whip-cracking, when the family takes its act on the road.
“It’s kind of like our little vacation, but at the same time, we’re getting to perform and do what the kids enjoy. We might do it six to ten times a year.”
Pemberton had already logged many performances by the time he graduated from Milan (Tennessee) High School in 1987. He immediately enrolled at UT Martin, but then took what he calls a “hiatus” to continue to perform. He returned to Martin in 1993 and graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in natural resources management.
He was doing shows at the same time he was going to college and says many of his professors accommodated his schedule. “I would have to miss a lot of Friday classes because a typical rodeo would be a Friday and Saturday night and sometimes Sunday afternoon.” He often left Martin on Thursday night, drove 12 or 14 hours, did a show, and returned Monday morning just in time for class. “There were a lot of times I would park my horse trailer right out there across from Brehm Hall” and hurry in to class, he recalls.
Pemberton says there’s not much he would change about his career so far.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed. I said for years I would not want to be in management—didn’t want to deal with people. Now that I am, I really enjoy it.”
Growing up to be a cowboy has been just fine for S. L. Pemberton. Considering his experience, maybe Waylon and Willie should reconsider their advice.