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The Doyle & Debbie Show

A Conversation with Bruce Arntson

Puremusic: I just saw The Doyle and Debbie Show for the second time the other night, at The Station Inn. It's incredible. It was way better the second time. Not only were you guys further along on the show, but I think it just takes a couple of times for the genius of the songs to really sink in.

Bruce Arntson: [laughs] Well, I hope so. I mean, we do have a lot of repeat offenders, as we call them--

PM: [laughs]

BA: --and I think it is just that in spite of ourselves those silly characters have more depth than you think at first blush. And I think that's probably what keeps it interesting enough for people to come back multiple times.

PM: I think that that's very true, that the characters, comic though they be, have great depth, and in fact some of the things--some of the story lines in the songs and on stage seem to archetypal, sometimes Shakespearean. It's unbelievable.

BA: [laughs] Yeah, it is surprising to me, too, because obviously my main intent was to elicit laughs. So it's fun that people keep finding more things in it all the time.

PM: In fact, I talk to people, as you infer, all the time, who've seen it seven, eight times.

BA: Uh-huh.

PM: Is that common among the diehard fans?

BA: Yeah, it really is. There are a lot of fans that have seen it in double digits. It has sort of this Rocky Horror cultish aspect to it that I think a lot of people like to keep coming back with new friends.

Then they end up watching their friends faces more than they do the show after they've been there a few times. It's like, "I can't believe this shit," that kind of thing.

PM: It's incredible. So when did the idea for the show first occur to you, and how long is this hit in the making?

BA: Well, I wrote it--it took me a year to write, and we will have been performing it two years this June.

PM: Wow.

BA: So that previous year, then, three years ago, I wrote the bulk of it. I had a handful of those faux silly country songs before I started that I'd had like 10, 15 years in some cases.

PM: Yeah, because when I just look at the guitar players on the record, Chris Luezinger, Steve Gibson, and Larry Chaney, that tells me that some of these tracks were cut some time ago. Is that not true?

BA: Exactly. Yeah.

PM: Because they were all in their Nashville heyday, pardon the expression, in the early '90s, or so it seemed to me.

BA: Uh-huh, yep, that's right. And all of those guys were buddies--Josh Leo as well is another one that has mainly just been producing for quite a while now. But yeah, they were all--I had a band in the '80s, an R & B band that also had a very comic theatrical bent, but it was more straight ahead R & B-ish.

PM: And what was that called?

BA: It was called Bruce Arntson and His New Shoes. And Josh Leo was my guitar player, Michael Rhodes was my bass player.

PM: Wow. He's a good friend of mine, yeah.

BA: Yeah. I had a bunch of stellar players. So I had a faux country duo in that mix that would do two or three songs during the course of the night. And I would do a lot of songs in character, to the point of wearing wigs and so forth. [laughs]

PM: Wow.

BA: And so those guys were my players. Back around that time, I was also writing screenplays and scoring films. And with a writing partner we'd developed a screenplay based on an old country duet, an old country duo called Bill and Coo. And we actually had a development deal at Paramount Pictures for like three years before they finally wised up and kicked us outta there.


BA: So there was the seed of Doyle & Debbie way back then. But it was a really fully realized thing, and the characters were--I mean, I was younger then, and so it was just a different spin on it. Now I can play this over-the-hill guy with a little more believability.


BA: And my old partner, Jackie Welch, is black, and we did lots of comedic things over the years. We did improv and sketch comedy back before then, back in the early '80s.

PM: And what's become of Jackie Welch?

BA: I think she's working for like an internet firm--they develop training films and do some commercial work and industrial purposed stuff. And so she's just really a jack-of-all-trades, because she writes and directs and does voice-overs.

PM: Just a super talented person, yeah.

BA: Yeah, she really is. But a few years ago I thought I wanted to write a full-on piece based on our old characters. And so I worked on her for about two years, and she kept putting me off and putting me off, and finally says, "No, I really don't want to do that anymore."

PM: Yeah, "You do it."

BA: Yeah. So at that point I had already done--we had done, about 10 years ago, an independent low-budget film here called Existo, and--

PM: Oh, you were part of Existo.

BA: Yeah, I was Existo.

PM: You are Existo.

BA: Yeah.

PM: Oh, that's amazing. I've never seen that, though I'd heard lots about it. Now I've got to see that.

BA: [laughs] Well, during the course of that one and when we were casting it, my ex-wife, Denise Hicks, who is the artistic director of Nashville Shakespeare, I asked her, "Who do you see as a young comedic ingénue?" And she recommended that I audition Jenny Littleton. And that's how I met Jenny.

PM: She's unbelievable, holy jeez.

BA: She's amazing. And at that time, everything she did just made me die laughing because she did it with such sincerity, which is of course what makes comedy funny, when there's no winking involved, it's just dead serious. And so she had this way--she was like a young Madeline Kahn. And I thought someday I'm going to figure out a way to use that gal. So she was the only person I talked to about doing Doyle & Debbie.

PM: Now, was she a serious singer yet?

BA: No. I had no idea she could sing like that. That was pure fluke. All I knew is that she was a great comedic actor. And she did sing a song in Existo, but it was kind of a novelty.

PM: Oh, so she was in Existo as well.

BA: Yeah, exactly. That's how I met her, was when I cast her on the scene--I mean, I auditioned her. So she had a major role in Existo.

PM: Okay. We'll have a link to Existo in the interview, too, so we help create interest in that project again. [find out more about it here]

BA: Cool. I think there are probably--I mean, every now and then-- just like you, a lot of people make the connection way down the road, "Oh, you were that guy." So that is kind of fun. But Jenny, I just had her sing some of those old--like the handful of songs I had written for Jackie just to see if the keys would even work, let alone if she could pull them off. And it turned out that she had done Always Patsy Cline-- she had done two or three of those bio musicals that were at the Ryman and around where she played Tammy Wynette and different people. And she can just--I didn't know, but she could ace all of those styles, frighteningly accurately.

PM: And isn't she kind of country anyway?

BA: She is definitely. She grew up in Clarksville. She is a country girl, absolutely.

PM: Yeah, because my actor friend Jennifer Jewell said, "Oh, she's country, born and bred."

BA: [laughs] Yeah, she is. And she's married to a bass player who plays with major country acts, and he was with Joe Nichols for a long time. She genuinely listens to that stuff that we're doing. She knew all of these old country duets. She knew more about most of those old singers than I did. And a few years back I had been writer/producer on a handful of country biographies for a show on CMT.

PM: What was the show called?

BA: It was called Inside Fame. It was basically Behind the Music for country.

PM: "Behind the country music," right.

BA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, they just ripped the template off from Behind the Music. And so of course in a low-budget affair like that, you do all of your own research, and so I was pouring over all of this old Opry and Pop Goes the Country, and the Porter Wagoner Show and the Wilburn Brothers Show, all of this old footage. And that was kind of the genesis of Doyle & Debbie. And I started going to the Country Music Hall of Fame archives and listening to some of those old Opry shows, and just getting that language in my head that they use that kind of stilted country showbiz thing that is unique to itself. There is nothing--because ordinarily Vaudeville and all those old showbiz traditions had a real slick professionalism to them. And the Opry never had that. [laughs]

PM: It was all down home in comparison.

BA: It always had this odd amateurishness to it, which was very endearing, I mean, very appealing. And so, between the luck of having Jenny and then the luck of finding myself in the midst of all those archives, that kind of kicked it off for me.


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