A New Flame

WHEN I WAS growing up, the (in)famous Flame Cafe on lower Nicollet was noted for frequent police calls and a reputation for prostitution. This Sunday, a large community of folks wants to bring back the spirit of The Flame--not those bad old days in the late '70s, but the good old days of the '50s and '60s, when the Flame Cafe was a genuine Midwestern mecca of country music.

Western swing legend Hank Thompson may draw the headline attention at this weekend's 1st Annual Flame Cafe Day revival, but the man who's making it all possible is local luminary Sherwin Linton, a Watertown, South Dakota native who rose to national fame in the '60s with the song "Cotton King" (his later novelty hit, "Santa Got a DWI," recently landed on Rhino's Bummed out Christmas).

"I've traveled all over the country and I've found artists and fans who still talk about the Flame," says Linton. "It was the kind of place where the pseudo-redneck crowd would go to put on the dog, and the affluent crowd would go to let their hair down."

In its 15-year heyday, thousands of folks a week flocked to the Flame (including major sports celebrities and original TC gangsters such as Kid Cann) to see the likes of Carl Perkins, Slim Whitman, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Wanda Jackson (with Roy Clark in her band), Buck Owens, Conway Twitty, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings, Hank Snow, and seminal country harmony duo, the Louvin Brothers. Linton's band, in fact, opened for the Louvins on the night of one of Charlie and Ira's famous feuds. "When we came off the stage, Ira's mandolin was in smithereens on the floor. But when they were introduced, they went around behind the stage and managed to pick up a second guitar from somewhere. So for that night anyway, they both played six-strings."

Though he didn't often bring his entire big band with him, Hank Thompson played the Flame a half-dozen times. Local bassist Dick Van Hale--six years with Dave Dudley's band and one of the few surviving members of the Flame Cafe house band--will have the honor of introducing Thompson, as he did many times when his band backed the guitarist. "In those days," recalls Van Hale fondly, "it was between Hank and Pee-wee King as to who had the best country big band."

Linton, whose band the Cotton Kings will back Thompson Sunday, has hoped for a Flame Cafe reunion for 10 years, but couldn't find the time to organize it within his busy touring schedule. When he left his four-year stint as entertainment director at Jackpot Junction in Morton, Linton finally had time to gather dozens of old regional favorites for the cause. Sunday's lineup includes Fern Dale, the tenor banjoist who led a dazzling all-woman group in the '60s. Bobby and Cal Houle of the Houle Brothers will also be on hand, as well as Johnny Fields of KFAI's Good 'N' Country, a free-lance steel player known as "the mad scientist" in the old days. Cable-TV country VJs Viva and Jerry (who were frequent patrons of the old Flame) will be among over two dozen other special guests.

Though the event will serve as a family reunion for the country crowd, Flame Cafe Day is also a piece of rock & roll history. Larry LaPole of The Polecats--who wrote many songs for the legendary Trashmen, and occasionally filled in on guitar at the Flame--will sit in for a few with Linton, who may reunite the Fender Benders, one of the area's earliest country-rock combos, which Linton formed in 1958. They even recorded a tune, "Rockabilly's Even Better the Second Time Around," that could become an anthem all over again. "I remember when he came up from South Dakota," says Van Hale. "Within months he had the Fender Benders going and they really took over, playing rockabilly and a lot of Johnny Cash--and a lot of nonsense, for entertainment value."

Linton may have calmed down on rock & roll, but he's never wavered from his admiration for Johnny Cash, evidenced by his 1971 album Hello, I'm Not Johnny Cash, recorded live at South Dakota State Penitentiary. The obvious Folsom Prison borrowing earned kind letters of appreciation from The Man in Black himself. Though Linton insists he's open to new styles of music, he makes no bones that he thinks country music was never as good as it was in the Flame days, when the music had its old Nashville roots, peppered just a bit with new sounds from southern California.

"People will say country music is more popular than ever," says Linton, "but I don't know if I can agree with that, only because I don't know if country music has a clear definition anymore. In those days, you didn't have to tell somebody 'this is a country song.' Yet those traditional songs could cross over to the pop charts in a very big way, with no concession to pop music formula and all this fancy production."

Sherwin Linton and the Cotton Kings open the 1st Annual Flame Cafe Day at 1 p.m.; Hank Thompson will play 40-minute sets at 5 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. $14.95. Bel-Rae Ballroom, 5394 Edgewood, off Hwy. 10, Mounds View; 786-4630/989-5151.

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