In The Doyle & Debbie show, Bruce Arntson has a Nashville drawl so thick you could cut it with a knife. And serve it with molasses and mini marshmallows.
But on the phone with Arntson, you can detect the diffidence and faint Norwegian lilt of a Minnesotan. Because he grew up there, 50 miles in from the big town of Fargo, ND, he says.
Asked whether he resembles his character—Doyle Mayfield, a former country star on tour hoping for a comeback with a new “Debbie”—Arntson says, “God! I hope not! I mean, the only similarity is that we both love performing. But as far as all the misogynistic stuff, no.”
Arntson has lived in Nashville for the last 32 years, which explains the expert accent and southern-isms (“make a picture”) as well as his immersion in the country music scene. He’s not only one of The D&D show’s two stars but the guy who wrote all the slaphappy parodic songs and dialogue. In fact he nailed the country ethos and aesthetic so well that, after opening in Nashville in 2006, Doyle & Debbie ran there for five years. Some audience members had seen it so many times, Arntson says, that they “played along, kind of like at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” (It’s been extended here through March.)
The idea for Doyle & Debbie hit Arntson when he was writing and producing “little bios of old country stars” (Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, George Jones—or “No Show Jones”) for CMT’s Inside Fame series.
“I was poring over some old footage,” says Arntson. “It struck me funny.”
“That brand of entertainment used to exist all over in vaudeville. And now the last remnants of it are in country music. It’s fascinating to see these by and large uneducated, often dirt-poor musicians—and this is their version of what professional showbiz looks like. It’s endearingly amateur, but with this weird professional sheen.”
Arntson didn’t want “just a jukebox-musical romp.” He wanted a dramatic arc. And to the extent that Doyle & Debbie has one, it’s provided by the song “Daddy’s Hair,” the show’s psychotic break.
“There’s a tradition in country music, and in southern literature in general, in old-timey music—that southern gothic, idiot-son kind of thing. They used to write about rape and death and blood and guts.”
“If you’re going to parody something extreme, you’ve gotta go the extra mile,” Arntson explains. “Plus I thought possession would be interesting to play. And raging alcoholism is a tried-and-true tradition, so I asked myself, ‘What does happen when Doyle drinks?’”
“It shocks some people when the blood comes down. There are horrified faces from time to time. But I grew up watching Monty Python, with all that fake blood!”
Arntson says he wrote the crucial role of Debbie around Jenny Littleton (fabulous, and also performing here). He describes her as “an actor who sings—she’d only done a tiny little bit of musical theater. But she can mimic anyone, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline. I could parody a song, and she could ape [the singer’s style]. People in the business—songwriters, musicians—they appreciate all the different aspects of the show. It just adds a little nuance.”
Plenty of music insiders have seen The Doyle & Debbie show, and no one has had a negative reaction. “They all love it,” says Arntson. “They understand that the songs were lovingly crafted, and I guess they’re all able to laugh at aspects of themselves they might recognize.”
“I was told George Jones’s wife laughed extra-hard. Though maybe all that stuff wasn’t so funny at the time.”