The first time you lay eyes on Lin Doak, it doesn’t quite register that he’s out to conquer the music world. At 4-foot-6, he seems, in fact, naturally barred from such aspirations, doomed to sideshow status in a world of towering rock stars. But watching the mood fall over his jowly face as he sings, his arms struggling around the girth of a six-string, you quickly grasp that this little man is thinking really, really big.
His practice space, a detached garage in Colonial Heights, is cluttered with the castoff possessions of his uncle and manager Tim Fenderson. Old NASCAR plaques age on the sponge-painted walls, and ratty furniture mingles with amps and effects pedals around a foosball table that crowds the middle of the floor. Doak works at the fringe of the mess, pushing play on his boombox then straddling the edge of a La-Z-Boy while he sings karaoke-style over prerecorded tunes.
Fenderson stands in the corner, watching while Doak immerses himself in work on his new gig: a solo cover act called “Little Cash and Wee Willie,” a transparent reference to the fact that he’s a little person doing Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson impersonations.
“This is not a gimmick,” Doak insists, the fake braids sewn inside his red Willie Nelson bandanna flapping across his cheeks.
Doak has a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor — about his size, about his failures, about his lot in life. Sitting there at the edge of the La-Z-Boy in his black jeans, black T-shirt and black leather jacket, you get the impression that Doak, as the dour little Man in Black, isn’t really acting that much at all.
“I happen to be short,” Doak says, “but I just love playing.” He hands over a press photo of himself re-creating the famously aggressive pose where Johnny Cash gives the cameraman the middle finger. Doak doesn’t seem to mean it any less.
How Doak wound up making a career impersonating country-music icons can at times read like a fascinating journey of self-discovery, and at others a really bad trip. It started in the late 1980s, when Doak, unfazed by the limitations of his size and armed with nothing more than a powerful voice and a huge set of cojones, formed several hair bands and began performing live.
Beginning with his heavy-metal band Teazer, its members careering around the stage in skintight leopard-print pants and shirts open to their belly buttons, Doak proved himself an explosive lead singer and didn’t hold back, making pained faces as his fingers roiled up and down the neck of his electric guitar. In photos from that period, he stands front and center, waist-high among band members who tower over his heavily coiffed blond dome.
“I’ve never been able to audition,” Doak says. “I’ve always had to take the bull by the horns. I start with my own band. Be the boss.”
Over the years, the bands and the hairdos came and went. Doak got married, had a couple kids, then divorced, went bankrupt and began drinking. He hit the skids, then kicked the booze and by the late-’90s became a self-described “Jesus freak.” While this helped him shoot straight, it also heavily influenced his musical direction.
By then Doak was fully immersed in the evangelical metal scene, playing guitar with a band called Smash Your Idols that was long on preachy musings and short on catchy hooks. Practices were laden with prayer sessions and fellowship, and the band chased off more than a few onlookers at local gigs with its overtly religious rhetoric.
“I’m loud and obnoxious, the Lord needs me,” Doak told a reporter in 1998 in advance of a local Christian music festival called Exaltfest. B.Y.O.B. — Bring Your Own Bible — was the mantra of the day.
In time, Doak proved himself a true showman: On stage he was good at reciting scripture, but behind the scenes his dark side kept emerging. Doak fell prey once again to booze, this time adding pills and heroin to the mix. It was the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for sure, though music had less and less to do with it.
Finally Doak hit bottom and landed in Narcotics Anonymous. His singing career, 20 years in the making, was suddenly a fading memory. He was in his late 30s, alone and trying to pick up the pieces. But the music wouldn’t let him go.
In September 2006, Doak — sober only a few months by then — found himself at OzzFest, just another mulleted, black-T-shirt-wearing metal head in a sea of the same, when he was suddenly fingered by a member of the stage crew. Doak remembers it this way: “They came up to me and said, ‘No offense, I’m not trying to call you a midget or anything, but we need a little person to help us.’ ”
Backstage, hearsay emerged that the little person who’d been hired to dance around on stage between sets had gotten drunk and been tossed into a trash can. Doak was unfazed. He accepted the job and spent the next 12 hours in the spotlight, whipping the massive crowd into a frenzy.
Doak saw it not as an act of exploitation but of inspiration. “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t you use your size instead of your talent?’ ”
In no time Doak stitched his musical backstory into a résumé and posted it on the Internet. Days later, he got a magical response. He’d been contacted by one of the seminal tribute bands on the circuit: the venerable little-people Kiss tribute band known as MiniKiss.
