Damned Ole Opry

With their croaking vocals and enormous belt buckles, Nashville's neglected veterans seek shelter at the Midwest Country Music Theater-- a little bit of Branson back home

Freddie Hart's life story would make for a decent country song all on its own. He was one of 15 children born to a Lochapoka, Alabama, sharecropper, and his first guitar was supposedly constructed from a cigar box and wire. At age 12 Hart was packed off to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Four years later he fibbed about his age and enlisted in the Marines, seeing duty in World War II. After returning stateside Hart chased down Hank Williams in Nashville and became a roadie for the country legend. In 1950 he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he met Lefty Frizzell and began playing in his band, the Western Cherokees. Hart eventually set off on his own and recorded a slew of hits in the Sixties and Seventies, mostly country love songs such as "Easy Loving" and "My Hang Up Is You."

On an early-May Saturday evening, Hart is in Sandstone, Minnesota (pop: 2,057), an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities, performing at the Midwest Country Music Theater. The country crooner is closing in on 70 years old. Hart's hearing is not what it used to be and his face shows the cracks of age, but his full head of hair remains defiantly red.

"I've had 43 albums," Hart says backstage before the show in his pomade-thick Alabama drawl. "I've been real busy. Everybody's opened their hearts to me. They always have."

Lonely Hart club band: Freddie Hart at the Midwest Country Music Theater
Michael Dvorak
Lonely Hart club band: Freddie Hart at the Midwest Country Music Theater

Hart dresses the role of the honky-tonk heartthrob. Over a purple button-down shirt he wears a bolo tie and a beaded, tasseled buckskin jacket. The crowning touch is a massive rhinestone-studded belt with a heart-shaped buckle that reads "Texas." The ornament wouldn't look out of place on a title-holding professional wrestler. It was a present from Nudie Cohen, the legendary designer who has clothed everyone from Hank Williams to Mick Jagger. "I've worn this belt all over the world," Hart drawls.

The Midwest Country Music Theater is an oasis for honky-tonk heroes, like Freddie Hart, who nowadays couldn't get so much as a cool drink of water from modern country radio and the Pooh-Bahs on Nashville's Music Row. They are refugees from a lost era of Friday-night barn dances and kinfolk paying weekly homage at the radio altar of the Grand Ole Opry. A time when heartfelt sentiment supposedly counted more than unit sales in the 18-to-34 demographic.

Unlike We Fest, Minnesota's annual countrypalooza in Detroit Lakes, here there are no sexy starlets singing industrial-strength power ballads whose only relation to country music is the cowboy boots. Nor are there football fields full of pickup trucks to cart suburban office workers to and fro. The Midwest Country Music Theater relies on a humbler blend of old-time country music and retirees making the drive up from the Twin Cities or down from Duluth.

Since opening in 1997 the modest 300-seat former movie theater has become a routine stop for such Grand Ole Opry pioneers as Jean Shepard, Bill Anderson, and Kitty Wells. The theater also attracts a large number of acts whose greatest claim to notoriety lies in their family name. Tommy Cash (younger brother of Johnny) and Jett Williams (born five days after her daddy Hank's death), have both played to enthusiastic crowds in Sandstone. Nostalgia for the (perhaps apocryphal) good old days of country music is as important at the Midwest Country Theater as the actual musical chops of the performers. The venue toes a precarious line between rescuing lost talent that mainstream country has put out to pasture, and enabling performers who would have done better to hang up their spurs long ago.

Tonight's bill is a mixture of faded hillbilly stardust and fame by association. Opening for Hart is David Frizzell, the younger brother of Lefty. In his teens David left home to perform with his brother's band. He has recorded albums entitled David Frizzell Sings Lefty's Greatest Hits and Carryin' on the Family Name, and is writing a biography of his brother. Frizzell the younger has also enjoyed success in his own right. In the 1970s he teamed up with Shelly West (daughter of Dottie) to record a series of chart-hopping duets, most notably "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma." And in 1982 he achieved a kind of country-music immortality with the No. 1 hit "I'm Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home."

With its faded yellow walls and musty stage curtain, the Midwest Country Music Theater could probably benefit from an interior designer with a few grape skins between the teeth. There are no dressing rooms and just one toilet apiece for men and women. A running joke is that the raffle held at each show is for first dibs on the bathroom. (Winners actually win tickets to upcoming showcases.) When country diva Connie Smith played here one time, she had to change clothes in what used to be the projection booth.

After performing, the musicians hang around signing autographs and posing for pictures. In between the afternoon and evening shows, fans and musicians often rub elbows while dining on the down-home American fare at Maggie's Colonial Café up the street. The casual meetin' and greetin' is outstate Minnesota's equivalent of Nashville's much-ballyhooed Fan Fair, the annual gathering at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds where workaday proles can mix with country-radio royalty.

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