It was two years ago at The Comet here in Cincinnati when I first saw and heard Jean Dowell. Mike Oberst (The Tillers and Blue Rock Boys) was hosting a month-long residency there. A friend and I thought it would be fun to stop in, grab a drink and a burrito, and listen to some great music. Mike sang and played with his usual folkish eloquence, but after he played a tall white haired woman joined him. She sat next to him, and I remember her seeming to be a bit uncomfortable. Mike introduced her, Jean Dowell, from the moment she began singing to the end she stopped both my friend and me in our tracks. So, when CincyMusic.com sent out the list of whom we could choose from in honor of the Woman in our fair city that provide the music for us along with women behind the scenes as well, and Miss Jean’s name was on said list I jumped at the opportunity to hear her story.
Jean grew up in Union Grove, North Carolina noted for having the oldest and most famous fiddler’s convention called “Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention” which has been going on since 1924. Music for Jean and her twin sister, Rene, was always around. Their dad played guitar and harmonica, and both her mom and dad sang. In Jean’s words “We were always singing!” And, it wasn’t limited to her parents again according to Jean “I had lots of relatives that sang and played music. And they were good!” Ironically enough Jean as a child was not that into the old-time music and bluegrass, however, in a few years’ time she would be. What she was into was sports mainly basketball and softball. When the house was full with everyone playing music, which was quite often, Rene and Jean would be outside playing shooting baskets or having a catch.
Music would take a back seat as Jean grew older. In her teens, she formed a quartet and they sang mostly gospel music, however, it was basketball that seemed to fueled her. While in the third grade and attending games that her older sister Julia would cheerlead at Jean said, “I never want to be a cheerleader; I want to be the kind of player these people get excited about.” Rene and Jean practiced every day and as grade school turned to high school both Rene and Jean would become All Conference players, and as a senior Jean led the state of NC in the voting for the all – state team.
This was the first of many accolades for Jean who for all intents and purposes went on to become a pioneer in women’s basketball. Prior to Title IX women were not allowed to participate in sports. Title IX forced colleges and schools to not discriminate based on sex. In the mid to late 60’s as Jean was leaving high school and entering college Title IX was still a few years away from being passed. Jean began trying to get Western Carolina University (her college) to sponsor a women’s basketball team, and they eventually did in 1965-66. Being thrilled to have this opportunity she went out in her senior year and average over 30 points a game in her only season of intercollegiate play. In 1992 Western inducted her into their sports hall of fame. And, it was not just Western Carolina that recognized her for the trail she was blazing.
After graduating from Western she went to graduate school at the University of Georgia. In 1968, she began advocating for a women’s basketball team. In 1969, she became their first women’s basketball coach. Once she received her degree she began teaching at West Virginia Wesleyan University, and again she began a campaign for women’s basketball which did not happen for a few more years after she arrived in 1969. While at Georgia she played AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball for the Atlanta Tomboys, and they traveled all over the southeast, and this eventually led her to find a team in Cincinnati which played in a league in Columbus. They began a streak of 9 out of 10 state AAU Championships and she was granted 10 MVP awards. After this she found herself again transitioning only this time it would be putting her degree to work in physical education and coaching at Mount Saint Joseph University, here in our very own Cincinnati. The first year she began coaching they won their first ever women’s intercollegiate state tournament. In 1978 Jean became the school’s athletic director and she remained the women’s basketball coach until her resignation in 1994. Fittingly the gymnasium is now the “Jean Dowell Gymnasium.” Jean was and still is, an advocate for equal rights. This was all she was trying to do. The accolades are nice. The awards are great, but setting in motion the equality between the sexes, and colors, races, creeds, and kinds I think is what is near and dear to her heart.
