Damned Ole Opry
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."
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.
As David Frizzell and his four-piece band take the stage to open the show, Hart settles into a folding chair just offstage. To Hart's left is what's jokingly referred to as the "Wanda Jackson mirror." It was installed after the rockabilly heroine fretted over not being able to check her appearance before taking the stage.
Frizzell's act is equal parts nostalgia trip, good-ol'-boy shtick, and meat-and-potatoes country music. He opens the set with a freshly penned ode to his country-music forefathers: Hank, Lefty, and Jimmie Rodgers. This is followed by "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" and a rollicking boot-stomper entitled "You've Just Been Robbed by Jesse James."
Frizzell then pauses to work the mostly gray-haired crowd. He points out a woman in the front row named Cindy Yale, who has traveled from Pennsylvania just to see tonight's show. "That's country people right there for you," Frizzell says, nodding approvingly. Yale wears a knit hat adorned with pictures of Frizzell. This is her 167th time seeing him play during the past two decades.
Frizzell is hoping to inspire a similar (if less fanatical) loyalty among the other patrons. He implores the audience to take full advantage of his merchandise table. "I need the money, and my three ex-wives--they really need the money," he quips. Then he tells the crowd that he was going to do his Dolly Parton impersonation for them, but he "fell out of the bus and tripped and broke both watermelons." Laughs abound. The audience is happy to settle for his imitation of Johnny Cash.
Frizzell and the band work their way through a passel of Lefty's hits, as well as numerous originals, before closing with an epic version of "I'm Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home."
Lefty's younger brother grins at Freddie Hart as he exits the stage, announcing of himself: "Frizzell has left the building."
Booking talent that will likely only land in a newspaper on the obituary page is not, first and foremost, a profitable endeavor. But then everything about the Midwest Country Music Theater, from its location to its clientele, suggests the kind of disregard for modern commerce that is characteristic of the American dreamer in his native habitat.
Joe Jensen grew up on a western Wisconsin farm in the 1950s listening to country music on the barn radio. Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and Lefty Frizzell were among his honky-tonk idols. "When I was a kid I would just stop anything if I knew Lefty was going to be on the television," Jensen recalls. "I wouldn't go down and milk the cows until after Lefty Frizzell was on."
Jensen is a soft-spoken man with a retiring manner. But buried beneath his low-key persona lies an obsessive hankering to be involved in country music--despite his own lack of musical ability.
"Can't play and can't sing," is how Jensen puts it. "I just wanted to be a part of it." As far back as the mid-Eighties he began brainstorming ideas on how to jump-start a local version of the Grand Ole Opry. "He was a pain to live with some of those years because he wanted it so bad," says his wife Kathy.
In the early Nineties, the Jensens began filming local country acts such as Big John Voit's Plum Country Swing Band and the Sharon Lee Band in a slapdash studio in the back of their television repair shop at the intersection of 42nd Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. These amateur videos eventually became fodder for a television show, Late Night Review, which aired in the Twin Cities from 1992 to 1993.
Soon Joe and Kathy were booking their own country shows at a hodgepodge of Minnesota venues that included a Days Inn in Brooklyn Center and Hinckley High School--bringing a little bit of Branson back home. In 1996 they brought former Opry star Kitty Wells to the now-defunct Belrae Ballroom.
But without a regular performance space the shows lagged in attendance--and hemorrhaged money. After several years of searching for an affordable, permanent home, Joe discovered the Vogue Theater, a 77-year-old movie house in Sandstone. "Boy, did I get excited," he recalls.
That initial giddiness was soon deflated by the realities of the contemporary country-music market. For the grand opening of the Midwest Country Music Theater the Jensens dipped into their bank account and booked two marquee-worthy country stars from the past. Connie Smith had a string of hits in the Sixties and Seventies and has put out more than 30 albums. Dave Dudley hit paydirt in 1963 with "Six Days on the Road," and for a time was revered as a kind of patron saint of truck drivers. Yet between the two acts performing four shows each, the new venue in Sandstone drew a total of just 250 people by Joe's recollection.
"I was terribly depressed," he recalls, "but I said, 'We went this far; we can't stop now.'" In the wake of the grand-opening debacle, the Jensens limited themselves to local acts and worked on building up a customer base for the new venue. "Then I fixed TVs all night to pay people," Joe notes.
