Donnie Emerson, 62, was just 17 years old when he recorded his first album, Dreamin’ Wild, with big brother Joe in a studio their dad built on their family farm in rural Fruitland, Washington. Failing to find an audience, their teenage dreams were crushed – only for the 70’s pop duo to be re-discovered in 2012 when Donnie’s song, Baby, became a surprise indy hit.
Fast forward to today – and the brothers’ heart-warming story has made it to the big screen with Dreamin’ Wild starring Casey Affleck and Zooey Deschanel as Donnie and his wife Nancy.
SENIOR PLANET talks to Donnie and his wife Nancy about postponed success:
Q: How do you feel about your life story becoming a film?
DONNIE: It’s unbelievable. I’ve got Beau Bridges playing my dad and then Casey and Zooey are amazing obviously. And Walton Goggins as my brother Joe, and Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer playing our younger versions. It was unbelievable to see the first scene on the screen because that’s what I’ve always saw when I was a kid. I had so much emotion that I couldn’t stop tearing up…I just don’t have words.
Q: And Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck even camped in your back yard in Spokane, WA!?
NANCY: He was at our house and he was ready to leave and had a beautiful hotel downtown I’m sure – and he said, ‘You guys got an extra place to crash?’ And my wife Nancy joked and said we had a tent on the side. And he was like, ‘Okay’. And it was him and his girlfriend. We sometimes camp out there ourselves, so sure, why can’t Casey Affleck?! We thought it was pretty fun.
Q: How long did he camp out there?
DONNIE: Just one night – but he was studying me from the first time I got to meet him on Zoom. I’ve never seen a person do this before. I’m just kind of rambling on, and I have my guitar in my hand and I’m doodling around – and he’s looking at me like this and looking at me like that. And then finally I realized what he was doing – he’s trying to figure me out to see if he’s gonna even do this thing.
NANCY: I knew he was gonna take the role when he started opening our refrigerator and washing dishes and making a salad with me and I saw he was starting to act like Donnie already in the house.
Check out the film trailer here
Q: The film’s catch-line is “Dreams Come True…In Time”. How did it feel when you found people were listening to your music again after all those years?
DONNIE: If this would have happened for me when I was 24, I would have been all over the place, emotionally. But I’m a different age now and I’ve seen a lot of things in life so it doesn’t faze me now.
I just want to let God take this wheel with everything that’s going on – and settle back and be as best as I possibly can. I don’t need anything else in my life. I just want to be true to myself. And now I can do what I want to further my career playing music; as a producer, playing with my songwriting partner, and writing with my kids too. I’ve got a lot of things going on.
Q: But it must have felt bittersweet?
DONNIE: The way Casey portrayed me, as hard as it is, it’s real. It’s the real feelings of an artist and being pure to yourself. If success had come sooner, I wouldn’t have been the same guy.
It does bring up skeletons. You can’t help it. It’s just the way it is. But I’m an open book. I really am. And even though it hurts, then you’ve got to deal with certain things, transitioning to where you want to go with your life. You’ve got to come to grips with this is who I am and keep moving.
Q: And your wife Nancy – also a musician – has been with you throughout this journey?
DONNIE: Yes 37 years together. She is my partner in everything.
NANCY: We married 11 months after meeting on a blind date in 1986. A few weeks later he played me a song that he wrote for me called Falling in Love. And I hadn’t fallen in love with him yet so I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble!’. So then we started writing songs and performing together two months after we began dating.
Q: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
DONNIE: A lot of hair and beard dye! And my wife would say: Talking and coffee. We communicate a lot. And sometimes there’s debates, there’s arguments – we are so blunt with each other. But we challenge each other and back each other up. And I think it’s just that innocence of meeting so young. I mean when you listen to a song that you went to maybe high school with, it brings something up doesn’t it? So we have that every day and its powerful. We live and breathe music and our children do too. The music keeps us young.
Dreamin’ Wild is in theaters from August 4.
Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.
Photo: Avea Emerson