Jean is modest when she talks about all of this I could tell her in answers it was the cause that she was fighting for that was most important, these awards are just details, but they didn’t stop after the gymnasium, because let’s be honest Jean was on all-star athlete both on the court and off. In 1997, she was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Basketball Hall of Fame and in 2011 the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. For her pioneering efforts and blazing the trail for women’s basketball. She did say that she wished she would have done more for women’s softball. Which she was playing while in college and again, she shined in this sport as well. Playing on two national championship teams, and being an All-American shortstop in 1969 while playing ASA (Amateur Softball Association) softball. Tragedy struck her in 1972 when her twin sister Rene was tragically killed in an automobile accident. I could only imagine the depth of the pain and sorrow within her, and trying to keep it all together with the efforts she was putting into women’s basketball. I would only be assuming, but I would like to think that through this heart-breaking tragedy Jean found strength within herself, and maybe figured she was going to do all of this for her sister as well. That she couldn’t give up. Jean simply said to me about the tragedy, “needless to say, this was the lowest point of my life.”
Through great tragedy we can find great strength, and Jean has persevered. And while at the University of Georgia Jean started to gain an interest in that old-time music she wasn’t all that into as a child. She bought an old used guitar, figured out a few chords, and began entertaining her friends. Which led to her writing her own songs, and she would play them for friends as well. They would ask when she was going to do something with them, but with her schedule of teaching, coaching, studying, and playing basketball music just sort of followed her along and did not gain the foreground until a few years ago.
While Jean was working at MSJU she started singing with Mary Ann Broderick (physical educator and volleyball coach). A few years ago, she met Paula Gray, and the three of them began singing together. Paula mentioned that a banjo should accompany Jean’s songs as well. So Paula began taking lessons, and in 2012 Jean tagged along to one of Paula’s lessons. The teacher was Mike Oberst, and this again in Jean’s words “started a fabulous friendship!” Mike said these songs should be heard and began booking some shows for the trio.
In November of last year Jean released her first album “A Place Way Back in Time” which I am listening to as I type this out. This is an album mixed with songs that are autobiographical at times as well as songs about issues dear to her, and sometimes those lines blur which make for a great album. She is joined by her friends Mary Ann and Paula for backing vocals on a couple of tracks as well as Mike Oberst on banjo. Jean said during our interview “since I never saw myself doing shows or recording my songs I am quite surprised at what I am doing” and again according to her “I am fortunate this opportunity has come along at this stage in my life.” All of this shines on this album, and when you see her live.
Jean is living quite the life now resigned from basketball and taking on this role of song writer, which to be honest, I don’t think ever left her. It just had to work itself out, and sometimes that takes a bit longer. This is the part where I may take some artistic liberty. As I find myself listening to her album for like the seventh time it plays like a soundtrack to where she has come from to where she is now, and everything in between. Our conversation then and our conversations since have been inspiring to say the least especially considering that she has recently released a video for a song she wrote about the plight going on at Standing Rock and the North Dakota Access Pipe Line called “Standing Up for Standing Rock” joined by her pal Mike. With music, she is taking her time. Her drive and passion shine when she sings and when she plays. Union Grove comes out of her as she sings the songs. I think she would consider herself an activist above any label that may be attached to her, and she would not get any argument from me. As we closed our conversation, much to my chagrin, I ask her the question I like to ask everyone: why sports and music of all things? I will let her close this out. My suggestion would be if you get the chance to see her do it, and purchase her album HERE.
Jean Dowell: Both of these areas happen to be where my passion lay. I am not involved in sports any longer as that is for young people. Music is something one can do for a lifetime. I started late in this but I love singing and writing songs and life I say in one of my songs, “I won’t stop my singing it’s what I love the most and when I’m making my music I’m not feeling low. No, I’m feeling good and loving everybody!”
March is Women’s History Month, in celebration, CincyMusic.com will be featuring important women behind the music scene in Cincinnati. Cincinnati is the home of so many amazing women within the music industry. These women include; an activist, a Director of Marketing, Music Editor, musicians, and many more!
Stay tuned to CincyMusic.com for our Features on these talented women this month!