Slowly the theater began to forge a reputation among both fans and performers. Nashville acts, largely from a bygone era, began to make the trek north. Connie Smith, despite the inauspicious beginning, has been back several times, as have country greats like Hank Thompson and Bobby Bare. In 1998 the Jensens began broadcasting Great Moments in Midwestern Country Music on public-access television, featuring excerpts from the concerts. (The show airs 9:30 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 6 in the Twin Cities.) Last year they also started a radio show that is now heard on a half-dozen stations across the state. Kathy handles the booking, Joe deals with the television and radio, and their son Jeff is responsible for the sound. When a new landlord threatened to double the rent on Joe's Minneapolis TV-repair shop in January of last year, he and Kathy took the final plunge and uprooted the shop and their home to Hinckley, a few miles from the theater.
Big John Voit can bear witness to the Jensens' struggles since the early days shooting video in the back of their shop. "They've taken a bunch of beatings," says Voit, who has been performing country music and Texas swing since the Fifties and plays at the theater every few months. "A bunch of beatings. And I have to pat Joe and Kathy on the back for that, because 99 percent of folks you and I know would have quit long ago."
Voit sees Midwest Country as a humble riposte to a commercial market that has largely ignored his brand of music. "You can't turn on the radio and get it anymore, so we're giving it to them," he says.
"I'm not really sitting here trying to make something real big," Joe Jensen maintains. "It will be a little theater in Sandstsone. That's what it will always be."
Retired to his tour bus after performing, David Frizzell is suspended between the nostalgia that propels Midwest Country and his own continued hankering for commercial recognition. His blow-dried, open-collar look of the Eighties has been replaced with a grittier persona more Johnny Cash than Ronnie Milsap. At 59, Frizzell has a scraggly beard that is flecked with gray. "It's amazing that I got this old and am still enjoying this," he says with an impish grin.
Frizzell's has a new album out, David Frizzell 2001, and it has received encouraging reviews in a handful of daily newspapers. "This is the most excitement I've had for any record since 'Wino,'" he says cheerfully. In fact the album contains an updated version of "Wino," an indication that Frizzell's past looms at least as large as the present in any potential commercial revival. Another sign of his continued ties to the past is the blanket draped over the couch where Frizzell sits. It bears a replica of the statue honoring Lefty, who died in 1975 from an alcohol-poisoned liver, in his hometown of Corsicana, Texas. All of which, it must be said, is more than a little bit country.
As if on cue, back in the theater Freddie Hart introduces his next tune: "Here's a song called 'Lefty Frizzell.'" It's a banal piece of hagiography with lines such as "He's in the hall of fame now and that's where he belongs/He'll always be remembered in spirit and in song."
Hart is having a tough go of it this evening. All the rhinestone-studded belts and beaded buckskin jackets in the world can't hide the fact that he's fighting seven decades of living. Earlier in the evening Hart forgot the words to one song and the proceedings ground to a halt. Now he's struggling to get the vocal cords humming. "I'm getting a little hoarse," Hart says mournfully. "I don't know why I got that way."
Despite the difficulties, he soldiers on through chestnuts such as "Hank Williams's Guitar" and "Easy Loving." At times, with his eyes shut and his face scrunched up from exertion, Hart summons the silky baritone of his youth. He sprinkles the performance with mildly ribald jokes and remembrances of country legends past ("Hank Williams was weird," Hart claims several times, an understatement he declines to illuminate.)
The show is a melancholy affair. "They don't play us much anymore," Hart says at one point, "but I've had a beautiful life."
On the final song, "Loose Talk," a Hart-penned number that was most recently revived by John Prine, he jumps out in front of the band and they have to pick up the tempo to keep the song from collapsing. Hart's voice fades out abruptly at the end of each verse, as if he's out of breath. Despite the missteps, or perhaps because of them, the audience rewards him with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
"I feel kind of ashamed for not being able to sing like I ought to," Hart says before leaving the stage. The emcee, Dick Driscoll, comes to the microphone and implores Hart to sing one more song. "We don't care what it sounds like to you, Freddie. It's gonna sound beautiful to us."
Finally, with David Frizzell at his side, Hart reemerges from backstage. The two of them launch into the Albert Brumley gospel standard "I'll Fly Away," with the audience clapping along. It's not quite in league with the Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss version of the song that appears on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but they give it a spirited ride.
"Y'all sing along if you want to," Frizzell cries out. "Just join in. Have a ball." And they do. As Frizzell and Hart wail, members of the audience move to the front to snap a picture of the two country survivors.
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