“There were too many weird things,” Doak says of the sequence of events. “The planets were aligning.” He’d been working at the Virginia Department of Transportation as an engineering technician for years by then and had his newfound sobriety and stability to consider. When he was finally offered the job, though, all that went out the window. Doak threw his arms in the air to re-create his state of mind. “I was like, ‘VDOT? Later!’ ”
With MiniKiss, Doak was instantly on the road, traveling to Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and Key West as the miniature incarnation — in full face paint and high heels — of Kiss lead singer Paul Stanley. He gigged at the Whiskey, on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. He played Jimmy Kimmel Live. He jammed for the Def Leppard, at their most recent end-of-tour party.
“It was cool,” says Doak, a Kiss fan since age 9. “Chicks are flashing you. It was the biggest thing I ever did in my life.”
And then, as quickly as it started, things came to a screeching halt. MiniKiss, it turned out, never formally offered Doak a permanent spot in the band, and they continued to audition other little people to be their official frontman.
Doak, as it happens, was becoming a bit disenfranchised with the MiniKiss experience anyway. Despite the excitement of life on the road, he felt the band was all show and very little substance. Not one of the members had their instrument plugged in, he says, and Doak claims that he was the only one with a decent voice. MiniKiss, was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified karaoke band — hard stuff to swallow for a die-hard musician at heart. Doak had been rubbing some of MiniKiss’ top brass the wrong way as well, suggesting that the band should actually play their own instruments.
“They’re out there fakin’ it,” Doak says, trying not to sound too bitter.
Fenderson, for his part, saw Doak suffocating as well. “They were telling him how to live, how to breathe, how to sleep,” he says.
Until that time, Fenderson had not been that close with his nephew. “I hadn’t seen Lin but probably 10 times in the last five years,” he says. It wasn’t until one day, with Doak at home between MiniKiss gigs, that they ran into each other at a local shooting range and realized they had more in common than their bloodline.
“When we met back up, it’s like we talked about the same things at the same time,” Doak says. They tossed around lots of ideas and what-ifs and found that they were, in many ways, on the same wavelength.
Fenderson is not a little person — he’s a slender 5 feet, 10 inches tall — and though he is Doak’s uncle, he’s only two years his senior. He has short dark hair and a moustache, and at times Fenderson talks so blazingly fast about the possibilities for Doak’s career, it’s as if he’s trying to make up, all at once, for the years his nephew lost to his destructive vices.
After the MiniKiss fallout, Fenderson helped Doak see the bright side. “I was like, ‘Lin, while you’ve got the press and publicity, let’s take this thing and control your
own destiny.’ ”
He’s made it his mission to support Doak and give him the freedom and creativity he sought, not to mention earn a living for them both. Though he has no training as a musician’s manager, Fenderson hopes his knack for sales (he works for an automobile-electronics manufacturer) translates to the music business.
Driving the pair’s ambition seems to be the simple fact that Doak is a talented guy who can sing and play guitar very well. While they both wanted to showcase Doak’s real talent, they also agreed it was smart to exploit his size to the fullest.
Doak and Fenderson began brainstorming other “mini” band concepts, at one point settling on “Little Alice,” a tribute to Alice Cooper.
Eventually seeing the limitations there — the scarcity of Cooper hits was the real zinger — they considered the mass appeal of country music and finally tripped on the idea of imitating Johnny Cash.
“With Cash, it’s more spiritual. I feel like I’m doing something natural,” says Doak, a consummate metal head who still seems surprised by his love of country music. “I think, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this for years?' I’m just a little redneck country boy. It must’ve been in my blood.”
While Fenderson works hard to set up a touring schedule, Doak has been recording his own versions of Nelson and Cash songs with friends — he plans to play solo acoustic guitar accompanied by his own prerecorded tunes over the PA — and planning his stage show in his mind.
Mashing the play button with his thick finger, Doak explains his way through a hypothetical set. He would start the evening hidden behind a curtain, as a chaotic rock ‘n’ roll version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the PA, getting louder and louder until it reached an ear-splitting crescendo.
“Right here, I come out,” he says, as if he’s a marionette under the control of his own outstretched hands. “Right here I’m passing stickers out, and slapping people and s---. The music is up. It’s like a party, crowd interaction.” He can see the whole thing in his mind’s eye, the way he will enter the spotlight, step up to the mike and launch into his opening number, finally delivering the goods to his adoring fans.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.